Rage Against the Machine
Evil Empire

Rage Against the Machine cares a lot. During their recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, their caps said "Commie" and they wrote "Arm the Homeless" on their instruments in masking tape. Which isn't just posturing: On Evil Empire, frontman Zack de la Rocha spits out defiance against the military-industrial complex, the radical right, corporate greed, and racial segregation. He's sharp and articulate, and his politics forgo Sproul Plaza sloganeering for a, well, rage that erupts from lived experience.

One of his best lines, for instance, goes, "Rolling down Rodeo [Drive] with a shotgun/ People ain't seen a brown-skinned man since their grandparents bought one." Then there's the savvy media analysis, worthy of FAIR or Project Censored, that closes "Wind Below": "G.E. is gonna flex and try to annex the truth ... ABC's new thrill ride -- trials and lies." Admirable stances, to be sure, recalling this thing that used to be called, um, "conscience rap" or something like that.

Admirable, but not that enjoyable. Rage isn't nearly as wanky as a band like this could be, which shows a surprising sense of restraint, but their sound has no charity and little give in it. It's, how shall I put it, one-note: chunky, metallic grinding and churning with yelled vocals that pour down like acid rain. Those bits that don't revive thrash funk (you remember thrash funk -- Next Big Thing, 1990?) never rise above footnotes to the furthest-out raps of the '80s, the Slayer-powered "No Sleep Till Brooklyn" (Beastie Boys) and Public Enemy's "She Watch Channel Zero." Which would be fine -- innovation is, after all, highly overrated in pop music -- except that it suggests a failure to learn from the past.

If there are lessons in radical mass art's century-long lack of mainstream appeal, surely one of them is that the audience needs soft as well as hard, butter as well as guns. Unfortunately, there's not a lot of nourishment or comfort here, which means this band probably won't move beyond cult status to the wider public its convictions deserve. As Emma Goldman, from whom Rage should learn the art of crossover, is supposed to have put it: "If I can't dance, it's not my revolution."

-- Jesse Berrett

Paul Westerberg

The most obsessively self-referential rocker in the history of the music was spawned in the strange and insular Amerindie movement of the 1980s. From it (and his adulatory press coverage), Paul Westerberg absorbed an affecting self-deprecation and a rather more problematic obsession with the psychic effects of selling out, buying in, and becoming a star. In a series of ever-more-polished Replacements albums over the course of a decade, he gleefully detailed what was supposed to be his incipient commercial debauching. In the mournful "Left of the Dial" he bade a sad farewell to his indie compatriots; in the concussive "Alex Chilton" he pointedly saluted another underappreciated demi-star. The cover of Pleased to Meet Me showed a businessman's hand shaking with a shabby artist's, and the title of Don't Tell a Soul mocked the band's continuing lack of commercial success. And because in the process Westerberg produced some of the most urgently felt music of the period, it did seem possible that his expanding talent might indeed burst into Springsteenian proportions; surely no more extravagantly pop-minded talent has existed on rock's fringes.

Finally released from the constraints of his stupid and contagious mates in 1991, Westerberg put out the soberer 14 Songs. On it, and particularly on its first single, "World Class Fad," he yet again warned himself of the perils of his (still) approaching stardom: "If you want it that bad/ [To] be a world class fad/ Remember leave a trail of crumbs/... Remember where you started from."

The new Eventually keeps up this subtext in its wry title and but one song, but that's where it ends, and so, on the evidence, does Westerberg's career. It's an unrecognizable album, in the sense that listening to it makes it hard to remember that anyone thought Westerberg was important anytime recently. It turns out that, freed from his naive obsessions with stardom, he has nothing to say; worse, unmoored from the ragged, searching attack of his fellows, he drifts into a VH1-ish calm marked by overly tasteful instrumental fills and production touches and a studied winsomeness that quickly becomes almost homicidally irritating.

14 Songs shared many of these faults, but at this point we can be allowed a little exasperation. When Westerberg tries to rock he sounds pinched and unpleasant ("You've Had It With You"), and when he doesn't the results are dismal: Songs like "Hide N Seekin' " and "Once Around the Weekend" are so slight as to make it difficult to concentrate on them, and "Good Day" is so dopily bathetic that you want the alcoholic ghost of rabid Bob Stinson to haunt him forever. He crafts one effective hook, on the lilting "Ain't Got Me"; yet listen closely and it turns out to be Westerberg gnawing again on his psychic scabs: "You ain't got me," he sneers at his dwindling fan base.

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