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POP MUSIC : The Roses Bloom Again : Vaguely remember the Stone Roses? That may have to do with their five years in legal and musical limbo. They're finally back and this time around, they're talking.

February 05, 1995|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

True to their unorthodox spirit, the Stone Roses don't choose a typical hotel room or restaurant setting for an interview in Los Angeles. The most acclaimed British rock arrival in a decade opts for the La Brea Tar Pits, where the band spends the first 15 minutes in the museum watching a film about the history of the grounds.

Finally taking seats on a bench next to giant fossil displays, singer Ian Brown, drummer Reni and bassist Mani begin gamely explaining why it took five years to follow-up on the 1989 debut album that caused the Roses to be hailed as the future of British rock.

After several minutes, guitarist John Squire grows tired of all the talk about the past--the heated lawsuit against the band's original label, the time to sort out matters in their personal lives and, above all, the endless recording sessions.

Drawing inspiration from his surroundings, Squire quips: "Really, it wasn't that long. . . . Five years is just the blink of a geological eye."

In rock 'n' roll terms, however, five years can be an eternity. The Beatles went from "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to "Let It Be" in only six years.

For much of the Roses' time away, there was speculation in the British press that the enormous expectations from the first album had left the group paralyzed with self-doubt. Adding to the mystery was the band members' declining to do interviews.

Interest in the quartet remained high because the group's debut album was a defining moment in British rock--a rallying point reminiscent of the arrivals of the Sex Pistols in the mid-'70s or the Smiths in the mid-'80s.

The Roses' self-titled collection expressed youthful innocence and independence in fresh, exhilarating ways that suggested a new generation awakening--a reaction to the bleakness of life for working-class British youth. The best moments offered a tuneful mix of jangly, Byrds-like guitar and seductive funk grooves.

When the new album, teasingly titled "Second Coming," finally arrived in December in England (last month in the United States), reviews were wildly mixed.

In England, Melody Maker hailed the album, while Q magazine called it a flat disappointment. Here, Rolling Stone awarded "Second Coming" only two of a possible five stars, dismissing it as "tuneless retropsychedelic grooves bloated to six-plus minutes in length." Musician magazine, however, praised the album as "unexpectedly tasteful."

The debate is understandable because "Second Coming" is a head-spinning departure from the mostly airy, disarming pop of the Roses' debut. This time, the group delivers full-throttle rock, highlighted by Squire's captivating guitar work, which recalls the bluesy side of Jimmy Page and Duane Allman.

The critical furor is reminiscent of the stir caused in the early '70s by the Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street," another work that required repeated listening before the sprawl turned from chaotic to absorbing. Look for "Second Coming" to eventually stand as one of the most important albums of 1995.

Thanks to extensive airplay on KROQ-FM locally and other alternative rock stations around the country, the Roses are already being hailed as a keystone in the new renaissance in British rock. Sales are nearing the 750,000 mark around the world.

"You never expected the album to take this long, but you've got to remember what the band went through," says Ed Rosenblatt, president of Geffen Records, which released "Second Coming." "They were hailed in the British press in the old 'Clapton is God' style of another era, and they then went through this horrific lawsuit.

"The important thing was to get them to relax in the midst of what was a very difficult and uptight environment, and that took time. My only concern was could they follow up that first album. Were they going to just copy it or take a big step forward? To my mind, they took that step."

Despite their reputation as shy, reticent interview subjects, the Roses prove surprisingly upbeat. When they walk across the Tar Pits grounds with a photographer on this dark, rainy afternoon, they don't just end up standing in front of a picturesque tree, but they start climbing it--as cheerfully as the Monkees in an earlier rock era.

When they sit down to talk, the Roses are so eager to finally tell their story that they frequently speak at once, sometimes drowning each other out.

"I think some people thought we are difficult because we don't try to sell ourselves, but that's not our nature," says singer Brown, 31, the most talkative of the four. "We weren't desperate to have people write about us or talk about us.

"Besides, we didn't want to talk about the lawsuit or what we were eating for dinner. We are musicians. We aren't personalities. We said all along that we'd be glad to talk again once the record is done, and that's what we've done."

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