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.
Bar Chord Ritual
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."
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."
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.
Van Gogh's Daughter
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."
Alternative Common Denominator: A kinder, gentler Breeders; or Babes in Toyland meets the elocution instructor.
Pluses: Bill Graham Management is behind them.
Minuses: Hollywood Records hasn't broken a band since Queen. Also, claiming relation to a great artist didn't do shit for Shakespeare's Sister.
Love/Hate Ratio: There's never been a more romantic couplet than this one from "U f@#": "Lay down, stay down/Give it to me/Ya fuckin' with me."
Classification: "Valley Grrrlternative."
Feet of Clay
Feet of Clay
Who They Are: A Milwaukee trio of session musicians.
What They Sing About: Losing faith, finding out that it's lonely at the top, waiting for good things to happen, combing your hair, how a crack dealer on the street isn't really a friend--except for the bit about losing faith, this could be a presecular Amy Grant release.
Classic-Rock Touchstone: Picture XTC's Colin Moulding so full of self-loathing that he actually takes part in a Mr. Mister reunion.
Alternative Common Denominator: If you asked the guys in FOC, they'd probably say, "That jangly guitar stuff so popular with you kids this season. Whaaaa? You'd rather hear that grunge shit? How 'bout if we cover ourselves with 40 pounds of mud on our album cover--that's pretty grungy, eh? Hey, wait! Come back here, kid! Hey, kiiiiid!!"
Pluses: These guys fake English accents about as convincingly as Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. And they live in Milwaukee, so when this album bombs, they've got their pick of breweries to cry in.
Minuses: It probably is Mr. Mister under all that mud.
Love/Hate Ratio: Every song is about helping a friend deal with his or her pain. Except the one about the crack dealer. Crack dealer--bad!!
Who They Are: A trio from Missoula, Montana, that relocated to Seattle.
What They Sing About: Singer Tim Midgett voices concern over a friend's excessive drinking, but only because it's on his tab. Lots of songs about recovering from a bender, but, unlike the Refreshments, no one here seems to be having any fun.
Classic-Rock Touchstone: This concept double album is Neil Young's Tonight's the Night for booze hounds.
Alternative Common Denominator: Abrasive, dry and ungussied like the first Gang of Four recording.
Pluses: These guys are seasoned indie pros--Firewater is their fourth album on as many labels, their music teems with sharp lyrics that critics will fawn over, there's a stark Steve Albini production to ensure no airplay, and they're on Matador. This recording could sell six copies and they'll still be cool.
Minuses: If the thought of A&R men shrugging "I don't hear the single" doesn't bother you, you'll be fine.
Love/Hate Ratio: The only handholding that takes place on this album is the kind that's necessary to drag a plastered friend home. At one point, singer Tim Midgett vows "I got to get a hard-on" with the same conviction most people reserve for promising to clean out the garage.
Who They Are: An infectious girl-boy, boy-girl quartet from Beantown.
What They Sing About: That it's too late to think and it's natural to be depressed at Christmastime. Most important, track two ("Drag") tells us that "image is everything." The group then proceeds to forget about getting one.
Classic-Rock Touchstone: In the grand tradition of Suzi Quatro covering "I Wanna Be Your Man" with no apologies, the Fuzzy girls take on the Beach Boys' "Girl Don't Tell Me" without switching gender. The homage is ruined by press-bio claims that the 31-year-old Brian Wilson classic is "rendered with a little more crunch than the Beach Boys could muster." Hey, little miss Fuzzy, you try to make eight albums a year and see how much crunch you can muster!
Alternative Common Denominator: This band lost its prestigious "side project" status when Fuzzy drummer Dave Ryan lost his day job with the defunct Lemonheads. Which means Fuzzy has to be taken on its own merits--think of what Juliana Hatfield would sound like if she traded in her cutting edge for a Matthew Sweet songbook.
Minuses: The guys and girls in Fuzzy couple up on the CD insert, which could spell trouble of a Fleetwood Mac magnitude. We're talkin' four different menage a trois possibilities here!
Love/Hate Ratio: It takes 11 songs before one of the guys gets to sing. Talk about being Fuzzy whipped!
Life Begins at 40 Million
Who They Are: A six-man band from New York State.
What They Sing About: How the world is just one big microwave oven, eating a cake that you know is poison and liking it, a psychoanalyst who prescribes climbing into a tub with him as a cure-all for childhood traumas, reminding someone that "the world is your ulcer."
Classic-Rock Touchstone: Producer Jerry Harrison clearly heard snippets of the hysterical David Byrne in P.J. O'Connor's preachy voice, but the music here seems less like the Talking Heads and more akin to the Tubes after smoking a couple of mean spliffs.
Alternative Common Denominator: Oingo Boingo, a band that allegedly combined humor and eclectic Third World rhythms, but a band that nobody would ever admit to liking, even at gunpoint.
Pluses: These guys try too hard sometimes, but they can get pretty funny. Check out the ridiculous "Dr. Jerome, Love Tub Doctor" or "Yellar," which repeatedly taunts the listener to "admit that yer yellar."
Minuses: Lyrics will make people think they're listening to a comedy album, and we all know how many times those curios get played.
Love/Hate Ratio: The only number on 40 Million you could truly call a love song narrowly misses turning into a celebration of bitch-slapping misogyny as O'Connor enacts both the male and female parts in an epic breakup saga.
Who They Are: A Liverpool, England, foursome.
What They Sing About: Disc one is nothing but love songs. Disc two ditches matters of the heart for character studies of a fool on the hill, an eggman who thinks he's a walrus, people with crazy names like Sgt. Pepper and Mr. Kite, and a guy who reads the daily newspaper and has nothing to say, but it's okay (thanks to good ole recreational drug use).
Classic-Rock Touchstone: These guys rip off everybody from Carl Perkins to Dylan to the Byrds to the Beach Boys. There's even a Bonzo Dog Band sound-alike track.
Alternative Common Denominator: The sticker on the shrink wrap has the word "alternative" in boldface, but it only refers to the "alternative versions" of previously released songs. Even so, the loopy "Tomorrow Never Knows" sounds like a viable Guided by Voices outtake.
Pluses: This band is really quite inventive, even if it has a hard time finishing songs.
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Minuses: On the live recordings, the fans keep screaming hysterically at the group to tune its guitars and are routinely ignored. Worse, the member who co-wrote nearly all the songs is deceased, leaving the remaining three to overdub parts on 15-year-old lo-fi demo recordings. Unless his widow unearths tapes of him singing in the shower, this band is history.
Love/Hate Ratio: You'll hit the L-word just about anywhere you spit on disc one.
Classification: If Capitol Records has its way--Beatleternative, natch!