[The Mail On Sunday, 2005]
SUGGEST THAT ambition might apply to anything other than one's career, and you'd confound most in the music business. Not Chicago MC Common. His sixth album, BE (Island)***, is admirably ambitious, albeit uneven and flawed. Alongside producer Kanye West, Common attempts to reach back beyond the Old Skool, to Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets, while keeping his feet planted firmly in the Now. This game of Twister overstretches even his abilities. But with tracks as striking as The Corner, Chi-City and the soulfully retro Real People, you have to be glad he's trying.
Plenty of ambition, too, in Sleater-Kinney, a trio who long since outgrew Grunge offshoot Riot Grrrl's attempts to pass off brattish petulance as righteous feminist anger. At first hearing, The Woods (Sub Pop)*** may come across as frantic, squalling noise. In receptive ears, its brash, vivid abstractions at times recall the sharp patterns of Television, with that band's severe geometry replaced by freeform brushstrokes. The 11-minute Let's Call It Love distinctly and effectively echoes Marquee Moon; now that's ambition for you.
By way of contrast, another group with Pacific Northwest links - singer Chris Cornell fronted Soundgarden, although his three bandmates were in LA agit-poppers Rage Against The Machine - show what happens when you adhere to convention. Audioslave's Out Of Exile (Interscope)** is a solid but lacklustre and blustering album which could have been made ten years ago. It's well-written and well-made, but the only thing about it that could possibly prove surprising would be a failure to sell in its millions.
That was certainly the most surprising thing about yet another Washington band, Screaming Trees - in their case, because they made wonderful music. While Grunge whined and droned, the songs collected on Ocean Of Confusion (Legacy)*** roared and thundered, a psychedelic storm over dark waters. Screaming Trees made two last, great albums (which provide the best material here), then disbanded - no doubt baffled as to why the public preferred the declamatory gurning of Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder to the silken, baritone rumble of Mark Lanegan. One day Shadows Of The Season and Nearly Lost You will be recognised as the classics they are - along with Halo of Ashes and All I Know, which the compilers have inexplicably, perversely omitted.
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