Live's Secret Samadhi A Major Disappointment

That crystal ball didn't help.

I remember the first time I heard Live's "Operation Spirit," from their 1991

debut, Mental Jewelry. I was mesmerized by the syncopated, stuttering

drum sound, a weird percussive hiccup that literally drove me to the store to

buy the CD and figure out how the effect was achieved. I must have listened to

that tune, and that album several hundred times, and while in retrospect, some

of the songs sound a tad heavy-handed ("Mother Earth is a Vicious Crowd") or

simplistic ("Mirror Song"), there was an urgency and a willful naivetŽ that

branded those mini-sociology courses as the work of an energetic young band

that had literally poured their hearts and souls into their anthemic pleas for

tolerance and understanding.

Which is why I was happy, and of course a bit

sad, to see Live's sophomore effort, Throwing Copper, a moodier, more

expertly-crafted album, turn what had been our little secret band into major

rock stars. "Good for them," I thought, happy that a hard-working, original

band like that had broken through. They had achieved that rare balance between

emotional sincerity, cathartic ebb and flow songwriting and humility that is

too often lost by ascendant bands who get neck-deep in the hoopla and forget

why they started on their journey.

Which is also why Live's new album,

Secret Samadhi (released today) is such a


Perpetually intense singer/songwriter Ed


Perpetually intense singer/songwriter Ed Kowalczyk still

writes emotionally resonant lyrics on songs like "Graze" and his delivery still

claws from a whisper to a throaty growl on songs like the classic first single,

"Lakini's Juice" and the breathy "Ghost," but something seems to be missing, or

maybe replaced.

It's easy to forgive the band their most obvious rock star

tendencies: on Saturday Night Live all four were decked out in sporty

black designer gear, with guitarist Chad Taylor and bassist Dahlheimer sporting

leather and leopard-skin pants that might have been unthinkable just a few

years ago. And in the CD booklet all four are posed holding corny props like

crystal balls and enigmatic texts. But more disappointing than any of the silly

posturing is the revelation that the sound of the band has been flattened, its

emotional peaks and valleys smoothed out to the point where songs like

"Century" are little more than generic alternarockers and, perhaps worse,

others, like "Unsheathed" with the exception of Dahlheimer's funky bass, sound

like a bad, tone deaf Live cover band trying too hard. And if the overwrought

ballad "Turn My Head" doesn't make you think of some power ballad from a late

80's hair band, maybe you need to dust off your White Lion albums.

Or maybe

it's this. Perhaps the emotional peaks and valleys are still there, but they

sound less spontaneous and riveting this time around, more self-consciously

fervent and expansive, which could just be Live's way of transitioning from a

small band that needs to fill a bar with enough clattering sound to be heard

over clanging beers to one that needs to project enough broadly-sketched

emotion to reach that guy in the back of the arena. Diagnosis: patient has

skipped the sophomore slump and gone straight to the Junior Sag. Prescription:

go back and listen to "Pain Lies On the Riverside."