Bush Whack

First, Bush's Gavin Rossdale stole Kurt Cobain's sound, right down to the last sad but fuzzy guitar chord and strangled vocal growl, and then he and his hired helpers rode it to a quintuple-platinum hit with Sixteen Stone, primarily because modern-rock radio programmers were damned if they were going to let Cobain derail their gravy train by killing himself. For an encore Rossdale made lovey-dovey with Cobain's widow Courtney; hired Cobain's ex-producer, Steve Albini, to record his second album, Razorblade Suitcase; brought in Cobain's ex-cello player for some sessions; started talking in interviews about Cobain's big influence (the Pixies) and favorite bodily ailment (stomach problems); and made a video for the first single, "Swallowed," that borrows the Cobain-on-a-couch-with-cross image from "Heart-Shaped Box" and the cheerleading moshers from "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

I hear the folks at Nirvana's old label Geffen Records are keeping a list that includes a few more minor thieveries that I may be missing, but you get the point: Rossdale is the most blatant rock and roll crook since Jimmy "Why credit them ol' blues guys?" Page. Mind you, as a postmodernist, I applaud such behavior. Authenticity is a sham invented by egghead critics who have forgotten how to rock. All's fair in the age of appropriation, and if you're gonna steal, why not steal from the best? My problem is what Bush does with its precious purloined wares. It's like making a toilet bowl out of gold, or robbing a homeless person to give more money to Michael Jordan 'cause he might not have made enough on Space Jam.

Rossdale is a man with nothing worthwhile to say, and more often than not he says it like Cobain. Ol' Kurt didn't invent the image-laden, cut-and-paste approach to lyric writing -- you can blame William S. Burroughs for that -- but he had his own unique vocabulary, and Rossdale must have the words stuck up on his refrigerator like a set of Magnetic Poetry. There's a hip college drinking game involving J.G. Ballard's novel Crash: You open the book and take a shot every time you find a sentence involving sex or cars. You can do the same with Razorblade Suitcase whenever you catch a phrase that's Cobainesque. "Deaf and dumb ... with the lights on ... married by signs ... cold, contagious ... warm sun feeds me up ... blackened lungs ... mouth of my father ... say you will, nevermind ... I'm gonna find my way to the sun." Whee, I'm getting buzzed just thinking about it!

Where Cobain used such enigmatic lines to offer shards of insight into a ridiculously complicated world view -- Nirvana fans and English majors will still be trying to put it all together well into the next century -- Rossdale throws this language around in a vain attempt to sound impressive, while his simplistic philosophy can actually be summed up in the lyric, "Drink life as it comes/Straight no chaser." If that isn't a line from Animal House, surely Dean Martin said it in one of the Rat Pack movies.

This too would be forgivable: Plenty of rockers have hung great music on less of a dictum than "Carpe diem." But the thirteen tunes on Razorblade Suitcase are utterly bland, lifeless, unmemorable, and bar-code generic, though this time it's in an abrasive, skronking way, as opposed to the big polished grunge way of Sixteen Stone. (Or In Utero versus Nevermind, but you already knew that.) Of course, Albini dialed up his patented harsh sounds -- the barbed-wire guitar, rampaging drums, and a bit of that "screaming through a bullhorn" business on "Personal Holloway" -- and he applied his punk-rock record-'em-live, warts-'n'-all techniques. Clearly Bush thought they could buy credibility with this noise, which is the only reason anyone ever puts up with Albini. As for Steve, his pals in Chicago say he's finally found a building to house the studio of his dreams, and now he has the capital to go for it. Much more amusing than this album are the interviews where Albini, the most sanctimonious man in show business, valiantly tries to avoid the words I did it for the money.

Issues of originality aside, Bush has to be granted some grudging respect simply because earlier songs such as "Everything Zen" and "Glycerine" are impossible to get out of your head. But "Swallowed" is the best tune here, and it's nowhere near as indelible. The rest of the album is just pointless din delivered via needlessly serpentine arrangements with Rossdale doing his modern romantic bit on top. Last time it was easy to dis the Bush men for the many reasons cited above. This time it's even easier, but the response that's really warranted by Razorblade Suitcase is to simply ignore them. If we all stop staring at Rossdale's cheekbones, they'll probably just go away.


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