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A quick run-down of the artists contributing to the soundtrack for the upcoming teen comedy American Pie and one wonders if a more appropriate title for this collection of songs wouldn't have been Why Alternative Radio Sucks. It seems that virtually all the guilty parties responsible for the dumbing down of modern radio are represented here--Third Eye Blind, Tonic, Blink 182, Sugar Ray, Dishwalla. You get the picture.

While most of these bands specialize in repeating the same sort of mind-numbing blandness that garnered them fame and fortune in the first place, it seems that the opportunity to make a one-off soundtrack contribution has made some of them more adventurous. Take for example the Jimmy Page-flavored guitar and winsome Robert Plant-style vocals that introduce Tonic's "You Wanted More." While the opening hints that these sensitive rockers are going to play at being Led Zeppelin for a while, the group's true colors come out during a chorus so limp it makes Christopher Cross sound like the MC5. As singer Emerson Hart whines, "You wanted more/More than I could give/More than I could handle," it's hard to decide if he's making a heartfelt emotional admission or a thinly veiled reference to his own impotence--musical or otherwise.

The best thing about Third Eye Blind's "New Girl" is that, at two minutes and 14 seconds, it's the album's shortest track. Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Sugar Ray's offering, "Glory" (a cut which also appears on the group's 1998 release 14:59). The pretty boys who "just wanna fly" momentarily go hard-core with the sort of drum-heavy, unmelodic bashing that reminds us that the sounds of Korn and Limp Bizkit are alternative music's flavor of the moment.

But just when you think musical pretentiousness has been taken to its most dizzying heights, there is Dishwalla. It would seem the members of this band are the only people left on Earth who haven't caught on to the fact that their excruciatingly lame radio hit "Counting Blue Cars" ("Tell me all your thoughts on God/'Cause I would really like to meet her") was a one-time fluke. Judging by the sales figures for Dishwalla's last album, God has better things to do with "her" time than worry about singer J.R. Richards' career. On "Find Your Way Back Home," Richards continues to toss around cliches about the "dilemma of existence" that were trite when James Taylor sang them nearly 30 years ago.

A desire to establish a stylistic balance (or shrewd marketing) results in the presence of The Atomic Fireballs' big-band rave-up "Man With a Hex." Amid the surrounding alternative dreck, the song's neo-swing beat and fat horn flourishes are refreshing, even though Fireballs singer John Bunkley's vocals bear an eerie resemblance to another gravel-voiced shouter--Tom Waits. Needless to say, Bunkley would be well-advised to watch his step in case Waits decides to call his attorney and add to his already handsome Frito-Lay nest egg.

The rest of the tracks are divided between previously released filler like Blink 182's "Mutt" or new contributions from lesser-known acts like Super Transatlantic and the Loose Nuts. The only exception being a duet between Semisonic front man Dan Wilson and New Zealand singer/songwriter Bic Runga. The most that can be said of the song "Good Morning Baby" is that it's an innocuous bit of midtempo balladry with a passable melody.

In truth, it's a bit unfair to lump Wilson's band in with the rest of the groups featured here. At least the Minneapolis-based trio makes an effort to replicate something approximating rock 'n' roll. That in itself makes them somewhat less objectionable than the rest of their alternative brethren (despite the ubiquitous presence of their inane breakthrough single "Closing Time").

The most tragic side effect of their success is that, as commercial radio continues to neglect genuinely creative and viable artists, a band like Semisonic becomes the representative of modern power-pop by default--a fact that's certain to have Tommy Keene and Matthew Sweet questioning their very existence. Ultimately, it's this narrow-minded thinking that has resulted in the kind of programming most responsible for the pitiful state of rock radio.

--Bob Mehr

Little Richard
God Is Real
(Peacock Gospel Classics)

When Little Richard decided to abandon the devil's music and devote his life to the Lord in the middle of an Australian tour in 1957, it was the first in a series of blows that resulted in the end of rock 'n' roll's original golden period. Although he would return to rock some five years later, it was during this spiritual detour that Little Richard recorded a number of scarcely heard gospel sides. Universal's Peacock label has assembled some of those recordings on the newly released God Is Real.

Although the songs represent his first effort to record gospel music, Little Richard was not new to the genre. Growing up in Macon, Georgia, a young Little Richard (a.k.a. Richard Wayne Penniman) was well steeped in the musical traditions of the church, first as part of a family gospel troupe known as the Penniman Singers and later as a member of teen vocal group the Tiny Tots.

Despite his gospel pedigree, this 10-song set is an uneven and, at times, uninspired collection. Generally marred by muddy production values typical of the era, the more disturbing aspect is the vocals. Often singing in an affected and annoyingly froggy voice, Little Richard's performance lacks the feral energy and abandon that stood as the hallmark of his secular recordings. Only occasionally does he break out of this vocal rut, most notably on the rousing stomp of "Does Jesus Care" and the soulful croon of the title track.

This apparent lack of vocal fire is puzzling given his obvious affection for and background in the traditions of gospel music. While it would be unreasonable to expect Little Richard to punctuate a song like "Does Jesus Care" with one of his ecstatic "woooos," the rigid arrangements of standards like "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" and awkward nature of spoken-word recitations like "Coming Home" are ill-suited to his particular talents.

Fortunately, God Is Real is just one of three new historical reissues from the Peacock Gospel Classics imprint. Among the other entries are much worthier titles from Inez Andrews and the Staple Singers.

While it's clear that Little Richard saved more souls by "emancipating" rock 'n' roll than with his gospel output, the circumstances surrounding the recording of God Is Real make it an interesting, if somewhat disappointing, historical document.

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Bob Mehr
Contact: Bob Mehr