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Human Gene Project

[whitespace] Gene Loves Jezebel strips down for sonic action on 'VII'

By Nicky Baxter

Glam and goth have been easy bedfellows on the British pop scene since Marc Bolan banged a gong in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Bauhaus and New Order set the pace with their dolorous synth-based beats, but Gene Loves Jezebel added the finishing touch with its sensual grooves and flamboyant mascara-and-eye-liner stage presence.

The group's first claim to fame came in the early 1980s, when it released the svelte ballad "Heartbreak." That single helped make the band MTV darlings. Discover, Gene Loves Jezebel's third release, catapulted it to international fame. Over a decade later, a revamped GLJ has released VII, a disc that mates mopey UK ambiance with mainstream-oriented American modern rock.

Something of a departure from the band's more slickly produced but hugely entertaining earlier efforts, VII (Robison) is a comparatively stripped-down affair: no synthesizers, no strings, just guitar/bass/drums.

The band's newfound MOR-ish identity is established on the first track, the lilting "Love Keeps Dragging Me Down." Gone are lead vocalist Jay Aston's idiosyncratic yelps and whoops, replaced by a detached Simple Mind-ish croon.

Aston's lyric contemplates the solitary life after a miserable stab at romance. An erstwhile glint-eyed optimist, he once believed "in everlasting love," only to discover the harsh reality of love's transience. By the song's conclusion, Aston still holds out hope for something better.

Bandmates guitarist James Stevenson, bassist Peter Rizzo and drummer Chris Bell weave a mesmerizing sonic support system. Stevenson's acoustic and electric guitars strike up a circular pattern, responding to Aston's plaintive vocals with an understated, mournful grace.

"Who Wants to Go to Heaven?" finds the singer still in search of nirvana. Set to a stark musical backdrop of plangent acoustic guitars, doleful bass and tastefully restrained percussion, Aston repeats the title phrase like a mantra, although he doesn't sound quite convinced that he'll make it there. Finally, one is left with the impression that the singer only half-expects an affirmative answer.

On "The Good-bye Girl," Aston gently chides a former lover. Her incessant quest for thrills have led her to a dead-end, and he's there to wag his finger in her face. When Aston asks, "Where are all your good times?" it is as much an indictment as it is a query. Stevenson's chiming guitars whip up a rich lather, surging with elegiac majesty, one moment, scratching out the tune's arching melodic line, the next.

On "Uptown," Aston and his musical cohorts decide they want to "dance on Madison Avenue." But listeners won't confuse this half-hearted attempt to party while it's still 1999 with the Artist's glorious anthem of the same title: there's not much life at this party.

Indeed, this tune points up the album's musical limitations. There is little to distinguish the song from, say, "The Goodbye Girl" or "Who Wants to Go to Heaven." The now overly familiar midtempo gait and the strummed electro/acoustic guitars begin to blur together.

With its sly nod to Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" (check the bass line and female background vocals), "Welcome to L.A." is the album's only true rocker. Stevenson unleashes some spiky electric guitar leadwork, while Aston's appropriately cynical vocal fits the subject perfectly.

Too bad Gene Loves Jezebel doesn't get down and dirty more often. Rather than aim for the glam-slam of years past, it has opted instead for the singles market. Let's hope that next time around, Gene Loves Jezebel gets out the glitter and gold lamé--and attendant outlandish sonic histrionics--that made the group such an intriguing alternative in the first place.

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Web extra the June 17-23, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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