Reviews

Verbena
Into the Pink
(Capitol)

Souls for Sale, Verbena's 1996 debut album, is the sound of true desperation. A perfect combination of impossibly trashy male/female vocals and pummeling, Stooges-esque guitars, it stands as a monument to the redeeming power of loud rock music. Brutal, seething, and honest, it's everything that modern commercial radio currently isn't.

So imagine the outcry when it was announced that Verbena's major label debut would be produced by one of modern rock's golden boys, ex-Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighter Dave Grohl. One would think that if there was ever a threat to Verbena's gutbucket sound, Grohl, with his penchant for gross overproduction, would be it. Wrong. Into the Pink illustrates unequivocally Grohl's understanding of Verbena's unwashed genius. His only real contribution is making the band sound twice as brilliant, shining, and nasty as before.

Even without Grohl's involvement, Nirvana comparisons will be inevitable. Into the Pink features the kind of bludgeoning riffage ("Monkey, I'm Your Man," "Bang Bang") that made Kurt and company's Bleach such a harrowing ride. Factor in the pissed-off growls of Scott Bondy and Ann Marie Griffin, as well as drummer Les Nuby's remarkably Grohl-esque drumming, and the similarity is often uncanny.

There's another rock ghost that haunts Into the Pink with all the subtlety of a poltergeist. The Sex Pistols' legacy is often embraced by bands, but rarely this overtly. Like Never Mind the Bollocks' opening track, "Holidays in the Sun," Into the Pink kicks in on its second track with the sound of marching feet. The bass-driven "Pretty Please" appears to reference two more Bollocks songs, "Submission" and "Pretty Vacant" ("We can play submission," "He's so pretty/ She's so pretty"), while "John Beverly" is simply titled after the birth name of one Sid Vicious.

Borrowing from such emblematic sources is a dangerous move for even the most established artists. But Verbena has used these influences to craft its own impressively fierce statement. Furthermore, the group's got "it," the elusive quality that makes even the most critical listener take a step back and marvel at the perfect blending of ingredients: the Southern drawls, the menacing guitars, the outrageous swagger. Into the Pink proceeds from and is based on the understanding that the visceral punch of rock's simple elements will never get old.

-- Tim Scanlin

Randy Newman
Bad Love
(DreamWorks)

Nothing is safe from the wit and wrath of Randy Newman, yet his particular brand of parody makes him one of our era's most compassionate songwriters. On his first collection of non-soundtrack recordings since 1988's Land of Dreams, (Newman's big in Hollywood, having been nominated for 12 Oscars), he targets silly old men -- those aging boomers whose revolution failed. Which makes Newman ahead of the curve on the topic that will obsess his generation for the next 30 or so years.

Taking one last, long look at relations with family, the opposite sex, outgrown beliefs, and rock 'n' roll -- before technology and time take over -- Newman couches Bad Love's songs in humor, beautiful arrangements, orchestration, and tinkling piano, a cross between ragtime and Tin Pan Alley. This is not new terrain for him, but the '90s have provided the cynic ample fodder for commentary. There's the Lexus-driving codger with a weakness for young women in "Shame," and aging rock stars in "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)." Families who've let big-screen television take the place of communication are the subject of "My Country"; its fife sounds and resounding chorus could be mistaken for patriotism, but the bridge gives the game away: "We got comedy, tragedy/ Everything from A to B/ Watching other people living/ Seeing other people play/ Having other people's voices fill our minds/ Thank you, Jesus."

During his performance at the Warfield last month, Newman admitted that very few of his songs are autobiographical, save "My Country" and "I Miss You," a jaw-dropping love song to his first wife (though he's married to his second), also included here. That song was written, he said, "so I could make sure to hurt the most people possible," and few songwriters know how to make it hurt so good. When he takes on cultural imperialism and the religious-white-right in "The Great Nations of Europe," or his guilty-and-gleeful station in capitalist society in an open letter to Karl Marx, "The World Isn't Fair," it hurts all right, but it's simultaneously gut-busting.

The album's production team, Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, whose studio tricks had begun to sound abusive on records by Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt, serve Newman well; clearly, they were assiduous students of his early '70s masterworks Sail Away and Good Old Boys, and made certain to give this record a similarly timeless quality.

By speaking in the tongue of the oppressor, Newman has singularly become this century's most astute satirist in song, from the Good Old Boys song cycle on racism, to his bigotry study "Short People," to "It's Money That Matters" and "It's Money That I Love," his timely commentaries on greed. In song after song, he points out our foibles, though whether we hear him or not is a different story -- his records don't usually chart and are persistently misunderstood. Just knowing he's still making them somehow inspires faith in humankind. And he could stand to send us a missive more than once every 10 years. We could use it.

-- Denise Sullivan

 
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