Something old, something new from the '70s

November 08, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

I miss the way nostalgia used to be.

When I was a kid, nostalgia was strictly the province of older people. In those days, the only people who got excited about re-union albums were folks who were fans the first time around. Younger listeners were too busy with new music to care which rock relics were back.

That doesn't seem the case anymore. Why else would MTV -- an operation that's as much a product of the '80s as its audience -- have shepherded the comeback of two '70s super groups, Led Zeppelin and the Eagles? Not only were both groups long gone by the time MTV got going, but their back catalogs were part of the Album Oriented Rock aesthetic MTV helped push into extinction.

Yet not only did "MTV Unplugged" play host to Led Zep's Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, as well as a completely reunited Eagles, but the shows are now being spun off into what many expect will be two of the season's biggest albums: Page and Plant's "No Quarter" (Atlantic 82706), and the Eagles' "Hell Freezes Over" (Geffen 31365), both arriving in stores today.

Each album employs a similar approach, mixing remade oldies with a smattering of new material, some of which was not included in the MTV specials. Moreover, these albums aren't being presented as one-occasion get-togethers, but as the beginning of a new chapter in each act's history.

That said, it's easier to get excited about Page/Plant than it is the Eagles, if only because the music Page and Plant make manages to avoid the trap of the past -- to such an extent that it sounds surprisingly little like the music most people would consider Zeppelin-esque.

Sure, there is a ton of oldies on hand, including such well-worn classics as "Kashmir," "Thank You," "Four Sticks" and "The Battle of Evermore." But even as Page and Plant dip into the back catalog, they take pains to ensure that the songs do not remain the same.

"Evermore" may find Page playing the same mandolin lick he played on Led Zep's fourth album, but the tune no longer centers on its echo-enhanced rhythm; there's a whole range of percussion (most notably Jim Sutherland's bodhran) to push the song along. Even better, the second voice (Fairport Convention's Sandy Denny on the original) is provided by Najma Akhtar, whose ghazal-schooled voice brings a bit of classical Indian flavor to the song.

Even the songs that take a more traditional tack provide a few surprises. "Since I Been Lovin' You," for instance, adds enough soul groove and string sweetening to move the song's spiritual home from Chicago to Memphis, while leaving room enough for some stunning blues work by Page. "Friends" prefaces its signature riff with a hauntingly lyrical introduction by Hossam Ramzy's Egyptian Ensemble.

Of course, this Arab influence isn't exactly new, since Page and Plant dabbled in North African music even when Led Zeppelin was still flying. But "No Quarter" takes that to another level entirely. "Wonderful One" finds Page and Plant stitching a stately, elegiac ballad over a slow-throbbing Arabic drum loop, a combination as catchy as it is exotic. Listening to this, it's easy to imagine these two making new music that's just as striking and original as their work in the '70s.

Too bad the same can't be said for the Eagles. Although it's hard to imagine that many old-time fans will be disappointed with "Hell Freezes Over" -- particularly given the sterling renditions it offers of such oldies as "Desperado," "Take It Easy" and "Hotel California" -- it's difficult to see the album as anything resembling a step forward.

It seems to suggest that the band would rather meet the expectations of the contemporary country market than try anything new. How else to explain the blatant conservatism of such new tunes as "Love Will Keep Us Alive," with its gorgeous high harmonies, or the pedal steel-flavored "The Girl from Yesterday"? Both would seem fairly adventurous were this a George Strait album, but coming from the Eagles, they seem almost a step backward.

For that matter, there's something nastily retro even about the band's current single, "Get Over It." Granted, its anger at America's we're-all-victims mentality is well placed, but there's not really a lot of comfort to be had in hearing a bunch of millionaire pop stars telling us to stop whining. Moreover, the song's basic boogie approach seems crushingly obvious given the degree of melodic invention found in "Life in the Fast Lane" and its ilk.

Truth is, it's the kind of song Travis Tritt could have written -- and is that really all the Eagles' legacy amounts to?

A 'QUARTER' TO CALL

To hear Jimmy Page and Robert Plant's "No Quarter," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6237 after you hear the greeting.

To hear excerpts from the Eagles' "Hell Freezes Over," call Sundial and punch in the four-digit code 6238.

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