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Axes to Grind

Geezers with guitars: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant grow up, Eric Clapton grows boring, and Van Halen grows ever more irrelevant.

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Given the epidemic over the past few years of seventies artists rising from the classic-rock graveyard and pretending theyÕd never really left -- not that thereÕs anything intrinsically wrong with reunions; you just wish the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, et al., wouldnÕt act as if theyÕd somehow attained sainthood in the interim -- itÕs rather startling to listen to Jimmy Page and Robert PlantÕs Walking Into Clarksdale (Atlantic). Startling because the two ex-Led Zeppelin warhorses not only sound good but also sound their age. After going a few rounds with their bloated legacy on No Quarter, the 1994 live album that found them twisting many a Zep classic into an Egyptian-spiced musical pretzel, the two have returned with a (dare one say it?) mature work that is both understated and subtle -- and if you think those words have ever passed these lips over the years in discussing either of these blokes, IÕve got a couple of used runes to sell you after you finish reading this.

To wit: no up-the-ladder vocal histrionics or lemon-juice-down-the-leg braggadocio from Plant, and no superfluous guitar pyrotechnics or even simple excess wattage from Page. In fact, the closest they come to the knuckle-dragger clichŽs of yore is on the title track, which does indeed include the words levee and mama. Then again, the song is about the mythic Mississippi-delta location of Robert JohnsonÕs ÒCrossroads,Ó so why not? Especially when the always-warped Page has grounded it with a suitably bron-y-aur-stomping riff that makes the whole thing sound like a blues boogie thatÕs been seriously whupped upside the head.

Instead, there are trancelike, leisurely paced items like ÒBlue Train,Ó which waxes positively Byrds-like via PageÕs eight-miles-high-and-still-going twelve-string, and ÒHeart in Your Hand,Ó which approximates the spacey/twangy vibe of Chris Isaak backed by Duane Eddy. There are contemplative ballads of love (ÒWhen the World Was Young,Ó a raga-rolling trip into the old Zeppy mystic), dewy reflections on youth (the tremolo-laced ÒWhen I Was a ChildÓ), and, in general, a host of pacifying images of soft breezes, gentle rain, and warm suns set to what is surely the most sedate and lyrical guitar playing Page has done since he was a studio pup back in the mid-sixties. All told, this work will perplex as many of the countless millions whoÕll scarf it up as it will please. In any event, dancing days are here again.

Like Walking Into Clarksdale, Eric ClaptonÕs Pilgrim (Duck/Reprise) finds the erstwhile guitar god invoking his own plentiful supply of ÒnaturalÓ images, mostly of the waterlogged variety (tears falling like rain, turning into rivers -- you get the picture), as he beats himself up over assorted failed or failing relationships (child-father, man-woman, human-divine, etc.). In this gloomy context, his emphatic declaration, on the blues classic ÒGoing Down Slow,Ó that ÒI have had my funÓ sounds as if heÕs trying to convince himself more than us. One thing we need no convincing of, though, is how painfully slow SlowhandÕs new album goes down. Talk about giving you his Òdull surpriseÓ: On Pilgrim, which is his first collection of original material since 1989Õs Journeyman, Clapton makes the minutes feel like hours -- and at a soporific 75 of them, weÕre talking sluggishness of (pardon the expression) titanic proportions.

WhatÕs particularly confounding is that the album does contain a handful of worthwhile compositions -- ÒMy FatherÕs Eyes,Ó ÒCircus,Ó ÒFall Like Rain,Ó and ÒNeeds His WomanÓ -- songs that, significantly, were all composed solely by Clapton, not co-written (as were all but one of the other originals) with keyboardist and co-producer Simon Climie. Between the annoyingly flat drum programs, pop-tarty female backup vocals, and string arrangements so unimaginative that you half expect everyone to suddenly break into a few choruses of the StoriesÕ ÒBrother Louie,Ó each overproduced track flounders about, gasping for air, and gives half-whispered lyrics like ÒI donÕt know where IÕm goingÓ and ÒIÕm standing at the edge of nothingÓ an embarrassing, unironic meaning.

Considering that this album contains some of ClaptonÕs most expansive instrumental work in years -- long, leaning solos (ÒRiver of TearsÓ), folkie finger-picking (ÒCircusÓ), countrified runs (ÒFall Like RainÓ), stately blues riffs (ÒSick and TiredÓ) -- listeners may well feel compelled to weep while his guitar gently sinks under all the sonic sludge. Notably innocent among the guilty parties is Paul Carrack, who, on the five tracks he guests on, attacks his Hammond organ with such wit and vitality that it sounds like heÕs playing on a different album. If only Clapton were on that one instead of this one -- Pilgrim might then have turned out to be a tale of pride, not woe.

Speaking of woe, one shudders to think whatÕs probably going through David Lee RothÕs mind (whatÕs left of it, anyway) as he listens to Van Halen 3 (Warner Bros.) and hears his former bandÕs newest lead singer, ex-Extreme frontman Gary Cherone, further demolishing the loopy heritage of the onetime hard-rock kingpins. If it seemed as if the group had lost its collective mind (whatever there was to begin with) when they dumped Diamond Dave in Ô85 and brought in Sammy Hagar, CheroneÕs derivative yelps will probably have longtime fans pining for the return of even Hagar the Horrible. As for Cherone the lyricist, all you really need to know about his talents in that regard is neatly encapsulated on ÒDirty Water Dog,Ó wherein he states that heÕs Òuncomfortable in the realm of the political . . . preoccupied purely with the physical . . . when heavy is the weight of the world . . . IÕm a peek-a-boy, looking at girls.Ó (Of course, recent history has made such sentiments seem downright presidential.)

True, CheroneÕs utter lack of personality does shine the spotlight ever stronger on guitarist Eddie -- excuse me, Edward -- Van Halen, which may very well be what all of this has been about since the days of Van Halen 1. For better or worse, though, Van Halen-Roth -- like Richards-Jagger, Perry-Tyler, and, of course, Page-Plant -- was a guitar-vocal tandem that just worked, plain and simple. As one can hear throughout Van Halen 3, E.V.H. can still play rings around the competition technically. But without a worthy foil of a motormouthpiece like Roth, heÕs well on his way to becoming Keely Smith without Louis Prima.


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