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Like Oprah Winfrey set to music...

CD Review: Songs from Black Mountain – Live

I guess I did what is often called "coming of age" (a ghastly phrase if you ask me) in the '90s.  As such, I remember when Live's Throwing Copper burst on to the scene.  My immediate reaction was one of indifference.  One of my sisters was drawn to it and she wound up buying the album.  A few months passed and I, too, succumbed to it.

"I knew you wouldn't be able to pass it up for long," she told me.  I was kind of pissed at her for being right, but she was.  Throwing Copper is a great album.  A few years later I was dating The Wife to Whom I'm Married and she, being a few years younger than I, discovered Throwing Copper.  To this day it is likely her favorite album of all time.

I liked Throwing Copper.  She loves it.  I was a casual fan; she was diehard.   There are very few among that throng, The Wife to Whom I'm Married chief among them, who do not point to Copper as the band at their peak.  The same can be said of most critics.  Front man Ed Kowalcyzk's goofy spiritualism seemed a lot more edgy and so did the music when compared to the albums that followed.

Secret Samadhi and The Distance to Here had good moments but were not wholly interesting.  V is one of the worst albums in modern history and Birds of Pray was only better by default.

It has been more than 10 years since Throwing Copper and The Wife to Whom I'm Married recently told me she was ready to give up on Live.  Four mediocre-to-bad attempts at following up a classic had worn thin for her.  The music had gotten mushy.  Ed's spiritual lyrics had grown more overbearing and sometimes intolerably simpleminded.  The albums were bad enough on their own; they seemed that much worse in the shadow of Copper.

"The River" was released as the first single for Live's new album, Songs from Black Mountain.  She was cautiously optimistic.  The song, while not the driving rock she had hoped the band would return to, was pretty damn catchy.  This was a start.

I got an advance of Songs to review and we started to listen to it together.  We got four songs into it and she was pretty depressed.  Ed was happy and it was killing the music.  Live had gotten soft.  She officially abandoned all hope when the band appeared on American Idol's season finale last month.  It was the final nail.

"Here and no further," she declared.  The quartet of Chad Taylor (guitar), Patrick Dahlheimer (bass), Chad Gracey (drums), and Ed Kowalczyk (vocals) has remained the same since their debut, Mental Jewelry, but the music had not.  She could bear no more.  Live had taken off on a new direction and she was not going to take the trip.

If that dweeb Taylor was AI's "Soul Patrol" Ed could be the show's spiritual Pied Piper.  The most fatiguing aspect of listening to a Live record is Kowalczyk lecturing us on his brand of spiritualism.  It's like Oprah fuckin' Winfrey set to music and it can get old.  Fast.  Try listening to "Love Shines (A Song for My Daughters About God)."  Go on.  I dare you.

The worst moment on the disc, and quite possibly the worst moment since Ed sang about puppy scruff, is "Get Ready."  The song is insulting to anyone with an IQ above 9 and knowledge of music history longer than two years.  This plays like a dumb version of Curtis Mayfield's classic "People Get Ready."  It is criminally bad and it thwarts whatever momentum the album might have had after "The River" and "Mystery."

The other awkward moment is "Sophia."  Sophia is one of Kowalczyk's daughters.  It is likely the song was written for her.  "Sophia/I need ya" is a bad enough couplet.  What follows, a simile about drug users and their junk, makes it even worse to me.  Maybe parents do need their kids like junkies need their fix.  Forgive me if I find that nauseating in a Stapp-esque way and on a Stapp-esque level to express love for one's child.

All of that said, I do kind of like the album.  What you have here with Black Mountain is a pleasant, mostly tuneful batch of decent FM moderate rock songs.  "The River" is catchy.  "Show" has some cool guitar licks, something in short supply on this album, and would sound good as a single on modern rock radio.  "Show" and "Wings" are two of the better moments on the disc because they are two of Kowalczyk's least fussy vocals on the album.  "Mystery" would have been a lot better had he not insisted on doing some grating, falsetto thing during the chorus.  Even with it, the song is not bad.

Songs from Black Mountain sounds a lot like a parting shot to me.  The transformation from tortured young men is complete.  Live is now a middle-aged rock band making middle-aged music.  The angst is gone.  Kowalczyk is a father of daughters and a husband.

Is this brand of maturity good for the art?  In the case of Live, it is rarely terrible but it is no longer much to get excited about, either.

About Josh Hathaway

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