R.E.M. may be on the cover of Rolling Stone this week and drawing rave reviews on its current U.S. tour, but there's already a new rock champ on college radio: England's Love and Rockets.
The surprise isn't that the British trio has moved into first place in the CMJ New Music Report, a biweekly newsletter that monitors the play lists of college and alternative-minded rock radio stations. After all, the group's previous album, "Express," topped the CMJ chart late last year.
Even most industry insiders, however, were caught off guard by the ease with which Love and Rockets moved past such worthy competitors as R.E.M. (which had headed the CMJ survey since late September), The Jesus and Mary Chain, Public Image Limited and the Smiths to reach the top.
The trio's new "Earth-Sun-Moon", which is on Big Time Records, debuted at No. 5 on the CMJ list of the 100 most-played albums on Nov. 6 and jumped to No. 1 in the new survey.
One reason for the dramatic showing is that the group--which will be in concert with Jane's Addiction next Saturday at Bren Events Center in Irvine--has already built through touring and its earlier albums a sizable underground following, an audience partially drawn to the Love and Rockets because of the group's ties with early British gloom-and-doom heroes Bauhaus.
But it's encouraging to think that, ultimately, the most important reason for the band's strong acceptance at college and alternative radio is the fact that "Earth-Sun-Moon" is a frequently outstanding album. The work is a major creative step beyond "Express" and a sign that Love and Rockets is a band of considerable commercial and artistic potential.
In key moments, last year's "Express" offered an interesting blend of influences--from a trace of '60s psychedelia (the Beatles to Pink Floyd) to a touch of the '70s glam-rock to a more contemporary post-punk Angst. In the end, however, the album seemed too much a prisoner of those influences. The songs weren't involving enough in most cases to keep the band from appearing lightweight and directionless.
"Earth-Sun-Moon" finds the members of Love and Rockets--guitarist Daniel Ash, bassist David Jor and drummer Kevin Haskins--returning with more assurance and a far sharper vision.
Influences still abound: The opening "Mirror People" is straight from the catchy T.Rex/Sweet heart of the glam-rock movement, while "Waiting for the Flood" is bathed in the emotional melodrama and anthem-like sweep of "Ziggy"-era David Bowie.
Mostly, however, Love and Rockets continues to draw from mid-period Beatles. Indeed, there are enough Lennon/McCartney traits--from graceful melodic to occasionally aggressive vocal/lyric counterpoint--to make this album the next stop for anyone who has gone through the Beatles' CDs and would like to see how Beatles trademarks might be applied to fresh music.
It's ludicrous, however, to suggest that Sgt. Pepper is marching again in Love and Rockets' shoes. This band is simply applying many of the elements it prized in the Beatles to its own music the same way John Lennon and Paul McCartney relied on '50s rock models in developing their style.
In songs like the gentle, McCartney-flavored "Rain Bird" to the more philosophical, Lennon-accented "Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven," the band explores questions of self-identity and salvation as part of a generally hopeful, but somewhat wary view of the man--a view that places special emphasis on life's ironic, contradictory moments.
The three musicians met through Bauhaus, the short-lived but influential part of the gloom brigade of the early '80s. Haskins and Ash went on to form Tones on Tails--a more accessible though equally short-lived group--before reuniting with Jor in 1985 and releasing a version of the Temptations' old "Ball of Confusion" that was a dance club hit here and in England.
Love and Rockets doesn't yet offer the fully convincing or authoritative stamp of CMJ rivals like R.E.M. or The Jesus and Mary Chain, but the advances in this album are enough to raise the band--once buried in influences--from a position of seeming to be a rock 'n' roll pretender to the level of a legitimate contender.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Don Henley, asked in Rolling Stone about his favorite Eagles songs, replied: "Actually 'The Last Resort' (from 1976's 'Hotel California' album) is still one of my favorite songs. I'm more proud of that than I am of 'Hotel California' or 'Life in the Fast Lane' or any of that other stuff. That's because I care more about the environment than about writing songs about drugs or love affairs or the excesses of any kind.