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Wednesday, May 7 1997
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Karp
Self Titled LP
(K)

There are those who would say this country is in dire need of a presidential address on the State of Metal. So many unanswered questions linger: Whatever happened to White Lion? Witchfynde? Angel Witch? Death Angel? When will it be safe to sport spandex again? Bullet belts? Farm our hair? Strut around riding a mike pole? And, most importantly, where is the younger generation that fills in for the arthritic/balding elders -- those young and randy cock-rocking whelps who spent their late teens studying under masters like Rob Halford (Priest), Vince Neil (CrYe), Steven Pearcy (Ratt)? Every other conceivable genre is currently represented, nay respected -- from frat punk to gangsta rap to dykecore to industrial glam. (And I think we've all had enough of the metal old-timers releasing self-parodic albYms on tiny European labels.) So where in the hell is that new crop of swaggering pretty boys?

Well, Olympia's Karp are decidedly not pretty, and listening to Self Titled LP, one could guess they don't swagger around with scarves tied to their thighs. (Though it certainly couldn't hurt.) They are younger, which is good, and very heavy -- metallic primitif (to ape anthropologist Levi-Strauss) -- and, if they don't stuff cukes and compare lipstick shades backstage, at least they don't glance away, shamed, and declare themselves down-and-out junkie losers in order to pick up chicks. (This "grunge factor" must be the No. 1 occupational hazard if you're making heavy music in the Pacific Northwest.) They just grind. Pure repetitive minimalist riffage, with a fair number of slabbath-style hooks, and, unlike the Melvins -- to whom they are often compared -- they don't bother filling out the low or high end. There's nothing but midrange here. (And no strange drum parts.) Maybe it's just the K production team, or maybe they are trying to sound like a gargantuan "Six Pack"-era Gregg Ginn, back from the punk rock circle of hell.

And Karp's vocals do a lovely job complementing the monolithic guitar: a continual excruciating maniacal screech. "Ding dong! Fucking with your head/ I'm fucking with your head/ Ding dong! Fucking with your head/ I'm fucking with your head." And so it goes throughout "Bastard of Disguise," until the motif resolves four or so minutes later, as you might expect, with "Ding dong the witch is dead." Simultaneously annoying and wry -- a skillful display of self-indulgence, which is important in metal proper (almost as important as filling your stretch limo hot tub full of hard-bodied babes). For elfin humor, check out "D&D Fantasy," with its double-tracked screeching chorus of "Roll on 12-sided dice." Silly indeed. And then there's the truly perspicacious post-Dio goth in "J Is for Genius": "The cauldren's boiling, take your witching stance/ Newt eyes, snails, tails, fingers, knuckles, nails/ ... Witching with the beast. Hex. Hex." OK. So maybe they're not the next Bon Jovi. But they'll definitely do in the interim.

-- Curtis Bonney

Mary J. Blige
Share My World
(MCA)

A mere five years into her career it seems as if there have been more "New Mary J. Bliges" than there were "New Nixons." Whereas Tricky Dick needed constant spin doctoring and revisions to -- wellll -- cover up his past transgressions, Mary J. doesn't. The one we've got works and she really isn't that different from the young woman who burst on the scene singing of "Real Love" not as the fairy-tale conquer-all power but as a redemptive passion. That was a powerful statement in an age where descriptions like "my baby's mom" or "my youngest's father" are commonplace. Although her voice articulated her ideology better than her lyrics, Blige's steadfast belief in the power of romance in the face of daunting realities made her something of a Shawn Colvin from the 'hood.

Mary J. is known as the queen of hip-hop soul. Her work was among the first to combine classic R&B singing with hip-hop beats and street attitude (in the '80s, Janet Jackson merged sampled hip-hop rhythms with R&B vocals, but without the vehemence). Despite the innovations and a string of hit records from her debut, What's the 411, and its follow-up, My Life, she became widely known as a bad girl for her belligerence in interviews. On the Internet, Blige is a favorite whipping girl of most black middle-class newsgroups as she refuses to follow the rules of upward mobility. What isn't understood is that Mary abides by the hip-hop credo of keeping it real. Since 1992, she's been ready for her close-up, even if it's a portrait that the ruling class may not like.

Share My World continues Blige's growing up in public; it's a self-conscious and canny collection of songs. She continues her unwavering faith in love's cathartic force, and she expands her sound. It's her first effort without contribution from Sean Puffy Combs, who produced most of her first two discs. Guest stars like Nas, Babyface, Lil' Kim, and the producing team of Jam and Lewis abound, but Blige's presence unifies the panoply. The songs flow together nicely and the backing is richer and less conspicuously rough or dark. On her best song, "Keep Your Head," she sings:

Every day is a struggle
But struggling to be
Is very hard ... so very hard
Because I'm out here
Trying to do the right thing
And when I look around
There's the wrong thing
Tempting me to make me disagree about howI feel about me
But I fight again.

A true diva reflects her times, shown here in the contrast between the complex, urbane savvy of the first single, "Love Is All We Need" -- her ode to puppy love -- with the sunny naivete of any of Lennon's and McCartney's similar songs. I wonder if the problems that people have with her reveal a difficulty in accepting contemporary realities.

-- Martin Johnson

U2
Pop
(Island)

In all the comment upon Fred Goodman's much-noticed The Mansion on the Hill -- a nicely reported analysis of the crash of commerce and artistic purity in the rock music of the 1960s -- I thought one valid criticism was overlooked. Goodman's book would have been more powerful if he'd added a short coda. "By the way," the epilogue could have run, "this story essentially repeated itself in the 1980s, and probably will again 20 years after that." In other words, just as artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young kept an outlaw image even as their savvy business representatives exercised their power in the boardrooms, in the 1980s, a new wave of bands -- punk-spawned but with curious roots in the 1960s -- came to prominence. Most important were of course R.E.M. and U2, whose names became synonymous with artistic integrity and outsider aesthetics even as they rolled up record sales and concert fees that made the members millionaires and the bands themselves the new mainstream.

Their strategies were different. R.E.M., steeped in American music, avoided any hint of commercialization; the Georgians stressed their artistic independence and carefully controlled their publicity. U2, Irish toughs with a Christian bent, had a different tack: Talk loudly about justice and carry a big sound. They went platinum with 1983's War and were the biggest band in the world as the '80s waned. But just when overexposure and the drippy retro posturings of lead singer Bono threatened to make the band a joke, U2 did a clever thing: The members declared themselves futurists, musical innovators. The line had the band in the studio with Eno, mercilessly throwing out any track that sounded like U2; the result, by definition, had to be different. Musical experimentation was a very old progressive-rock pony, of course, but just about everyone in the press took a ride.

But now it's five years later, and once again the band has trotted out the prog-rock pony. Yet again we're told that the band is reinventing itself; that to avoid gathering moss, the restless musicians and producer Flood turned to new sounds and rhythms. The problem with the result, Pop, is that this far along, there's no artistic justification for the alleged experimentation. Its only purpose is to keep the band comfortably hep. The musical horse this time is electronica -- which spices it up here and there with the odd, lulling sample or sudden texture change, but mostly just makes U2's background noise a little more monotonous. Achtung Baby had both style and tunes and as a consequence charmed. Pop (like 1993's Zooropa, the second trip U2 made to this particular well) has neither, and sounds wan. Hearing Bono growl with what's supposed to be menace the word "discotheque" (note sophisticated French spelling) on Pop's first single and leadoff track isn't ominous or decadent; it's just vacant. The band tries the same thing on the similarly unscary "Last Night on Earth." On "If God Will Send His Angels" and many other tracks Bono bleats. One hates to compare this arguably important band to the Smashing Pumpkins; but Billy Corgan's work with Flood on the overlong but impressive Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness accomplished a lot of interesting things. Whispers and strings, found songs and lulling beats -- all had a place in irresistibly marked pop songs. U2's strainings are by contrast a little pathetic: you want to pat the songs on the head for trying too hard. "Mofo" -- now there's a title that just sends shivers up your spine -- begins with some very tired electronic sounds before heading into an aimless groove as Bono mumbles what are supposed to be ominous observations about society before lapsing into some, what's it called, oh yes, "scat singing." (There's some more of it, or so the lyric sheet tells us, on "If God Will Send His Angels.") Then there's another bit of gritty rawk in a song called "Miami," whose chorus, astonishingly, goes, "Miami / My Mammy." The band performs another awkward number called "The Playboy Mansion" under the apparent impression that the title is a metaphor for the decadence of our current consumer culture, or something. Instead, it is a tired symbol of absolutely nothing.

One of the reasons that The Mansion on the Hill was an interesting book is that a lot of the artists whose careers it followed -- whatever their pratfalls and increasing idiosyncrasies -- have shown persuasively over the years that they follow a strange muse, and often an uncommercial one. Young and Dylan, of course, have worried about selling records and efficiently control their public images. But in a real sense, neither have given much of a fuck what anyone thinks for a good couple of decades. By contrast, U2's obsession with remaining au courant has become the band's reason for being; like many other multinational corporations that market product to teens, they're in the permanent business of posture.

-- Bill Wyman

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