Wall to Walternative

First, rhythm and blues begat "rock 'n' roll," a term that still has cachet in a few crumbling, former Soviet republics. Then came all of rock 'n' roll's bastard offspring--folk rock, acid rock, hard rock, progressive rock, country rock, punk rock--everywhere a rock, rock.

But if rock became too vague a classification, consider what's happened to "alternative," possibly the most loathsome catchall phrase since "the feel-good movie of the summer." Already it seems the genre's been split into more subcategories than there are species of plankton in the sea.

Blame the record companies, who have started signing thousands of bands for a pittance and casting their debut albums onto the shelves like so many malnourished puppies begging for a home. Since there's only so much new music a person can process before turning into a boring old fart, we've devised this at-a-glance primer to help you decide which of the latest salvo of quickie releases gets your bosom clutch, and which your boot.

Rust
Bar Chord Ritual
(Atlantic)
Who They Are: A San Diego quartet.

What They Sing About: Inability to sleep at night, inability to get up for work, inability to process information, being born into a generation that doesn't have to fight in wars, Sister Charlene Francis--all time-tested slacker concerns.

Classic-Rock Touchstone: Singer John Brinton's snarl recalls a pre-Hollywood Squares Alice Cooper.

Alternative Common Denominator: Smashing Pumpkins. But unlike Billy Corgan at his most agitated, Brinton doesn't sound like Elroy Jetson being strangled.

Pluses: Producer Dave Jerden takes the dense, muscular sound he gave Jane's Addiction and mixes it with Jayhawks pop harmonies. Also, Brinton manages a great scream every 49 seconds.

Minuses: The sterile album-cover art of a prosthetic hook playing a guitar may inadvertently confuse Geddy Lee fans who mistake Bar Chord Ritual for another follow-up to Rush's Roll the Bones.

Love/Hate Ratio: The word "love" appears twice, a whopping amount for any alternative recording. "Hate" only shows up once and refers to a job, not a person. Also, a hidden track contains the rantings of a panhandling window cleaner followed by the sound of the band giving him money.

Classification: File under "Sentimentalternative."

Siberia
Damage
(Necessary Records)
Who They Are: A he-and-she duo from New York City.

What They Sing About: How everything is a waste of time--a good analogy to this recording. There's a Cowboy Junkies-esque song about (wow) having a cowboy-junkie boyfriend. Other subject matter of belly-lint importance includes a big yellow house down the street, living in a trailer park, spotting Lucifer driving a black car and dissolving limb by limb--all moaned by Miss Randy Farmer with the monotonous hum of a badly serviced Kelvinator.

Classic-Rock Touchstone: In its more upbeat moments, Siberia could pass for Friend and Lover of "Reach Out in the Darkness" fame.

Alternative Common Denominator: Mazzy Star, Cowboy Junkies, Edie Brickell and every other listless band fronted by a hippie chick you can name.

Pluses: One song has the line "You liked it from behind like a rabbit," which could be this year's "Would she go down on you in a theatre?" Also, Siberia thanks deposed Sony president Walter Yetnikoff in the credits, which means either there's some serious money behind this dreck or somebody fat and rich is getting it from behind.

Minuses: Siberia spends all this time trying to exude emotionally drained detachment like the Cowboy Junkies, then blows it by vacantly covering the Archies' "Sugar Sugar."

Love/Hate Ratio: I love to hate this CD. And I'm sure I ain't alone.
Classification: File under "Abysmalternative."

Limblifter
Limblifter
(Mercury)

Who They Are: A trio "from the second-most densely populated place in North America."

What They Sing About: Mostly non sequiturs like "Ursula, what's inside your jar of mayo" and "Excuse your roots/This place/Your mom?"

Classic-Rock Touchstone: Of the two singing Dahle brothers in the band, Kurt is a dead ringer for Nick Lowe. Actually, it's not hard to imagine the Jesus of Cool warbling, "I'd wear a beard of bees just to watch your flower open."

Alternative Common Denominator: Limblifter's penchant for naming songs after mundane objects like "Tinfoil" and "Cellophane" smacks of the Pixies but, musically, think of Material Issue doing Nirvana covers. "'Round the '2'" is a blatant rip-off of that "Grandma take me home" track on Incesticide.

Pluses: "Do I Feel Involved?" sounds like an answer to "Here we are now, entertain us," which, I don't have to remind you, moved a few million units.

Minuses: A poppier Nirvana? That's the Foo Fighters' job!
Love/Hate Ratio: Neither "love" nor "hate" appears on this sprightly debut, but there are plenty of other action verbs, like corrode, manipulate, interrogate, puke, gash, puke, piss and fuck.

Classification: "Seconalternative."

Van Gogh's Daughter
Shove
(Hollywood)
Who They Are: A female foursome from Frisco.

What They Sing About: Crystal (the drug, not the Dynasty character Krystle), a guy named Bad Ralph, looking at life through the eyes of a drugged-up junkie named Julie, being a slag but asking others to "Look behind my good behavior"--hey, real riot grrrls don't do that!

Classic-Rock Touchstone: This album's one great track, "Down," is a hormonal reversal of the Smithereens' "Blood and Roses."

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