Live sold six million copies of its breakthrough 1994 album Throwing Copper, a canny mix of thrashing alternative rock, gentle acoustic guitars and lyrical melody. The Pennsylvania band's third LP, Secret Samadhi (named for a yoga term of "spiritual realization) doesn't stray far from the fertile pastures of Copper; the album opens with the dark, moody "Rattlesnake," a rail against the boredom of a life without meaning. That's followed by the guitar grinding stomp of the disc's first single, "Lakini's Juice," which shows the band in its finest form: mixing the heavy grunge and power of alternative rock with majesty of a melancholic string orchestra.
Ed Kowalczyk's often enigmatic but always evocative lyrics take Live a step beyond most of today's crop of rockers. In "Lakini's Juice" he opens with pure poetry:
"it was an evening I shared with the sun
to find out where we belong
from the earliest days/we were dancing in the shadows."
He moves on in the same song to a twisted religious image:
"I rushed the lady's room
took the water from the toilet
washed her feet and blessed her name
is such a dirty habit."
In "Graze," he mixes the imagery of a science fiction horror movie "we came to the earth to graze/if it slithers into the haze/it can't be true" with a pastiche of disconnected snapshots like "a child gives you his shoes " and "the artist does figure eights/but will it stand the test of time or will it rot?" It's confusing and beautifully strange at the same time.
Kowalczyk can be overly evocative too; in "Century" he seeds an angst-ridden stream of consciousness poem with vile lines like "puke stinks like beer" and "I can smell your armpits."
As with Throwing Copper, there are plenty of deep-riffing hard rock anthems on Secret Samadhi, but as with "Selling the Drama" and "Lightning Crashes," from the last album, it is on the slower tracks that the band fully explores its natural penchant for making music exuding dark mystery. In "Ghost," Kowalczyk duets with labelmate Jennifer Charles of Elysian Fields for a whispering hymn of want, need and dream: "everybody has the dream like a world tattoo/yours is not like mine, it's alright, keep it up." This is one of the most stirring tracks on the disc. Likewise, "Turn My Head," which opens with a somber guitar introduction like that of "Lightning Crashes," imports the broad canvass of a string section as it works its way into a falsetto-enriched lighter anthem.
With Secret Samadhi, Live cements its place as one of the most vital bands of the '90s.
I didn't intentionally set out to review only Radioactive Records artists in this column, but that's how it worked out. And in working out this way, it spotlights a relatively new record label that has signed a short but impressive roster of young artists. Elysian Fields (mentioned above) made the Pop Stops Top 20 list for 1996, and both Live's and Star 69's discs are likely to make it on that same list for 1997.
So who are Star 69? Call them the replacement band for the hole left by the breakup of Belly and the disappearance of The Breeders. Lead singer Julie Daniels sounds uncannily like Tanya Donelly on many of Eating February's 10 songs (actually 11 — there's a song hidden on — guess what track — yep, 69), but the rest of the band generally puts more crunch into their guitars and drums than Belly generally did.
Like Donelly, Daniels also has a penchant for writing emotional, vivid and darkly poetic lyrics. In "Scabs," she proclaims "I can't stop picking the scabs in my brain/only to bleed and feel again." And the bitter hit of "Rotten Punch" is both direct and understated at the same time: "who knew until the rubber broke?/now I'm wishing you well—not that well/who knew he's riding someone else?"
The band has a gentle side to go along with its rockier anthems — "Burning Down The House" and "I'm Selfish" feature a warm, lackadaisical guitar shimmer and "Rotten Punch" lets Daniels gambol lightly over the heavy hurt lyrics before launching into a distortion-rich chorus.
Eating February is an alluringly tangled tapestry of lust, love, pain, self-doubt and self affirmation. With alternating heavy guitar riffs and silky interludes, Star 69 provide a sonic trip that after 50 minutes and 11 songs, still leaves the listener hungry for more.