What can you say about the platinum records now hanging in the dens of Nirvana and Pearl Jam? That the bastard child known as underground rock has been corrupted and turned into the more marketable ”alternative music”? Probably, but let’s think positive for a moment. Thanks to companies eager to leap on a trend, you can now stroll into any mall CD emporium and pick up clattering, discordant records like Therapy?’s Nurse, Cell’s Slo-Blo, and Th Faith Healers’ Lido — major-label debut albums by grating underground bands that, thanks to the alternative windfall, are now in the big leagues.
How bad can that be? The bands will doubtless receive better distribution than they did from independent labels, and the musicians might even make a few bucks. But the raft of new alternative discs has only proven that some bands aren’t ready for expense accounts — and that alternative rock can be as rigid as mainstream rock ever was.
Take New York’s Cell, for example. Slo-Blo could easily have been recorded in Minneapolis in the mid-’80s, when bands like the Replacements laid the groundwork for heartland slacker rock. Cell wallows in every element of that tradition — muffled drumming, proudly tuneless singing, sprawling arrangements that sound as if they’re about to crumble. But along the way, the band forgot to write good songs, making Slo-Blo much noisy ado about nothing.
Another time-honored tradition — updating the guitar drones of the Velvet Underground — is the starting point for England’s Th Faith Healers (that’s right, no e). With its fuzzed-out guitars and melodies, and sharp male-female vocal harmonies that evoke those of Jefferson Airplane, Lido makes for a sweet, enticing sonic whoosh. Yet like many alternative records, it’s too opaque; the lyrics are a blur, and the whole album stays with you only like some vaguely recalled dream.
If Cell and Th Faith Healers reveal how conventional the music has become, Therapy? shows how grim and forced it can be. With its mix of punk tautness and industrial clatter, the Belfast band’s meaty, boy-band alternative metal easily links it with the likes of Helmet (and grammatically with Wham!, but that’s another story). But despite the wit suggested by song titles like ”Perversonality,” singer and guitarist Andy Cairns mostly clenches his teeth and bellows meanspirited anti-love songs with lyrics like ”I hate it when she makes me feel!” At worst, the band is reminiscent of pompous ’80s techno-pop washouts like the Fixx.
With its humorless drive, Therapy? reveals plenty about the developing tone of alternative rock. During its early-’80s infancy, the music was frisky, defiantly anticareerist, and fun. No more: The pressure is on, and it’s heard simmering throughout records like Nurse. It’s the sound of a band being told to take on the world now, whether it wants to or not. Apparently, not even a pair of broken-in Doc Martens makes the job any easier than it once was. Slo-Blo: C- Lido: B Nurse: C