Ed Kowalczyk- guitar, vocals
Chad Taylor- guitars
Patrick Dahlheimer- bass
Chad Gracey- drums
You guys have probably heard this album before. It's likely that a ton of people that grew up in this era of music own it: it catapulted Live, previously a loosely spiritual rock band that took a lot of U2's ethos and combined it with pretentious odes to Eastern philosophy, into the mainstream, and for good reason: this is one tight record. But this album has a lot of naysayers: for instance, it was unfortunate enough to suffer from what would later be called Creed's Career Crippling Syndrome, in that the major singles off this album (especially "Lightning Crashes") became so overplayed as to become almost parasitical entities that refused to remove itself from either the radio or its listener's ears and heads. As such, the immensely effective lyrical and instrumental decisions and sounds that are all over this album tend to get overlooked, because so many people have heard the songs that they haven't really listened to them carefully in a long time.
I didn't grow up in 1994. I was eight years old at the time: therefore, these songs resonated with vague familiarity when I listened to the album for the first time in 2001. And when I paid more close attention to these songs that I had heard so much of before in the back of my mind, its greatness and sophistication surprised me.
Not that Live are über-musicians. The album retains in many ways the basic tenets of the post-grunge alt-rock scene: a typical pop-song structure centered around a nearly-always dirty guitar, simple drums, and highly emotive (and occaisionally overwrought) lyrics. The guitar solos are few, melodic, and just about the most un-technically demanding things a beginner could play. This album doesn't come as a surprise to the people who constantly say that none of these people could play. The Dream Theater of post-grunge they are not.
And yet this album is incredibly effective and compositionally strong, so much so that the talent of the collective is astounding when you consider how simple the pieces are. And that has a lot to do with three things:
1.) Kowalczyk's lyrics. Panned regularly as a Bono wannabe, he manages to create extremely evocative images through his poetry, and in some instances (like the opening track) it lends an almost progressive feel to the songs. Kowalczyk seems fond of telling stories with his lyrics, rather than simply running with a single emotion and crying about it for four minutes. "Throwing Copper," though it's never marketed as such, is essentially an album of concept songs: more than six paint very specific images in your mind with discernable events, characters, and conclusions, almost as though you were watching it unfold like a movie or in a book. They all speak about working-class mentalities and visions, but it rarely seems forced. U2 may be the call to arms against world injustice, but Kowalczyk doesn't try so hard, content merely to chronicle those injustices.
2.) Instrumentally, the band is less than impressive, except for one member: Pat Dahlheimer is an incredibly inventive bassist for the music he's working with. His bass skills lend a somber, busy element to Live's music that would otherwise be lost: in a few instances, the bass even plays the main melody or riff to the song. His tone is fantastic, a resonant, clear tone that contrasts wonderfully with Kowalczyk's and Chad's feedback-drenched guitars.
3.) Speaking of those guitars, they are layered in an extremely dramatic way. This is one area where U2 comparisons are justified: even then, the two players manage to make it their own. Instead of relying on complex delays and effects like the Edge, they use distortion and feedback and create very interesting ambient soundscapes. In that sense, the guitars aren't even really used as instruments: the bass carries the melody as the two guitars spiral off into heavy noisemaking and feedback singing. In the context of Live's musical mission, this adds a heavy dose of drama and sophistication that adds a ton of texture.
Here's the track-by-track:
1.) The Dam at Otter Creek
An interesting opener, to say the least. Opening with fuzzy organ and a bluesy minor-key fingerstyle guitar, Kowalczyk's voice comes in with some of the darkest poetry I've heard from a band of Live's type, and showcases the "concept song" mentality of the album.
"When all there's left to do
Is reflect on what's been done
This is where sadness breathes
The sadness of everyone.
Just like when the guys
Built the dam at Otter Creek and all the water backed up
Deep enough to dive."
The last line is a prelude to a vicious, short tale about a lone man's suicide off of the dam, and the story of the grief of the villagers who send his body, "wrapped in sheets and flanked by love" down the part of the river that still flows. The drums accentuate the crescendo of the song with heavily-reverbed snare hits, creating an incredible mood that gradually becomes more intense as the song progresses and Kowalczyk descends into virtually wordless screaming about the fate of the "curse" over this spot. And the song sounds like it speeds by, even though it's almost five minutes, a testament to the way it sucks you in with its bleak subject matter. An evocative and very interesting way to open this album.
2.) Selling the Drama
One of the more optomistic tunes of Live's and a big hit of their's. The lyrics are fairly abstract, centering around an optomistic ideal to fight back against oppression in the name of love and the goodness of humanity. One of the more overtly U2-like songs, maybe, but it really works for me anyway. Musically, the song is fairly simple and obeys the conventions of the music: acoustic-strummed verses, distorted chorus, and a spacious "solo" in the middle. Good song.
3.) I Alone
A song in much the same vein as the previous one, one of the more heavily played songs (the first five songs here are generally the more overplayed ones). Lyrically, this song grapples with the decisions people must make as they move forward into love and life: "It's easier not to be wise..." with an affirming chorus of "I alone love you." The middle section is filled with wailing feedback, and a plea for "love to save us" and the relationship being threatened by "The bridges that you burn" and the "rhythms that you hide." These lyrics speak very true to me, so I like them.
This song is actually pretty cool, but it never leaves too much of an impression on me for some reason. The bass and drums are especially pronounced, with Dahlheimer coming out with lots of nice bass fills, and Gracey playing a few drumbeats that aren't totally simplistic and which add a lot of fist-pumping groove that suits the affirmative-sounding tone of the song. However, the lyrics are a little weak and incomprehensible. So I tend to not enjoy this one as much when I pay attention to it, but it's got some gloriously rocking moments to it (in addition to another feedbacky interlude).
5.) Lightning Crashes
The most over-played song, and one of the songs with potentially embarressing lyrical choices ("Her placenta falls to the floor"). However, this song is lyrically another "concept" type piece, showcasing a birth and a death for two mothers and thus contrasting the instantaneous ways in which birth and death hit us, a creative way to talk about abrupt turns in life. For instance, with regards to the grandmother's death ("her intentions fall to the floor"), it shows how there's a lot of things that pass on even at the end, such as regret. But the chorus ("I can feel it coming back again") shows an optimistic hope that life is an ever-cycling and eternal thing. Good song, with an especially effective minor-key breakdown, but overplayed and the song is conventional balladeery, on a musical front. The lyrics carry this more than anything else. The song is written in memory of a classmate of the band's who was killed by a drunk driver in '93.
This song is one of the weaker songs on here, but with very melodic and powerful chord movements. One of the neat things about this album is the way a few of the songs can sound cool while they're on and yet sometimes don't leave a lot of impression. A lot of that has to do with the lyrics: a band like Live is driven by its poetry and how its set to music, and if the lyrics fail, even if the instrumentation is up to snuff, the songs don't work as well. Not just that, but Kowalczyk's nasal-y vocal tone can get grating when the lyrics aren't interesting (as in this case) and when the melody isn't interesting (also this case).
7.) All Over You
One of the weakest songs here, and it's mostly on Kowalczyk's weird vocal stylings in the verses. The tone of the song is just as mid-tempo and alt-y as the previous ones, and so people listening to the album all the way through may be inclined to skip through this. There's a weird, heavy breakdown though, that reminds me of Rush when Lifeson decides to go metal-Police, but it doesn't fit well with the song or transition back to the song in a good way.
8.) *** Towne
Here, things begin to pick up again, solidifying the ultimate quality of "Throwing Copper." The songs in the last half of the album are nearly all stellar, with fantastic lyrics, diverging from the melodic tone of the album's previous songs, and most importantly, some BADASS PLAYING. I mean, it's still all fairly pedestrian 4/4 stuff, but the way they've arranged it makes it very effective. Another effective "concept song," this has one of the best "crappy small town" subjects I've ever heard (I wonder if this is at all inspired by "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?") and reminds me of rurality and its backwards, dead-end nature in every form, be it in the South, New Hampshire, or Montana. The rocking-out middle bridge is great, with effective whoops and screams from Kowalczyk that just makes you want to crowd-surf. And then a true oddity: a wah-drenched solo that wails in a Gin-Blossoms-like way, and catapults the sound to perfect post-grunge arena rock bliss.
The song's initials stand for "Tibetan Book of the Dead," and the song marks a return to the realm of Eastern philosophy that had been ousted in favor of a more Christian spiritual stance. The lyrics are very interesting, evoking an image of insanity and obsession, and the tone is very somber and different from the previous songs. Kowalczyk favors a more subdued vocal styling, and Dahlheimer carries the song on the back of his bass, an effectively dark choice. And the lyrics move with a ton of rhythmic complexity, causing the song to roll forward with a neurotic, frantic tone, appropriate to the song's subject, who is "pointing the megaphone at his head" and reading from an all-important book in which "the print is smaller than the ants in the grass." Great stuff.
Finally, something up-tempo! This song rocks bad, too. I love this tune: written about Kurt and Courtney (the Cobains), it's an indictment of the frantic, mouthpiece/soapbox role that Kurt took on, and the torment he felt at being married to someone who was basically nuts, on top of tremendous drug addiction, and how the volatile combination of it all conspired to destroy him even as he refused to give any of it up ("The truth is gonna give up the world if you give up the stage"). The song rocks with an almost-punkish energy and the solo is irreverent Cobain-homage, a feedbacked and wah-drenched moment that descends into a rare display of technical pyrotechnics, proving to copy and destroy Cobain's style in one breath. I'm probably reading too much into it, but I think it's really cool the way they handled this subject, especially considering that era of music.
Unfortunately, this breaks the three-song streak of excellence, and seems almost filler-ish. It's also kind of funny, lyrically, but eh, I don't care much for this one.
12.) Pillar of Davidson
INCREDIBLE. This song makes a perfect transition from a funeral dirge to optomistic prayer, while lyrically (I think) the song violently attacks the Christian church's corruption of the values on which it's predicated in the name of ensuring its financial stability, and doing it while masking it in the name of God.
"Warm bodies, I sense, are not machines that can only make money..."
"I'll be along son, with medicines designed to supposed to make you high."
"Words for a feeling and all I've discovered...old, bad eyes, almighty fear."
The end of the song is a call out to God to "reenter the heart" and to do away with the "shepherds who won't leave me alone." There's a great bassline playing the main song figure, and the chorus is wonderfully anthemic. The best story of all of them.
13.) White, Discussion
My favorite song of all of them, and a perfect album closer. Well, of sorts. Lyrically, the song is low on material, but what it does have is very effective: a marital argument. The opener details the argument and the ways in which it moves, and the rest of the song is just Kowalczyk screaming with more and more ferocity "Look where all this talking got us, baby." The rock parts of this are just VICIOUS, and the bass is great. But the last three minutes of the song are just brilliantly heavy and dynamic. The song cuts out into a murky sea of feedback, while the drums play a sinister ride pattern and a preacher's voice indicts his audience over the band. Exploding into more distorted fury, a NASTY wah solo is taken, with truly amazing riffs and lead lines. Kowalczyk continues screaming with more and more intensity until finally it appears that his voice is going to break, and then the drums just CRUSH out an ending with utterly intense cymbal crashing and tom bashing, as the guitars are smashed and the strings are broken and the feedback wails and the amplifiers are totalled and the whammy bars are bombed...at least, that's what it sounds like. And then there's a minute of feedback modulation as the preacher's voice continues to speak, and then a descent into white noise, befitting the song's title. Incredible.
I guess this is a "secret track," and it's almost country-like. Rather strange, though, I'd disregard it. "White, Discussion" is the real closer.
In short, this album is really good despite its many flaws. Live have offered a really tight offering here, that managed to push the envelope of the post-grunge formula in more novel ways than they are given credit for. I really enjoyed the lyrical creativity and the violence with which some of these songs were performed, and it's refreshing to listen to for pure songwriting quality.
Final score: 4