Forget the Grammys, the MTV Video Music Awards, and the rest of those jive-ass rock awards shows: The absolute highest honor any pop musician can receive is to be cited in a "musicians wanted" ad. You really know you've arrived when garage bands nationwide place classifieds in search of musicians who play or sing just like you. That's the sort of street-level reverence mere trophies and plaques just can't match.
In the early '90s, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell was the prototypical rock vocalist. Indeed, if you had a buck for every ad seeking a "Chris Cornell-type singer," you'd be reading this from the comfort of your oceanfront villa. Cornell seemed to have everything: Greek-god looks, an alluringly dark songwriting sensibility, and a truly remarkable voice. Not just any voice, mind you, but the voice. Unlike the mewling singers of today, Cornell's roaring tenor tripped car alarms and cracked pavement. Moreover he knew how to harness his formidable instrument. Soundgarden tracks like "Fell on Black Days" and "Mind Riot" reveal a singer capable of lunatic howls and folk-inflected crooning. In the horrid aftermath of '80s hair metal, Cornell's soulful rasp was a breath of fresh air.
Given his tremendous contribution to '90s rock, it's ironic that Cornell would release his much-anticipated debut solo album on the cusp of the millennium. As a fan I had hoped the singer would explore new songwriting approaches while retaining the old Soundgarden magic. Unfortunately Euphoria Morning just doesn't fry my neurons the way those old Soundgarden albums did. Cornell's new songs aspire to a '60s-style stonerism with their Beatlesque melodies and hallucinogenic lyrics. The album sounds oddly familiar and for good reason. By and large Euphoria Morning is a large-scale remake of Soundgarden's breakthrough single, "Black Hole Sun." Even song titles like "Steel Rain" and "Moonchild" echo the 1995 hit. The album never rises above a midtempo crawl, and its depressing melodies are enough to make fans wonder what they saw in Cornell in the first place.
Sad to say, but Euphoria Morning is a massive snore. It's not a bad album, just nondescript. So nondescript that Cornell's vaunted vocals can't save it. Here's hoping Euphoria Morning is a fluke, a miscalculation, a bad dream. One thing seems certain: It ain't gonna win no awards. -- Bruce Britt
Heavy Black Frame
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Most of the time, pop music romanticizes lost love. There's a tragic, end-of-the-world sadness to it. But the debut album by the London-based Tram takes a down-to-earth perspective resulting in a collection of songs that's more moving than the treacle played by pop radio. Heavy Black Frame is a safari into the deeper flaws of unfulfilled love. Guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter Paul Anderson sings with a hushed voice against a slow-tempo wall of music made of melancholy guitar hooks and simple melodies. A multitalented group of musicians provides the melodies on oboes that shimmer, harmoniums that quiver, and pianos that whimper.
This is not a record wallowing in despondency. On "Nothing Left to Say," Anderson sings the chorus ("Who's going to catch me the way you used to?") with a reverent nostalgia. Though he says there's nothing left to say, he adds, "It's not that easy/Just my way to deal with it." The song is about clinging to the remote hope that something apparently unsalvageable might still be salvageable. Starting quietly and ending quietly, "Nothing Left to Say" is a comforting, droning track that lulls the listener into a numbness reflective of the lyrics. The instrumentation is like a symphony of sighs: an elastic guitar line that glows with cleanliness, a humming harmonium offering a lush countermelody, and a crisp, bouncing drumbeat that throbs more than it ticks.
Tram's is certainly a specific type of music best appreciated by fans of Low, Red House Painters, or Mazzy Star. "Too Scared to Sleep" features a meandering slide guitar interrupted by occasional piano chords and driven by slow tambourine slaps. "Reason Why" sounds like an outtake from Swans' The Burning World. "My mind's working overtime/To find the reason why/I've walked 500 miles/To find a place to hide," sings Anderson, before a funeral organ whispers some sad chords, and he mutters, "You won't see the best in me." The track ends with the quiet thunder of fat guitar and piano chords that suddenly come to a halt. The instrumental "You Can Go Now (if you want)" picks up after a second of silence with smooth, slow guitar strokes and a flute holding sustained notes that sound like crying. It then turns into an upbeat minimalist groove that recalls Tortoise at its most becalmed and steers the listener to the end of the album -- a sort of peaceful tranquility within the sadness.
Heavy Black Frame is perfectly human music, an absolutely gorgeous yet sad sound that hits loss right on the head. Tram captures this loss with empathy and simple, pointed lyrics. (Jetset Records, 67 Vestry St., Suite 5C, New York, NY 10013). -- Hans Morgenstern