The Distance to Here
Our Lady Peace
Happiness . . . Is Not a Fish That You Can Catch
God is love --- that's why so many rockers fall for him. Ray Charles helped invent rock & roll when he exposed gospel's fervor as a form of transcendent lust, and since then countless artists have gone in the other direction, riding their libidos to get to their souls. Elvis and Van Morrison, Prince and U2, have all romanced their sweet Lord, a conquest much more challenging than the average girl. Even now, with nookie and cash ruling the scene, divine hunger still motivates some rockers. They struggle and they wail, and zealous fans hear their own hidden prayers.
"The distance, it is not doable," Ed Kowalczyk gently sings on the title track of Live's fourth album, admitting that he might not get his God. It's a sign of temperance. The Distance to Here loses some of the bluster that made Live both critical laughingstocks and the most popular spirit-chasing band since U2. Kowalczyk does his usual boxing with God, but this time he doesn't get mad when his arms are too short. Sometimes he finds enough peace to make some very pretty music.
Kowalczyk has turned to Eastern traditions as he's matured, but his lyrics still reflect his Christian upbringing. This is one key to the popularity of divinely inspired bands: They appeal to young people who grew up swayed by catechism, Bible study or Hebrew school. Questioning childhood beliefs can be as confusing and painful for them as sorting out the mysteries of sex -- it creates rifts with parents and leaves doubters feeling lonely and scared. Live's more aggressive songs mix the comforting cadences of hymns with wild outbursts, offering churchy ritual plus a means of releasing anger about shaken faith.
The Distance to Here, with the band's longtime producer, Jerry Harrison, at the helm, offers drama to fans still craving it. But its best songs venture into subtler territory. Kowalczyk backs down enough to let his band mates do something besides flail behind him. Given this chance, Chad Taylor turns his guitar into the voice of temptation, laying down sinuous riffs that suit Kowalczyk's new sexiness and ambivalence, as well as his righteous swagger.
"Run to the Water," with its gusty crescendos, could be as big a hit as 1994's "Lightning Crashes." Here, though, Kowalczyk turns inward, and he ends up courting contentment. Elsewhere, he almost gets funky: "Voodoo Lady" may portray a cliched Mary Magdalene, but the vision inspires Live to loosen up, with bassist Patrick Dahlheimer and drummer Chad Gracey running the surprisingly sleazy show. And "They Stood Up for Love" nods to old-fashioned gospel before resolving in a chorus even atheists can hum.
The relationship between the singer and the guitarist is paramount in spirit-chasing bands, as one reaches for mysticism in words and the other taps it with rock's most heroic instrument. Creed, a band still ensconced in bluster, nonetheless have an interesting pair in singer Scott Stapp and guitarist Mark Tremonti. Stapp, the son of a fundamentalist minister, is wrapped up in his rampages; his virile bray recalls those warriors who turn from bad to good in episodes of Hercules. On Human Clay, Creed's second album, Tremonti finds a way to balance Stapp's sullen tone. He plays ever so delicately, just a few modal progressions, above the heavy crunch of Creed's rhythm section. This minimal technique owes a lot to Jerry Cantrell of Alice in Chains. But emulating that very musical metal band isn't a bad choice.
The darkness of Alice in Chains is existential, fueled by its members' demons. Pearl Jam, another band that Creed unashamedly mimic, gain depth through social protest; Stapp keeps things more self-centered. Although he and his band mates insist that Creed are not evangelical, he just loves conversion narratives. "If you keep seeking, you will find," he sings in "Are You Ready?" with the conviction of one who feels he has made his important discoveries. He does express doubt and even despair. But the songs continually get a lift in hopeful choruses. "There's a peace inside us all/Let it be, oh, can't it be your friend?" Stapp moans in one. Such bromides offer easy escape from the anxiety that Creed otherwise mine.
There is another way to deal with metaphysical unrest: play around with it. That's what the Canadian band Our Lady Peace does on its third album, Happiness . . . Is Not a Fish That You Can Catch. With its glam-rock sheen and songs like "Annie," which recalls Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" with a girl killer and a speed-tweaked melody, Happiness turns earnest questions into diverting mind games. Raine Maida's lyrics can be virtuously doomy (let's hope the pro-lifers don't get ahold of the onerous "Stealing Babies"), but he swirls them around on his tongue and spits them out like tasty venom, while his band careers about like it's been dipping into that old sacramental wine.
Producer Arnold Lanni makes Our Lady Peace's bright sound even more acidic with the help of a few well-deployed synthesizers. Most earnest guitarists aim for the clouds, but Mike Turner darts into corners, throwing out little riffs to tweak Maida's flow. Maida hiccups and wails like a male Alanis Morissette, letting the pleasure of singing distract him from his messages. Sure, he writes lines like "Undress your soul, show them your vigor," but he delivers them like jokes, not homilies. He expects something serious, like revelation, from his wordplay. Still, it's nice to hear a band that's willing to flirt a little with the big questions before settling down. (RS 824)
(Posted: Oct 28, 1999)
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