Back in the early '80s, the Jesus and Mary Chain set the pace for the über-cool, guitar-heavy British indie scene with a series of confrontationally shambolic singles, including the classics "Upside Down" and "Never Understand." The ever-contentious Scottish siblings Jim and William Reid articulated the beauty of guitar feedback in a more multitextured fashion than the hack-and-slash attacks of '77 punks like the Sex Pistols. Even with an obvious debt to the Velvet Underground, the Reids' sound was revolutionary and ominous, helping pave the way for the heavenly noise of My Bloody Valentine and Primal Scream.
The Jesus and Mary Chain had a dual legacy, though, as the new chronological collection 21 Singles shows. By the mid-'90s, the Reids had abandoned shimmering discord for a hopeful Top 40 career, veering from hostile art-rock to narcotic bubblegum pop. Although its more conventional approach didn't help the group crack the big time, it did pry open the door for subsequent bands in the Creation Records orbit, particularly that other infamous brother-led combo, Oasis.
Oasis' latest album, Heathen Chemistry, sounds perfect following the JAMC collection, as the Gallagher boys now show the same by-the-numbers professionalism that the Jesus and Mary Chain displayed in its waning years. But while the Mary Chain declared "I Hate Rock 'n' Roll" on a notorious 1995 single, Oasis clearly still embraces it. The group's fourth album in an eight-year career, Heathen Chemistry is a resolutely workmanlike record: effective, reliable and entirely undisturbed by the overreaching sweep of Oasis' earlier efforts. Which is not to say that the disc is disappointing or flaccid, just that Oasis seems to have settled into a less bombastic version of rock stardom, wherein cleverness doesn't matter, but safely defined pop hooks do. Tailoring its sound toward the cookie-cutter demands of today's media monopolies which emphasize salability and replicable success over passion, anger or art Oasis now downplays its love of flamboyant power chords and grand dynamics, just as the Reids set aside the ear-piercing sonics of their teenage years, employing old techniques as stylistic touchstones rather than declarations of war.
With voices thickened by age and animosities dimmed by maturity, the Gallaghers pout and posture in an effort to convince the world that they are still very, very naughty boys. What emerges instead is the songcraft of a competent, calculating rock band, one that we always suspected lay beneath all the bad-lad theatrics. Oasis is clearly a Gen-X version of antediluvian war-horses such as the Rolling Stones, no doubt destined for several decades' worth of lucrative "reunion" tours. Diehard fans may find Heathen Chemistry's even keel somewhat disconcerting, but in all likelihood, it's just what Oasis needs to consolidate its conquest of America. Now, if only the band will put out a concert album or rock opera, the legend will be complete.