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Newest Live Is Dead on Arrival

Throwing Copper, Catching Flak: Live has no ideology and can only offer ersatz Eastern philosophy in its place.

'Secret Samadhi' by Kowalczyk and crew is everything rock critics hate--and with good reason

By Gina Arnold

LAST WEEK, the Village Voice published its annual Pazz and Jop poll, in which some 400 rock critics compile their top choices for best record of the previous year. The winners for 1996 are Beck, the Fugees, Sleater-Kinney and DJ Shadow. You won't see a plain old white-boy rock band like Live anywhere near the Village Voice's list, but you may well see their new album, Secret Samadhi (Radioactive Records), at the head of another list: the Billboard Top 200.

In short, once again, the chasm between popularity and critical acclaim yawns in all its ugliness, and not without reason: Live plays the antithesis of everything the rock critics of America like to celebrate. The band's music is neither smart, nor radical, nor funky, nor chic.

Live's sound is a plodding, unimaginative medley of riffs borrowed from its idols: U2, R.E.M. and Pearl Jam. The band's last album, 1994's Throwing Copper, was a surprise smash, but although Live may well sell a few hundred thousand copies of the follow-up in the coming weeks, it's hard to imagine Secret Samadhi garnering the kind of success that Throwing Copper enjoyed--and not just because few records are selling well right now.

In 1996, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., and Hootie and the Blowfish all issued relative flops, but Live's problems go much deeper than the mere slump in the record business that hurt those bands.

Musically, Live has almost nothing unique to recommend it, but where it really falters is in the lyrics. Lead singer Ed Kowalczyk, a brooding (and prematurely bald) 25-year-old, claims to be a follower of Krishna. Although Live's music is as ordinary as can be--full of huge power chords and the requisite Smashing Pumpkins­like orchestral arrangements at every song's most dramatic moment--the lyrics are a handbook of notes for Psych 101 and Metaphysics-for-Idiots.

Seriously: "Ramana's not breathing, to us / behold the unsheathing, it's love," Kowalczyk sings on the song "Unsheathed." And: "The little swami with his bowl to eat, sweet feet / the little swami only wears a sheet / and won't sing the dirge song" (from "Insomnia and the Hole in the Universe.") Worst of all is the pseudo-Freudian "Heropsychodreamer," with the ineffable observation "the subculture of my dreams / is waiting for me to fall asleep."

Live is truly an abomination, but there isn't even any fun to be had in trashing the group. With lyrics like these, it's just too easy. Not since Genesis has a band written such awful, pompous babble--and at least Genesis, though silly, was musically more inventive. All those Hobbitty bands--Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Hawkwind and Jethro Tull--at least had the times (and musicianship) on their side.


Live Online:
The official site and a good fan site.


Untethered Nonsense

LIVE'S members, on the other hand, can't decide whether they're hippies or punks, and no wonder. Like most of their generation, they have no ideology, and what Kowalczyk has come up with to replace such a thing is utter, untethered nonsense.

I have to feel sorry for Live. The band was, after all, born in the wretched mire of post-Nirvana "alternative nation," in a time when there was so much money in the pipeline for this type of rock that almost anything on two legs could get a record contract.

This is a band that chose to tour instead of going to college. That's unfortunate, given Kowalczyk's apparent interest in philosophy and literature--he really could have used a couple of courses in the stuff. Instead, after being signed (prematurely) to a major label, Live delivered an uninspiring first record in 1991, Mental Jewelry, which was pretty much ignored by critics, radio and MTV.

After touring the eastern seaboard incessantly, Live eventually came to prominence via early AOL chat boards--the playground of 14-year-old eggheads, who were taken with fake-heavy songs like "I Alone," "Selling the Drama" and "Lightning Crashes."

But even those eggheads--now going on the sage age of 18--aren't going to be able to make much sense out of "Lakani's Juice," with its requisite Biblical references, or "Freaks," with its even more hackneyed Oedipal conflicts and finger pointing at Geraldo. Moreover, a quick glance inside AOL shows that Live has been wiped off the board in favor of bands like No Doubt, NOFX and the Bloodhound Gang.

Live is clearly on its last legs and, what's more, may even know it. On the song "Graze," for example, Kowalczyk sings, "People should not be afraid / the artist does figure eights / but will it stand the test of time or will it rot / like the mission that tried too hard?"

It's a lyric that would give any high school English teacher fits, if only for its nonsensical final simile, but if I read it right, Kowalczyk suspects that this record is a "figure eight"--that is, a retread of his previous work--and is wondering whether it will stand the test of time.

Well, I have a definitive answer for Ed, and that is "No." Nothing this banal and unoriginal will live beyond its radio life, and even that is in jeopardy, since trends--as the Pazz and Jop poll indicates--are moving toward electronica, sampling and rap.

Everyone knows the old wives' tale about what will happen if you dream that you're dead. That's clearly the fate in store for Live; perhaps its not so surprising that Kowalczyk doesn't want to go to sleep.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of Metro

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