Between the increasingly smug, ironic stance of most post-modern entertainment and the generally diminished expectations of a generation resigned to also-ran status, it’s somewhat surprising that a band like this quartet from York, Pennsylvania, materialized at all, much less took up residence for a time at the apex of the pop charts. With an affinity for oversized, passionate anthems and guileless expressions of morality, in both the implicitly Christian and devoutly humanist sense, Live recalls nothing so much as a Stateside U2: armed and ready for spiritual battle at all times. Trouble is, their musical weapons are loaded with blanks.
The group had been together for several years — since junior high school, actually — by the time it evolved into the Amish-rock juggernaut of Mental Jewelry, produced by Jerry Harrison. That description isn’t as far- fetched as it might first seem — deadly earnest frontman Ed Kowalczyk is so suspicious of all things corporeal that he does everything but don a hairshirt for band photos. The band’s breast-beating breakthrough single, “Operation Spirit” (also the lead track of the accurately titled Four Songs EP, which boasts two non-LP cuts), preaches self-denial as a way of life.
Bassist Patrick Dahlheimer and drummer Chad Gracey may worship at the shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Motion, but their disjointed cadences seldom coalesce into tenable rhythms. Similarly, Kowalczyk’s resonant baritone musters plenty of bluster, but little in the way of tunefulness — which only accentuates the self-importance of the proceedings. It’s one thing to keep the faith, but Live’s insistence on anointing themselves post-modern saviors (see the self-important “Take My Anthem”) is remarkably off-putting.
It took Live three years to follow the success of their debut, and the ensuing time did help the young band’s worldview evolve. While every bit as intense as its predecessor, Throwing Copper is markedly less starry- eyed. Not so much cynical as world-weary, the bulk of the tracks gnash and wail dolefully enough to cast Live as a less muscular little brother to Pearl Jam. Having pondered the spirit world, Kowalczyk seems more interested in tactile matters this time: not surprisingly, he doesn’t like what he sees. “The Dam at Otter Creek” details a backwoods murder; the undeniably gripping “White, Discussion” provides a millennialist’s up-close-and- personal look at Armageddon; both feature clever guitar embellishment by Chad Taylor.
It’s hard to argue with the sort of personal politics Kowalczyk and Live espouse in songs like “Selling the Drama” — and that lack of conflict is precisely what makes them so prosaic: does the band think that its audience needs to be told that racism, world hunger and nuclear war are bad things? Let’s see them get into topics that really pit brother against brother — like which of the Stooges was cooler, Iggy or Shemp? After all, as Bono learned, it’s better to laugh at yourself before others do it for you.
Empowered by the success of Throwing Copper, it was Live’s divine right to take a new, more experimental approach on its next album. Live always wanted to be U2; if The Joshua Tree was completely out of reach, they could at least attempt The Unforgettable Fire. Bumping Harrison for co-producer Jay Healy, Live set about recording the decidedly darker Secret Samadhi. Despite a healthy dose of Kowalczyk’s new agey mumbo-jumbo in the lyrics, songs like “Rattlesnake,” “Ghost,” and the single “Lakini’s Juice” unearth a new, more sinister sound for Live. Unwieldy titles like “Insomnia and the Hole in the Universe” notwithstanding, this is Live’s best album.
Any semblance of subtlety is gone, however, on the incredibly overbearing The Distance to Here. Harrison is back to oversee this trite mess, from the eco- earnesty of “The Dolphin’s Cry” (ugh!), to the quasi- spiritual garbage of “Face and Ghost (The Children’s Song)” (double ugh!). Everything about The Distance is overdone, as Live have clearly run out of songwriting ideas. “Can you hear the dolphin’s cry?” No, actually, we can’t.
Compared to V, however, The Distance to Here is Rock and Roll Hall of Fame stuff. Live’s fifth album (you knew it would be trouble when they couldn’t come up with a better title than V) is marred by a seemingly willful ignorance of the band’s irrelevance in the new millennium. Replete with Kowalczyk’s inane rapping and laughable ghetto-speak (on nearly every song!), V is not merely a bad album, it’s a hideous spectacle of aging alterna-rock. Tricky, Adam Duritz of Counting Crows and Alain Johannes of Eleven (also the album’s co-producer) make pointless guest appearances, but nothing can save this stinker.