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CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH (Buy CDs by this artist)
Cruel Story of Youth (CBS) 1989

It's hard not to hate a band like Cruel Story of Youth: first, there's the cornball name, dooming the New York quartet to the cut-out bins from the onset; second, there's the threatening yet sexy photos of the four members that decorate their only album (one guy even flashes his nipples); third, and most infuriating, there's the over-produced, stadium-friendly pop 'n' roll on said album. The cruel irony is that Cruel Story of Youth isn't half bad. (Actually, it's exactly half bad.)

If you've ever asked yourself, "What if Bono and Jon Bon Jovi had a baby?" then say hello to John Are, songwriter/singer/guitarist and saving grace of CSOY. His literary take on cock-rock ideals elevate the album's songs — even the bad ones — to a higher musical plateau. Thus, the upfront hair-metal foreplay of "The Strangest Word" replaces visions of cherry pie and Tawny Kitaen with "the God of Phosphor" and "the angel of the perfect climax." "Violet," an outsider's take on an abusive relationship ("And you cling to his protection / And you cling to his vanity"), comes off like a thinking man's Billy Idol. The Asia-like excess of "You're What You Want to Be" is sprinkled with highfalutin lines like, "'Unto those who got' / Your mouth says / 'Shall be given'." John can be a big bag of bluster, but his compelling lyrics and clear voice (which occasionally adopts an enjoyable quasi-accent resembling Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) rescue several of the cuts from complete catastrophe. Drummer Bobby Siems and bassist David Penick (who, by the way, was a secretary at Rolling Stone at the time) similarly strive to make CSOY more ambitious. What derails them is guitarist Michael Gross, whose affection and admiration for the guitar solo is commendable, but whose insistence on playing the damn things immediately anchors the song to inflated supergroup tripe. The true criminal, however, is producer Michael Thomas Young, who slathers the proceedings with an overdose of echo and outdated keyboard tinkling, making everything sound like a shiny new ball looks. Without Young's meddling, maybe "A Man and a Woman" wouldn't sound like Starship, maybe "I'd Pay the Price" wouldn't make you think of Mike & the Mechanics. Maybe CSOY would have contended in the oncoming grunge onslaught in a U2/Pearl Jam/Live manner that they obviously preferred. Maybe, just maybe. (Siems and Gross also played together in the early-'80s new wave group Rescue.)

[Floyd Eberhard]