COMPUTERS CAN do all sorts of things, but can they rock? A bunch of record labels are trying to persuade us that they can, promising a deeper music-listening experience by introducing multimedia ”enhanced CDs” or CD Pluses that can be played like regular discs on audio-only decks or as CD-ROMs on computers.
What do they deliver? That depends. Recent releases from stalwart progressive rocker Mike Oldfield, grunge pioneers Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, sensitive songsters Toad the Wet Sprocket, and wide-eyed pop diva Mariah Carey vary the music/multimedia mix. The Alice, Toad, and Carey discs contain the entire contents of previously released CDs, while the Soundgarden disc contains selected cuts and alternate versions, as well as unreleased tracks. Only the Oldfield disc was conceived and produced as a CD with ROM content from the get-go.
The mere packaging of Oldfield’s THE SONGS OF DISTANT EARTH (1995, WEA, $15.99) — liner notes by Arthur C. Clarke, writer of the 1986 book of the same title (”Welcome back into space, Mike”); cover art redolent of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here — suggests a Rancid fan’s worst nightmare, and the contents do not disappoint. The music tracks, as usual, combine European art-music flourishes and folk-derived melodic devices with ambient whooshes and wahs. On the interactive portion the Tubular Bells composer regales us with spacey images of interplanetary craft that look like streamlined sea creatures, then puts us in a room where we have to crack a code in order to proceed to the next screen. Making you guess a password is just trivial snobbery.
With Alice in Chains’ JAR OF FLIES (1995, Sony, $16.98) and Soundgarden’s ALIVE IN THE SUPERUNKNOWN (1995, A&M, $20.99) one begins to discern the true nature of enhanced CDs: ”Emperor’s new clothes” springs to mind. Jar is the more straightforward of the two — not, I suspect, because the group wanted it that way, but because the producers of Sony’s CD Pluses have deigned to make their products easy to use. (Good for them.)
Jar contains all the songs from the 1993 disc; in a CD-ROM drive it gives you snazzy graphics, lyrics, a band bio, a discography, and videos for two of the songs. With the Soundgarden disc, you get four songs for your CD player plus photos and video clips and halfhearted attempts at games. The programmers do their damnedest to make the stuff seem fresh, as opposed to just a lot of filler they had to produce in order to create a piece to fit into a new product category. Nothing on Alive, however, equals the mystery, humor, sonic impact, or imagination contained on any one of the tracks on Soundgarden’s Superunknown album.
Since Toad the Wet Sprocket took their name from a Monty Python sketch, it’s no surprise that the graphics on their CD Plus, DULCINEA (1995, Sony, $22.98), are inspired by Terry Gilliam’s work. The rest of the disc offers no surprises either. It’s your overly earnest band interviews (”For this album, we thought, anything goes.” Wow), the video of the minor hit ”Fall Down,” lyrics, a photo album, and other non-life-changing stuff.
Because Mariah Carey merely wants to sing pretty tunes (rather than alter your consciousness), the CD Plus of her perennially popular ’94 album MERRY CHRISTMAS (1995, Sony, $22.98) turns out to be the most satisfying of the bunch. The insubstantial fannish stuff that strikes such a false note on the other discs rings perfectly true here — what else would one expect besides a series of cute little Mariah tidbits (stills and home movies of the singer cavorting in a cute little snow-bunny jumpsuit, talking about Christmas)?
So while M.C.’s MC is the most blatantly pop product here, it’s also the most honest, a puff piece that doesn’t care who knows it. Anybody who follows the teachings of Chairman Gates realizes the CD-ROM is not the last word in multimedia entertainment — it’s the first, the Edison cylinder of the information superhighway. The current multimedia music experience — sitting at a terminal clicking a mouse — is a boring way to access music, no matter what terrific speakers you’ve got hooked up to your Mac or PC. So record labels are running these things up the flagpole to see what kind of salute they get. My guess is that even hardcore fans of these artists will be profoundly underwhelmed and soon switch off to a really useful program, like Tetris. Earth: D Jar, Alive, Dulcinea: C- Christmas: C