Gigolo Aunts
Minor Chords and Major Themes
(E Pluribus Unum)

The Gigolo Aunts -- simultaneous lovers and fighters -- have the rare ability to pull off blustery rockers and doe-eyed ballads. Five years have passed since their last release, the major-label debut Flippin' Out. On the Boston quartet's first record for E Pluribus (the label launched by Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows), they pick up where they left off. In ten years together, they have remained unapologetic power popsters who know exactly where their distortion pedals are and when to turn them off. Writing straightforward songs without irony, they are part of a subculture that looks to the Raspberries, Big Star, and Badfinger as the holy triumvirate of musical influences. Although power pop is a fairly easy formula to emulate (power chords on the guitars, bouncy hooks, and simple song structures), what matters is the quality of the songs. That's where Minor Chords and Major Themes sparkles: The crunchy guitars, four-on-the-floor drums, and sunshine harmonies carry the record.

The band cooks a lot of amplifiers, from "C'mon C'mon," the upbeat call to sexual arms, through the slashing guitars of "Super Ultra Wicked Mega Love" (which cribs some of its words from the personal ads) and ending with the breathless, Seventies-soaked epic "Fade Away." When they slow it just a little bit on "The Big Lie," singer Dave Gibbs's boasts echo the Temptations' "I Can't Get Next to You" ("I could charm the skin off a snake/But I still can't get through to you") and builds slowly to the three-part harmonies and vigorous guitars of the chorus. Add a quick guitar solo and a whiny analog synth reminiscent of the Cars and blam, you've got yourself an AM-radio hit -- except there aren't AM-radio hits anymore.

The couples-only skate ballads take away much of the rawness, but add plenty in terms of depth. "Everything Is Wrong," cowritten by ex-Go Go Jane Wiedlin, opens with Gibbs counting his blessings in a voice barely above a whisper. The clean, arpeggio guitars and Gibbs's soft tone are classic balladry, but the confident bridge and ba-ba-ba-bas that close the tune show the band can build a solid song from wimpy material.

Minor Chords and Major Themes is the kind of record you listen to for a while when you buy it, and then, when you rediscover it a year or so later, you realize you know every word to every song.

-- David Simutis

Collective Soul

Should the marketing geniuses at K-TEL ever release a compilation titled "Faceless Rockers of Nineties," the disc will surely include several tracks by the sleep-inducing Georgia quintet Collective Soul. Since surfacing in 1994 with the nondescript debut single "Shine," the band has set a new standard for dispassionate, white-washed rock. According to their bio, Collective Soul has racked up record sales in excess of seven million copies, a mystery that is both profound and abiding.

But even the lamest band can learn new tricks, and damned if Collective Soul hasn't improved its game. The band's new platter, Dosage, isn't going to win any awards for originality, but it's a fine piece of utilitarian pop nonetheless. Pleasant, tuneful, and easy-rocking, the album is the musical equivalent of a disposable lighter: functional, if only for a limited time.

Dosage symbolizes everything that is great and deplorable about alternative rock. It's got funky hip-hop rhythms, hook-intensive melodies, and earnest lyrics that ultimately add up to nothing. Judging from the album's jaunty bounce, Collective Soul has logged many hours listening to pioneering Brit-rock bands such as the Beatles, ELO, and Yes. Indeed, "Dosage" brims with derivative art-rock flourishes like backward guitar solos, baroque strings, and dense harmonies, and the band makes brilliant use of these embellishments. There's not a spontaneous note on the album: Every verse, rhythm, and solo has been prefabricated for maximum effect.

Unfortunately Dosage is too smart and radio-friendly for its own good. Collective Soul is obviously influenced by songwriters ranging from Lennon and McCartney to Pete Townshend, but where their Brit-rock heroes courageously defied pop conventions, C.S. singer-songwriter Ed Roland is content to paint by the numbers. He seems oblivious to the fact that the best classic rock is ambitious and sloppy. Save for the ten-minute closing track "Crown," Roland and company never attempt to raise the stakes.

The album is further diminished by the musicians' cautious performances. Collective Soul seems incapable of creating sounds any louder than a whimper, and the band's inexcitability all but ruins stormy tunes like "Generate" and "Heavy." Curiously enough, frontman Roland is the band's biggest performing liability. His cardboard vocals are remarkably inexpressive. If Collective Soul would just shed their inhibitions and rock, they could create a magnum opus. Until they do, they should remove the "Soul" from their name.

-- Bruce Britt

Various Artists
Liss Ard, Volume One

The Liss Ard festival has turned Ireland into music heaven two years in a row now, with the cream of the world's rock crop turning out to party in Skibbereen, in County Cork. Liss Ard, Volume One collects some of the highlights from the 1997 festival. For American audiences the biggest draw is probably punk pioneer Patti Smith, who appeared at Liss Ard in the wake of her acclaimed Peace and Noise album. While the anthemic "People Have the Power" is as simplistic live as it is on record, the intense, spare versions of "Don't Say Nothing" and "Last Call" (the latter featuring Michael Stipe on background vocals) acquit her set nicely.

Nick Cave, the other marquee star here, is also erratic during his solo piano set, with the one-joke "Dead Joe" falling flatter than the somewhat more substantial "People Ain't No Good" and "Black Hair." The rest of Liss Ard is standard festival fare: bombast from Jack Lukeman, troubadour moves from David Grey and Nick Kelly, and traditional Irish music from the Frames. The high points, however, are high enough to create demand for a second volume of Liss Ard. Here's hoping that it documents the 1998 edition, which included triumphant sets from Lou Reed, Spiritualized, and a Bad Seeds-backed Cave.

-- Ben Greenman

Tal Bachman
Tal Bachman

His dad is Randy Bachman, late of the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. His favorite modern composer is Jeff Lynne. He's deeply into organ fills. What else do you really need to know about Tal Bachman?

This giddy debut platter is a dash of prog, a pinch of bubblegum, and a whole lotta Freddie Mercury yelping. Not a whit of self-concerned angst in this man's arsenal, just a whole lot of groovy, highly orchestrated, and highly cliche pop songs. The emotional range of the dozen tracks here travels the long road from cloying ("You're My Everything") to more cloying ("If You Sleep"). But you know what? Who the hell cares?

Bachman Jr. writes melodies so infectious they're viral, and his ornate arrangements are unabashed in their desire to be loved. It took me two weeks to get the rising harmonies of "I Wonder" unstuck from my lobes, and they've been replaced by the deliciously wimpy guitar riff of "Romanticide." This is music to love and be embarrassed about loving. I've stopped fighting it. So will you.

-- Steven Almond