RECORDINGS

Laurie Anderson's latest is more of what she does most. She's again putting out experimental, highbrow hoo-ha, spewing words in big spaces between beats. Occasionally, she'll try to force a melody, and it almost works on the almost American gothic "Muddy River," one of Bright Red's better cuts. Other times, the overbearing Anderson either browbeats with an arrested sense of irony or simply rambles against a backdrop of squiggly, space-alien sounds.

But even with pretension bubbling from every track, this is Anderson's least objectionable product in years. She'll always be the kind of cold, calculating artist requiring a conscious effort to enjoy. But there's a pulse on Bright Red, and that's more than Anderson's usually shown.

R.E.M.
Monster
(Warner Bros.)

R.E.M., R.I.P.? Monster is not quite the death knell Automatic for the People was, nor is it the five-star masterpiece Rolling Stone would have you believe it is.

Like U2, R.E.M. has come to represent alternative music's establishment: still cool enough to keep up on current musical trends, but too entrenched in its ways to initiate any new ones. The main difference between the two groups comes down to ego. U2, at every stage of its career, has carried itself as if it were the greatest band in the world. Though that may have been far from true at some points, Bono's swelled head could always be counted on to turn in a great anthem on the order of "One," "So Close" or even "Lemon." R.E.M.'s shtick is to keep things just ambiguous enough to maintain its audience's interest. This includes padding each album with ca-ca like the current single, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" Once you realize it's not gonna be about Dan Rather, random violence or even Michael Stipe's groovy new haircut, it falls apart faster than a sand hamburger. About the only interesting thing on it is the tremolo, and you can always play the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now" for that.

Starting off an album with its worst song ("Kenneth") is nothing new for R.E.M. (did anybody really like "Radio Song" or "Drive"?). But the next track is equally dire. "Crush With Eyeliner" sounds like Stipe trying to be Frank Black and coming off like Right Said Fred. Thankfully, "King of Comedy" lifts the album out of its slump, pushing R.E.M. in an intriguing new direction that doesn't involve tremolo, the band's latest sonic crutch. Except for "Tongue," which is sung completely in falsetto, much of Monster is short on innovation. "Strange Currencies" is a wide-awake reread of "Everybody Hurts" with Al Kooperish organ fills, while "Bang and Blame" is a heavier dose of "Losing My Religion" without mandolins. "Let Me In," R.E.M.'s obligatory Kurt Cobain tribute, sounds like much of the album, merely a rough draft of a good song. Only "You," the album's chilling and desperate closer, sounds fully realized, conveying a tangible emotion instead of the usual vague disinterest.

At this point in its career, R.E.M. should be raising the stakes rather than issuing holding patterns. Monster is about as entertaining--and as frustrating--as an old Wings album. Cute bear on the cover, though.

Sugar
File Under: Easy Listening
(Rykodisc)

Word has it that Bob Mould scrapped this album several times and came close to pouring Sugar down the drain for good. Lucky for us, he stuck it out. F.U.E.L. is the band's finest, most accessible release to date. "Gift" starts the proceedings with a prime slice of Hesker De, circa that band's Warehouse: Songs and Stories. "Company Book" and "What You Want It to Be" sound like recordings Smithereens have been trying to make for the last six years and haven't had the smarts to. For a Nineties album, the desperation level on F.U.E.L. is refreshingly low, on a par with the Beach Boys when all they cared about was girls and cars. Mould sounds positively giddy on "Gee Angel," falling in love with a shop clerk with a strict no-refund policy. Even "Can't Help You Anymore" is punctuated with enough jolly "do do do do do do do"s to make you forget that Mould is writing off a self-destructive friend because Bob's required sleep is more important. Hard truths, maybe--easy listening, certainly! File under: repeated listenings.

Dinosaur Jr.
Without a Sound
(Sire/Reprise)

Guess what? J Mascis has a tummy ache and doesn't want to go to school today. "I feel the pain of everyone/Then I feel nothing," whines little Jr., which could explain the lack of intuitive drumming throughout "Feel the Pain." If Mascis insists on playing everything but bass now, he should at least have invested in a metronome. The speed-up-to-slow-down drumming on this track amounts to nothing less than a cheap gimmick, on a par with his Huckleberry Hound-in-heat vocals. "Yeah Right" would've made a much better single, even though it sounds more like a great, lost Green Mind track than something new. Ditto for "Grab It." "Outta Hand" stands apart as this set's jewel--it's as close to a grunge "Into the Mystic" as we're likely to hear. Without a Sound is without a doubt the album that will bring Dinosaur Jr. a mass audience. But you wonder if Mascis will fire himself before that happens.

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