Reznor, Apple are bright spots on fall music scene

by Joe Manera | 9/21/99 5:00am

It happened last year, and it certainly won't happen again in 1999. Last August, Lauryn Hill's solo debut accomplished the seemingly unimaginable--it was the critic's darling AND the people's choice. It sold gangbusters and elicited citations from major magazine pundits. Then, in part because of the dearth of worthy recordings released in its wake, it wouldn't go away.

So what have we learned a year after being so tunefully miseducated? It's time for the new bumper crop of Christmas-ready cash cows, the new Lauryn-come-latelies. This is where we are: Korn for the boys kiddies, Britney for the girl kiddies. And boys bands. And more boy bands, even more wincingly theatrical than the previous boys bands except without that silly chair dance.

Perhaps most interestingly, and, given the above, alarmingly, there's also been grousing that last year's icon wasn't all that after all. Yes folks, Hill was preachy. Mad preachy, even. But the truth is that she has managed to touch the populace in ways that other well-reviewed acts simply haven't. She made music that drifted out of college kid's speakers, but her appeal wasn't limited to the J. Crew crew--her music could play at barbecues and block parties, blast through headsets and car windows. She was more universal than smarty-pants Beck, more open-minded than Radiohead, funkier and more relatable than both.

Obviously, Hill will outlive the naysayers, so why bother mentioning all of this? Simply put, there hasn't been anyone that's sold lots of records and been really good at the same time for a long time.

By most accounts, this has been an atrocious year for popular music. There's been a semi-sweet comeback (Red Hot Chili Peppers) and a pair of great albums (Moby's "Play" and The Basement Jaxx's "Remedy"), but nothing to bridge gaps the way only the most important music can. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like anything this fall will change that. There's the usual lineup of shrill divas (Mariah Carey, Celine Dion), limping alternative rockers (Stone Temple Pilots return) and crusty journeymen (Sting). Thankfully, there is some stuff that might be worth checking out. Don't give up hope just yet.

If you're going to put all of your eggs in one basket, you may as well do so right now. Today marks the release of three of the most eagerly awaited discs of the year--Nine Inch Nails' "The Fragile," Tori Amos' "To Venus and Back" and ex-Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell's solo bow, "Euphoria Morning."

The new Nails, five years in coming, is actually a double disc. While Trent Reznor's influence can be read on every industrial punk's leather dog collar, five years is a lifetime plus for a popular recording artist, and radio response to first single "The Day the World Went Away" has been tepid at best. The second single, "We're in This Together," is the more likely hit, but the 23 new tracks will have to illustrate that Reznor has shyed away from self-perpetuating misery in order for him to register again. We don't expect a flat-out reversal, but it would be nice to see a smile after such a long absence.

Unlike Reznor, the ever-inscrutable Ms. Amos is quite the prolific beast. Her last proper album, "From the Choirgirl Hotel," is only a year old, but she's back already with a double-disc set--one of new material ("venus orbiting"), one of material culled from her '98 "Plugged" tour ("venus live, still orbiting"). Seven years into her career, it's safe to say that the quirky Amos should have had her breakout hit by now, but her rabid cult following seems to devour her every vocal swoop and hyperventillation.

Cornell's set is reported to cast him in a more romantic, human context, and this is a fascinating proposition. Soundgarden buried his gargantuan pipes in the Seattle mud, so brightening things up is a smart move. This isn't the best time for guys and guitars, but if the new material is strong he'll be on the way to a lasting career.

Releases after September 21st get progressively spottier as you near December, but there are a few more potential highlights.

Newcomers Muse release "Showbiz" on September 28. The band is enjoying overwhelming hype in Europe, and one listen to their 4-track promo says it all: Radiohead. Muse sounds like the most convincing Radiohead cover band ever, the same glorious vocal excesses and buzzing guitars. Whether or not that's a good thing will have to wait to be decided until the whole album is released.

Dr. Dre releases "The Chronic 2001" on October 5, and the hush-hush project is supposedly a sequel to his seminal 1992 release.

That same day, Matthew Sweet releases "In Reverse" and David Bowie releases "hours ..." Seeing as how every other Matthew Sweet record is good and the last one was awful, this one should be at least fairly decent. As for Bowie, he's said to have finally abandoned the awkward stabs at relevant hipness. If he's returned to the business of being David Bowie instead of an anglo Trent Reznor it could be worth a listen.

November has two heavy hitters on hand, the first being The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. He's finally gotten around to releasing a record through normal venues again (no more internet mumbo-jumbo, at least for now) and seems to realize that he's in dire need of a pop hit. His next collection, "Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic," is his bid for pre-millennial omnipotence, and he's got a killer lineup to help him seize the year, chief among the Purpleheads being Chuck D. and Sheryl Crow.

November 9 sees the release of Fiona Apple's long-awaited follow up to the multi-platinum "Tidal." The new disc sports a preposterous 86 word title that her record company should have demanded she change. Besides predisposing people that already dislike her somewhat bratty demeanor to loathe her even more, "When the Pawn Hits ..." (that's the much shortened version) could divert attention away from the young artist's prodigious talents. Still, based on the strength of "Tidal" and her gorgeous rendition of the Beatles' "Across the Universe," this one can probably survive the verbiage.

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