When Pennsylvanian quartet Live released Throwing Copper back in 1994 they went from the ridiculous to the sublime in just one step. Where their debut Mental Jewelry had been a distinctly mediocre set of acoustic-led pop, Throwing Copper was a tour de force that sounded like it had been created by a completely different band.
In fact, two different bands, for it was as if Pearl Jam had been writing aggressive rock songs with Michael Stipe. Every track was golden, at least 10 million people around the world agreed and Lightning Crashes became US radio’s most played song ever.
Since then Live’s star has waned somewhat, although not altogether fairly considering the quality of much of Secret Samadhi and The Distance To Here, some of V (especially the simply beautiful Overcome) and pretty much all of 2003’s superb sixth album, Birds Of Pray.
And so to 2006 with Live signed to a new record label and frontman Ed Kowalcykz making claims of epiphanies, new eras and other evangelical hyperbole.
Except here’s the thing. Songs From Black Mountain isn’t very good. It’s not even average. In fact, it’s downright bad. Tour de force? More like tour de farce…
It pains me to say so, believe me. But from the moment The River flows in with acoustic guitar and cheesy vocal “la-da-da-da”s, it’s clear that this listener is in for a torrid time.
Treat this review as catharsis for a grieving music critic. How else is one supposed to get over the fact that The River sounds like something an American Idol would perform and has all the overbearing mawkishness that that implies? “Oooh baby, let my lovin’ ease your pain!” Excuse me while I barf.
Things don’t improve with the camp vocals and teenage sentimentality of Mystery (“your mystery keeps on turning me on”); the droning Get Ready (“C’mon get ready, this is the spring of our love / C’mon get ready, it’s like it’s ordained from above”); or the semi-Latin rhythms of Show and Sofia.
And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, they redefine nadir with Love Shines (A Song For My Daughters About God), which besides being saccharine incarnated in musical form, also features the execrable lines: “Think of gentle Jesus / Think of the Buddha underneath his tree / They taught the world about love and how we all can be.”
I’m struggling for positives. The chorus to Show is reminiscent of former glories but the production overly compresses Chad Taylor’s guitar and holds the song back; Where Do We Go From Here? is okay; Home at least takes the listener by surprise witha fierce chorus unleashed after a musical hiatus; and All I Need is bearable once that bizarre, ’80s keyboard intro is out of the way.
However, acoustically, vocally and lyrically, Songs From Black Mountain sounds like an Ed Kowalcykz solo record, were he to record one. The problem is that not only is that not the sound of Live but Kowalcykz’s misfiring seems to have infiltrated the rest of the band, with hitherto percussive giant Chad Gracey inexplicably using a near-identical drum move as an intro or fill in around half a dozen songs.
In conclusion, the only crumb of comfort I can hold on to is the fact that the last time Live made an album this bad they followed it up with a piece more magical that most bands will never have a hope of conjuring. Lightning Crashes – let’s just hope it strikes twice too.