SYSTEM OF A DOWN, "MEZMERIZE/HYPNOTIZE" (SONY) ***
Though the first half of System of a Down's much-anticipated third album
won't arrive in stores until May 17, the "Mezmerize" disc is already widely
available on the Internet, and it's one of the most buzzed recordings of
The album doesn't break any new ground, but that hardly seems necessary
with a group like this. Tracks such as "Revenga," "Sad Statue" and
"Question!" already feature such a wide-ranging and disorienting swirl of
disparate sounds -- veering wildly from pile-driver hard-core to thrash
shred guitar and double-bass drumming, and from beautiful,
pseudo-psychedelic arena-rock to Middle Eastern folk music and flourishes of
progressive-rock virtuosity -- that adding one new ingredient to the complex
musical stew would only cause indigestion.
"B.Y.O.B." (or "Bring Your Own Bombs"), the first single and opening
track following a forgettable bit of musical scene-setting called "Soldierside,"
claims an instant place as the best tune System of a Down has produced. A
furious, weird but insanely catchy diatribe against America's war in Iraq,
the song boasts the memorable and lilting chorus, "Everybody is going to
the party/Have a real good time/ Dancing in the desert/Blowing up the
sunshine," and it was a highlight and one of the few new tracks during
the band's show at Metro last week.
Unfortunately, as in the past, the disc also boasts a number of
dismissible and sophomoric attempts at scatological humor, including "Cigaro"
and "Violent Pornography," which revels in the sexism and sensationalism of
Reality TV while pretending to condemn it, and it ends with the lame one-two
punch of "Old School Hollywood" and "Lost in Hollywood," two disappointingly
easy goofs on the group's native Tinseltown that are as weak as music as
they are as sociological observation.
The band's hero Frank Zappa had similar soft spots for indefensible potty
humor and easy jabs at mainstream culture. Despite his long and accomplished
career, Zappa never rose above these annoying tendencies, and they drag down
even his most brilliant work. System of a Down suffers from the same
weakness here, but we can hope this group will grow out of it.
ROBERT PLANT, "MIGHTY REARRANGER" (SANCTUARY) ***
While none of them have eclipsed the greatness of his old band, the
former Golden God has made the best albums of his post-Led Zeppelin career
on his own, when he's cared the least about re-creating that legendary
brontosaurus stomp, rather than when he has reunited with his old mate Jimmy
Page, only to be dragged down by the weight of their collective history.
Plant's first solo album since 2002 and his first real collection of new
material in 12 years is an energetic, tuneful and often inventive set that
blends a relatively modern sounding hard-rock crunch: credit his backing
band, the Strange Sensation, which features veterans of Portishead and Roni
Size's Reprazent, for the vitality of tracks such as "Freedom Fries" and
"Shine It All Around" -- with hints of his beloved blues ("The Enchanter"),
Middle Eastern world beats ("Another Tribe") and melancholy folk-rock
(notably on "All the Kings Horses," the strongest if most understated track
The singer's voice isn't as powerful as it was circa, say, "Presence,"
much less Zep's early '70s heyday, but we have to credit him for striving to
remain relevant. On the other hand, his other surviving bandmate, John Paul
Jones, does an even better job of continuing to challenge us musically. And
the question remains with any new Plant offering: If we discount the
accomplishments of his old combo, would we really care about this disc?
DAVE MATTHEWS BAND, "STAND UP" (RCA) *1/2
Since the Dave Matthews Band curtails its worst, most indulgent impulses
in order to meet the demands of pop radio and VH1, its studio albums are
never the soul-sapping ordeals that its endless, jam-crazed endurance-fest
concerts are. At times, the group's discs are even sort of pleasant -- in a
no-heavy-lifting, easy-listening, sub-Sting background music way -- and
"Stand Up," the group's first album of new material since 2002's "Busted,"
is no exception, pro or con.
You don't want to listen too closely to Dave's lyrics, which tend to
mistake frat-boy ogling for romantic poetry ("Your top was untied and I
thought how nice it would be to follow the sweat down your spine," he coos
in "Dreamgirl") or revel in laughable New Age philosophizing ("Oh great
light of love," he repeatedly moans in "Hunger for the Great Light"). And
his singing still sounds as if he really needs to clear his throat.
On the plus side, the modest hooks and gentle grooves carry you through
mildly tarted-up folk-rock ditties such as "American Baby" and "You Might
Die Trying" with relatively little pain as producer Mark Batson --
best-known for crafting chart-toppers for Eminem, 50 Cent and India Arie --
keeps notoriously flatulent and solo-happy violinist Boyd Tinsley and
saxophonist LeRoi Moore firmly in check.
Lovers of rock, jazz, folk or pop with even the faintest hint of an edge
shouldn't even consider buying "Stand Up," but they won't have to run in
horror if it happens to be playing in the coffee shop as they buy their
morning latte. And if that seems like it's damning with the faintest praise
possible, well, you're either a diehard Matthews fan or someone who's never
had the questionable pleasure of having Dave's "gifts" rain down on you in
concert or while floating down the Chicago River.
RYAN ADAMS & THE CARDINALS, "COLD ROSES" (LOST HIGHWAY) **1/2
Because he isn't lashing out at anyone here -- as he's so often done with
errant fans at his Chicago shows, or as he infamously did once on this
reviewer's voice mail -- many critics would have us believe that this is the
album where Ryan Adams has finally matured. But the juvenile rock 'n' roll
antics have never really been young Ryan's problem; those are, after all,
Absurdly prolific -- this double album is the first of three releases he
plans to issue this year -- Adams falls short of the greatness he so eagerly
claims for himself, partly because of his inability to edit or restrain his
alleged genius, but mostly because of his insincerity, best displayed by a
startling lacking of originality and an undying devotion to mimicry that
continues on "Cold Roses," his return to his alt-country roots after the
divergent genre-hopping of his last two offerings, "Love Is Hell" and "Rock
So who does Adams (choose one) rip off, imitate or pay homage to here? I
hear the harmony-happy folk-rock of Crosby, Stills & Nash or the Grateful
Dead circa "American Beauty," the chilled-out, sexed-up rockabilly of Chris
Isaak, the melancholy lilt of James Taylor or Neil Young in his acoustic
mode, and of course plenty of that old alt-country standby, Gram Parsons.
Sometimes, Adams mixes things up by giving us a couple of these influences
at once: "Magnolia Mountain" equals the Dead's "Sugar Magnolia" plus Young's
"Sugar Mountain." But that's as original as he gets.
There is no shame in hitting the iPod shuffle of your influences when
you're writing tunes, and yes, I know that no one in rock 'n' roll is ever
truly original; everyone borrows from the past. But until Adams gets beyond
this phase of his development and matures for real, he's always going to be
alt-country's answer to Lenny Kravitz.