J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Return Trip

Hole
Celebrity Skin
(Geffen ; 1998)


A couple of years ago I was in an antique/thrift store with a friend and we stumbled upon a cache of cassettes that were being sold for a dollar. Among them was Celebrity Skin and, after having had friends in high school try to convince me it was a good record, I thought enough time had passed to give it a fair shot. My opinion of Courtney Love has never been the highest in the world - all this despite having never heard a Hole song that I hated or even disliked. Her general public antics have long, sadly and admittedly unfairly, colored my willingness to be subjected to her art. But years have passed and, especially in light of the recent Britney Spears debacle(s), maybe I was yearning for a walking public disaster with some actual guts in their music.

First, I'll give Courtney Love this much credit: she is a chameleon of the highest order and nothing proves it better than Hole's two most significant records - 1994's Live Through This and 1998's Celebrity Skin. Released the same month as her husband's tragic suicide, Live Through This is a blistering album of distorted, careening guitars and hoarsely shouted lyrics. As an artifact of the 'alternative' rock era, you can do a lot worse. But in looking back at Live Through This to prepare for this review, it made me even more amazed at just how..well..different Celebrity Skin is than its predecessor.

Conventional wisdom says that Cobain's influence is all over Live Through This and subsequently, Billy Corgan's is all over Celebrity Skin. Corgan co-wrote five of the album's twelve songs and the rest of the record bears his influence as well. The singles are all Corgan (the title track, "Malibu,") in style and substance. Even lyrically - "and I knew the darkest secret of your heart" from "Malibu" echoes Corgan's lyrics in "Muzzle" from the Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Cobain's ghost hangs over the record as well as in the opening line to "Dying" ("I am so dumb" - a thematic/lyrical lift from Nirvana's "Dumb") and the title of "Use Once & Destroy," an almost precise lyrical heist from Nirvana's "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter."

And to have taken lines from a Nirvana song that mocked commercial music is somewhat ironic - Celebrity Skin is nothing if not a calculated, designed ploy for radio play. It's a million times slicker than Live Through This, not only in its glossy, glittering production and Love's much more melodic, controlled vocals, but also in the out and out hooks that run for miles. The first five songs are a non-stop barrage of some of the catchiest songs of Hole's oeuvre. The classic/arena rock influence is everywhere and nearly every song on the album seems to be shooting for something much, much bigger than the sum of its parts.

How much of this was really Hole's doing is debatable after the first stretch of the album. Three of those first five gems were written largely by Corgan - and the ultimate worth of the band remains in doubt until the second-half one-two punch of "Boys on the Radio" and "Heaven Tonight." The former is the kind of song that ought to play over all manner of ending credits for films. It's huge, anthemic and you can't help but be transported by it somewhere up in the middle of the air. It feels nowhere near as long as its five-minute running time would suggest. "Heaven Tonight" plays like something the Bangles would have written had they emerged, style intact, in the late 90s. In addition to the similarly amazing "Awful," it's a trio of songs that prove that, despite the rumors and credits, this wasn't all Corgan's show.

Love would disband Hole before they would make another record, and her debut solo record would be a mess of no real consequence, but for at least two albums, she managed to wrangle some pretty impressive results, largely through her cohorts, but without her forceful personality, they might not have been half as entertaining or even as ear-catching as they were.

Rating: E(xcellent) / I(nteresting)

(Rating scale: A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y)

Decide For Yourself:

Hole - Hit So Hard

Hole - Malibu

Hole - Boys on the Radio

Download other music by Hole from EMusic.

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