Album Title: Mental Jewelry
Running Time: 51m 38s
Track listing: 1 Pain Lies on the Riverside; 2 Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition); 3 Beauty of Gray; 4 Brothers Unaware; 5 Tired of “Me”; 6 Mirror Song; 7 Waterboy; 8 Take My Anthem; 9 You are the World; 10 Good Pain; 11 Mother Earth is a Vicious Crowd; 12 10,000 Years (Peace is Now)
Although mainly famous in only America and Australiasia (a hot-bed repository for American music), Pennsylvanian four-piece, Live, have been on the music scene for quite some time. Their debut release, “Mental Jewelry”, was an alternative/folk-rock album that became a solid starting-point for the chord-driven anthemic rock they would refine over the following decade and more.
Sounding somewhat like late-eighties REM, ‘Pain Lies on the Riverside’ opens up the album rather disappointingly. The formulaic rhythm leads into a slowly improving chorus that is lifted only by lead-singer Ed Kowalcyzk’s searing vocals. But sadly the lyrics get bogged down in the whole “soul cleansing” analogy: (‘pain lies on the riverside/and put your feet in the water/put your head in the water/put your soul in the water/and join me for a swim tonight’).
You better get used to the Christianity theme as it inspires a lot of Live’s music. In ‘Operation Spirit’, Ed talks about someone who has lost his faith. He acknowledges that Jesus was ‘a man of love, a man of strength’, but admits that ‘what a man was two thousand years ago/means nothing at all to me today’). But he appeals for his friend to ‘let it go/and lets get it back together’. A solid track with a strong chorus and featuring a strong rhythm section.
Semi-acoustic number ‘The Beauty of Gray’ only really works during the repeated one-line chorus and the serene mid-section. An attempt to deal with people’s failure to communicate and get on with each other, Ed explains that it is ‘not a black and white world’ and that to truly be alive we must appreciate the differences in each other and embrace ‘the beauty of gray’. it’s a nice sentiment but at this point you want him to just relax and talk about something more trivial.
‘Brothers Unaware’ is a mid-tempo track that gets bogged down once more in over-powering lyrics like ‘if I don’t know who to love/I love them all/and if I don’t know who to trust/I trust them all/and if I don’t know who to kill/I may kill myself instead’. But leaving that aside, the song is a strong testament to the Live sound: soaring and passionate vocals, Chad Gracy’s powerful and deliberate drumming alongside Patrick Dahlheimer’s measured bass and Chad Taylor’s fitting guitar work.
‘Tired of “Me”‘ is a reasonable rock-number about the end of a relationship but features the ludicrous line ‘hope is a letter that never arrives/delivered by the postman of my fear’. There’s certainly more than a nod to 80s-U2 here, a band that Live have often been compared to. That influence is even more apparent on the excellent acoustic track ‘Mirror Song’ and the so-so (and slightly silly) ‘Waterboy’.
‘Take My Anthem’ is a slightly laborious track that succeeds in the simple chorus of ‘take my anthem today’, while ‘You Are the World’ is an interesting bass-heavy, almost hymn-like song that you could swear inspired Pearl Jam’s entire mid-ninties career.
‘Good Pain’ is a fairly forgettable rock tune that accentuates Live’s inexperienced song-writing, but on the other side of the coin ‘Mother Earth is a Vicious Crowd’ is an unspectacular but promising recording that indicates that the band are getting a grip on their sound and future direction a little more. Closing off the album is the extremely REM-like ‘10,000 Years (Peace is Now)’, a track that’s hamstrung by uncomfortable lyrics and a somewhat poor musical focus. But you have to like the line ‘Mr President/I hereby pardon you all your crimes/for they are just as much mine’.
“Mental Jewelry’ is a mildly entertaining distraction but suffers from a number of issues. The production sounds a little too sparse, its folk-rock stylings leaving too much of a gap in the sound – another guitar would have helped beef up the experience somewhat. The song-writing is fairly average throughout with only tracks like ‘Brothers Unaware’, ‘Mirror Song’, ‘Operation Spirit’ and ‘You Are the World’ being worth of multiple spins. But average songs can survive if you have melody, and that’s somewhere that Live fell down in. There just aren’t any hooks on the album worth talking about.
And the biggest crime of all are the lyrics. Far too heavy and arduous for a rock-album, the band need to be able to mesh their Christian influences into the music and lyrics in a far less obvious and literal way.
If you own (at time of writing) the five Live albums that came after this one, then get this for the sake of completeness, but don’t expect it to rock your world.