Recordings

Jewel
Spirit
(Atlantic Records)

Jewel Kilcher may have made a mint by marketing guilelessness, but she's a bit savvier than she lets on.

Consider that her latest single, the characteristically preachy "Hands," instructs listeners that "only kindness matters." Of course, a pesky music fan wouldn't be out of line to suggest that a sense of melody, a bit of rhythmic variation, or an occasional well-conceived turn of phrase also matter. But Jewel's pearl of wisdom serves as a kind of pre-emptive measure, sure to spread guilt among critics unkind enough to demand that some musical quality accompany the overt displays of good intentions.

Jewel claims to have heard little pop music growing up in Alaska, so it must be divine intervention that helped her pinch the tunes of Kenny Loggins' "Danny's Song" and Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust," respectively, for her hits "You Were Meant for Me" and "Foolish Games." Would that her sophomore effort, Spirit, had such bald examples of song lifting. You'd be more likely to find Jimmy Hoffa hanging out on Mill Avenue than a single decent hook on this album.

With so little melodic interest at work, Jewel's clumsy lyrics are all the more exposed. While most of her word play consists of benign chicken-soup-for-the-soul, her jumbled way with a metaphor can occasionally take her into some positively weird places.

For instance, on the album-opening "Deep Water," she warns that if you're not careful, you'll "wake up making love to a wall." On the embarrassing "Fat Boy," her botched attempt at empathy leads to this mantra: "Hush, sleep, don't think, just eat." On "Do You," she apparently wags a disapproving finger at young girls with a weakness for Starbucks: "They're sophisticated/They sip on lattes." It's good to know she's taking on the big issues.

To say that such songs are laughable would be to imply that they're a lot more entertaining than they really are. The real drag is that Jewel has a strong, appealing--if prone to affectation--voice that is wasted on her own material. In an earlier age, she would have recognized her limitations and settled for being a singer of other people's songs. But these days, everyone thinks they're a songwriter, and even though this stuff sounds like bad therapy-speak to me, who am I to argue with eight million fans?

Ultimately, though, Jewel does make one solid point on Spirit when she asserts that "what's simple is true." With that in mind, the simple truth is that Spirit is a thoroughly dispiriting listening experience.

--Gilbert Garcia

The Offspring
Americana
(Columbia Records)

The Orange County melodic-punk foursome's latest album, Americana, is as much an indictment of an apparent cultural malaise as it is an homage to the nation of conglomerates and franchises that supports the group.

The Offspring are themselves a homogenized franchise of American hard-core punk--serving foolproof quasi-political guff and snot wired through the sounds of their progenitors, the Descendents, Adolescents, Dag Nasty and Bad Religion. Ever since striking multiplatinum in 1994 with their infectious album Smash, the Offspring have endeavored to be a pop-punk hit factory.

Like a familiar fast-food sandwich, the group serves certifiable and reliable product: Vocalist Dexter Holland's piercing Ozzy-meets-Brian Wilson yelping wail is consistently smeared over Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman's chugging, gurgling guitars. Bassist Greg Kriesel and drummer Ron Welty's unwavering turbo-rhythm clip binds it all together.

However, they seem quite conscious of their role as an entertainment-industry franchise. In fact, much of Americana satirizes the group's position in the mainstream. Listeners are welcomed at the album's beginning by a digitized voice that mimicks the awkward, pasted-phonetic phrases of computerized voice-mail announcers. Plus, Americana features bonus CD-ROM selections with video clips and a karaoke room allowing users to sing along with their favorite songs.

The current single, "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)," reprises the complete structure of their first hit, "Come Out and Play." The stop-'n'-go riffs, clever vocal catch phrases (a group of fly girls coos, "Give it to me, baby"), and Holland's anthemic chorus sound curiously familiar. Like the commentary on gangs and racial tension of the mocking chorus of "Come Out and Play"--"gotta keep 'em separated"--Holland now pokes fun at white males trying to act like gangsters. "So if you don't rate, just overcompensate," Holland sings, "the world needs wanna-bes."

"Why Don't You Get a Job?" parodies the oompah-tune and vocal melody of the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," adding steel drums, horns and staccato guitars. Likewise, they notch up the irony factor with a mangling of Morris Albert's lite-rock staple "Feelings." Their version supplants the original's orchestration and vocal schmaltz with beefy guitar chords and Holland's ire: "Feelings, like I want to kill you."

"The Kids Aren't Alright" features chugging radio-rock guitars so clean you could eat off 'em, while Holland's harmonized voice soars above like a boys' choir. Stabbing at sociopolitical commentary, he sings of failed opportunities for American youth. Likewise, such tracks as "Americana," "She's Got Issues" and "Pay the Man" are observations of a cultural morass that eschews any simple solutions. But it's not solutions they're looking for--the Offspring's empire was built upon punk's marketable cynicism.

While their discography grows and their stylistic repertoire doesn't, the Offspring continue to deliver just what listeners expect. But, with a growing catalogue of homogenous albums, it may be difficult for us to keep 'em separated.

--Dave Clifford

 
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