For a lot of music fans, alternative rock seems the only choice there is. Unable to subsist on a diet of classic rock leftovers and unable to swallow the likes of Tesla, Nelson or Winger, these fans seek sustenance outside the mainstream. They listen to college stations instead of the local album rock outlet, read Spin instead of Rolling Stone and prefer "120 Minutes" to anything else on MTV.
Occasionally, some of their favorites do cross over, gathering enough of a following to play the same arena circuit as mainstream rock stars. R.E.M., for instance, earned its first fans on the alternative rock circuit, as did INXS, Depeche Mode and the Cure -- each of them being proof that a band with something new to say will eventually find an audience willing to listen.
But those bands have something else in common: Age. R.E.M., INXS, Depeche Mode and the Cure are all children of the punk era, and gravitated to the alternative scene because it represented rock's cutting edge.
Can the same be said for today's bright young alternative rock bands? Probably not. In fact, after listening to new albums by such currently fashionable acts as Dinosaur Jr., the Godfathers, Material Issue and Kitchens of Distinction, the real question that arises is: alternative to what?
Because these bands are heir to the punk tradition, they're seen by their fans as daring and progressive, as if each new album were another step forward in rock's evolution. But the truth is that punk, however radical it might have seemed at the time, was an essentially conservative movement that longed to bring rock back to basics. As such, it was less a revolution than a reformation, and its greatest grudge against mainstream rock wasn't that it was successful, but that it seemed bloated and boring.
Today's alternative acts are hardly punks, though. At best, what these bands amount to is merely non-commercial guitar rock -- not heavy enough for hard rock, not tuneful enough for the Top 40, not danceable enough for the club circuit. In fact, about the only real use they have is to mollify those who feel compelled to buy new records, but whose taste stopped developing somewhere in the early '80s.
Take Dinosaur Jr.: Products of the independent label scene and adored by the critics at Spin and the Village Voice, this group -- actually just multi-instrumentalist J Mascis and an occasional pal -- recently made its major-label debut with "Green Mind" (Sire 26479). Listening to the album, it's not hard to see why it has the alternative rock crowd abuzz; with its ragged vocals, off-center melodies and dense layers of overdriven guitar, it's cut from the same cloth as Husker Du and the Replacements.
Except that Mascis, unlike the Replacements' Paul Westerberg or Husker Du's Bob Mould, is a real Johnny One-Note. Sure, he's great at bleating plaintively over a maelstrom of guitars like some new wave Neil Young, but that's all he is; there's none of Westerberg's gentleness and humor, no trace of Mould's passion or quivering rage.
What's missing from this album is a sense of dynamics. With volume being the only real variation between one hyped-up tune and the next, the songs begin to blur together. By album's end, Mascis' melodic ideas seem so interchangeable you'd think he bought his hooks from Snap-On tools.
Still, Mascis' music at least has melodies, which is more than can be said for Kitchens of Distinction. Rummage through "Strange Free World" (A&M 75021 5340), this English trio's U.S. debut, and you'll find lovely lyrics, interesting instrumental textures and some occasionally affecting singing. But good, catchy pop tunes? Sorry, pal.
Of course, it might be suggested that melodies aren't really necessary here, that the group's atmospheric backing tracks and nicely drawn narratives are reward enough. But frankly, that's the kind of argument that sounds better in a record review than it does on the stereo. In truth, this is just a trifle, the sort of album that's better than silence, but not by much.
Melodicism isn't the answer either -- at least, not by itself. If it were, then Material Issue's resolutely tuneful "International Pop Overthrow" (Mercury 848 155) would be a true gem instead of mere fool's gold.
Material Issue's Jim Ellison may know how to write a hook, but that's about all he knows. There's no sense of song craft or instrumental imagination to these performances, just a here's-the-verse, here's-the-chorus treatment over a dull-as-mud power trio arrangement.