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Rage Against the Sound in the Garden

Audioslave • (Epic/Interscope)

Audioslave are the seemingly irresolute conspiracy between Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Rage Against the Machine minus Zack de la Rocha. Last I heard, Cornell called it quits after a zealous round of demo-dealing and the promise of a much-ballyhooed spot on Ozzfest 2002’s main stage, but here they are with a full-court press by Epic execs, new rumors of a pending U.S. jaunt and a branny-new, self-titled CD.

I suspect that many a raucous Rager will at first be taken back by the overall tone of this freshman release, as Tom Morello and crew are coaxed out of the punishing, percussive structure of their rap roots and into challenging syntaxes of subtlety. The union all but demands actual dynamics and a practical but tenacious attention to the melodic tendencies of Cornell’s voice, ideas previously unnecessary or perhaps even prohibitive in the drooling, hiphop bullfight that was RATM. Drummer Brad Wilk and bassist Tom Commerford now yield more to meter, letting Morello and Cornell fill the spaces in between.

The single “Cochise” and the fiery “Set It Off” are fistbangers for sure, but unmemorable in the sense that it is exactly what the band shouldn’t be—simply a latter-day Rage embellished with trademark Cornell hollerin’. Thankfully, much of the material is a well-considered compromise between the hard line of Rage’s rhythm section and the noticeable thumbprint of Cornell’s more contemplative, trance-inducing progressions. “What You Are,” “Hypnotize” and “Bring ’Em Back Alive” are excellent indicators of this formula functioning at its unassuming peak capacity, but diehard fans of either band are just as likely to get their rocks off to the crushing grooves of “Exploder” or “Gasoline.” As can be expected, Morello’s guitar gymnastics are incredulously inventive, dynamic and sometimes completely unrecognizable as anything produced by six strings. His studious electric ventriloquism at times mimics insects scrapping in the wet brain, others like a prerecorded neighbor regrading the lawn with a rented John Deere.

Cornell at times gets an opportunity to revisit the more ballsy, primal howls of Louder Than Love (but not that much—sorry folks), despite a telling gruffness to his voice at the higher end. His lyrics seem to loosely investigate modes of travel and transience, whether emotional, physical or spiritual. Is there chemistry here? Sure. There are dull points, where one feels like they sort of crammed for the exam, but mostly it becomes, for those in the know, like the ultimate goal of any other chemistry: despite the final assessment, a vehicle for the inspection of God, the scrutiny of life. And thanks to Rick Rubin, it sounds colossal at any volume. Hey, now.

—Bill Ketzer

Sands • (Badman)

The music that Henry Frayne creates as Lanterna hews to such specific characteristics that his ongoing output could be heard as one overarching piece. However, with each release he also exhibits a keen understanding of how to sculpt an album experience. On his latest, Sands, after the drones of the title number comes the strummed folkishness of “Windward,” with its wordless vocals drifting in from afar. That then gives way to the subtly more complex chordal and harmonic structure of “Fields.”

As with previous Lanterna albums, this set’s 10 pieces were built by starting basic tracks and adding to them until it’s a Great Plains wheatfield being rippled by continuous breezes. As has been his methodology in the past, Frayne brought in a drummer, this time Steve Day, to add percussives to his foundation tracks. Most of it boils down to an electric guitar and a delay pedal. But just because any citizen is free to obtain and utilize those instruments doesn’t mean it would sound anything like this. It’s as if he locked himself away for 10 years, studying the quietest moment’s of Pink Floyd’s Meddle, and then came down from the mountain with this.

—David Greenberger

Nate Ruth
Whatever It Meant • (Soundless)

The debut album from New Jersey’s Nate Ruth demonstrates that its creator learned a lot during his time managing a record store, as one can cite influences from just about every major critical favorite of the past two decades, and some from before then. Whatever It Meant’s opening cut, “End Up,” sounds like the evil spawn of Hüsker Dü and Aphex Twin, with the furriest guitars imaginable piled atop a demented post-triphop beat. The tunes that follow evoke the likes of Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices, Sebadoh/Sentridoh and the Flaming Lips, with psychedelic shades of the Soft Machine and early Pink Floyd tossed onto the heap for good measure.

Whatever It Meant doesn’t come across as mere homage, though, as Ruth manages to build a fairly distinctive and surprisingly accessible work from such diverse elements, with his strong songwriting skills keeping the whole project from sinking into the self-indulgence to which many such noisy, studio-intensive efforts fall prey. On album closer “It’s Been Worth the Wait,” Ruth offers the following thought: “If you look real hard, you’ll never find anything/You’ll only see what you think you should.” I’d offer that as an appropriate listening strategy for Whatever It Meant, an album that’s more than the sum of its parts—but with a sum that you’ll miss if you spend too much time dissecting its component pieces and influences. An impressive debut from an artist worth watching.

—J. Eric Smith

Bob Dylan
Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue • (Columbia)

Bob Dylan’s 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue can be seen as a reaction to his experience the year before, touring with the Band—-which left little room to allow musical circumstances to lead into surprise discoveries. Both tours accepted the long shadow he’d been casting for over a decade, but with Rolling Thunder, he was clearly having fun with his legacy. In a way, these shows can be seen as a template for his subsequent and so-called Never Ending Tour, which mixes reinvigorated nuggets from his catalog with selections from whatever new release is at hand.

This two-disc set is Volume Five in the ongoing Bootleg Series. While musical decisions rule the day, the tour did showcase songs from Desire (the core band members were also a part of those sessions), many of which here bristle with an intensity that surpasses the studio versions. The tour also celebrated Dylan’s early entry into the world of folk music through a series of duets with Joan Baez. While her controlled vibrato can become wearying on its own, here it sets up contrasts and tensions with Dylan’s more free-ranging and emotive approaches. In fact, his singing is passionate throughout, whether it’s on a then-new number like “Isis” or a dramatic chestnut such as “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” This music is alive in the best and most important ways: It’s honest on its own terms, giving it a vibrancy that’s lost none of its potency almost 30 years later.

—David Greenberger

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