Sheer incompetence, thus far, has been the most generous muse for rock musicians. Black Sabbath, for instance, owed its highly influential sound not so much to the Presence of Satan as the fact that guitarist Tony Iommi huwt his widdle fingers, and needed to slacken his strings to manage playing power chords -- two-fingered, two-note combos that can be learned within two minutes of first picking up a guitar. This is praise, not attack -- what's preferable, good intentions or good results? Sophistication and restraint may not be the best route to making good music, given the high fine-idea yield of certain accomplished incompetents like Sabbath progeny Metallica. Enter Load, Metallica's most sophisticated and restrained album yet -- bearing a title that begs for wise-ass two-word reviews like, "Of what?"
Unfortunately, I like (or liked) Metallica's music, whether from the bad-complexion days (Kill 'Em All) or the, ahem, Baroque period (And Justice for All). Hardcore speed mixed well with the hokey aural "evil" of metal, and lyrics were always choice-awful (singer James Hetfield still hasn't surpassed "No life till leather/ We are gonna kick some ass tonight!" from "Hit the Lights"). Dumb fun was had by all around, but 13 years of topping the E string with various arrays of power chords may have left material scarce for Metallica. On Load, they solve the immediate problem by returning to the tried and true. Someone else's tried and true, that is. Granted, Sammy Hagar and Tesla songs would have sounded a lot better if played by Metallica instead -- they do know how to crunch -- but Sammy Hagar and Tesla played them first. And while the desire to branch out is admirable, adding incongruous "country" tunes ("Mama Said") and hackneyed Southern Frying ("Ronnie") hardly freshens the repertoire; the idea is to remove cysts, not tack them on.
Worse: Oodles of liner-note pictures document a new glam-freak pose. If parodying unctuous star-power is the goal, Bono did a more convincing job during U2's "Zoo TV" phase. Metallica, on the other hand, made a big fuss for years about being the metal band that didn't wear spandex. But now it's clear that, however lackluster they get, Metallica may well be releasing records for years to come. Look at Black Sabbath: four or five good records, followed by 15 years of has-been embarrassment, helmed by Tony Iommi with undead tenacity. Perhaps hand in hand with creative incompetence goes the inability to know when to lie down and die.
-- Michael Batty
Box of Hair
There are few words in the English language with a punier ring than "indie." It's a fine concept, mind you, and I'm all for it; the independent record label stands as a musical monument to the labor of love. And the full-length "independent" sounds fine, calling up all sorts of breakaway connotations -- the Declaration of Independence's "Take that!" to King George, the way the Salon des independants allowed painters snubbed by the academy to show, etc. It's that mousy little word "indie" that bothers me. Maybe it's the diminutive ending "ie," which sounds so obnoxiously cuddly and meek -- so dependent. How can its My Little Pony aura fully describe an economic system responsible for raising the Black Flag?
Then again, the word's Juliana Hatfield cutesiness pins down some bands just fine. Cub, a likable Vancouver outfit, plays unabashed sugar pop, the kind of songs that I imagine would sound refreshing one at a time on the radio but a little too gooey all stuck together. Their new bag of bonbons, Box of Hair (as in "You're as dumb as a box of hair"), is so sweet it will rot your teeth. Still, there's hope: A live, atomic fireball of a song tacked on the end sounds as if it fell out of some gutsier, mightier record. Just as Neil Young's live version of "Baby What You Want Me to Do" stuck like a brilliant, unpolished afterthought at the close of his new album, Broken Arrow, Cub's "Not What You Think" snarls with a loose, loud freedom that's missing in the planned-out production that comes before it. Drummer Lisa G. says, "Ready? Quit laughing!" Then four drum clicks give way to the kind of great god-awful noise where you can barely tell guitars apart from drums. "I told you not to do it!/ You did it anyway!" she hollers with that fun toughness that dweebie words like "indie" can't sum up. Thus, Box of Hair is a one-song album -- but what a song.
-- Sarah Vowell