Album Title: Awake: The Best of Live
Running Time: 76m 58s
Track listing: 1 Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition); 2 The Beauty of Gray; 3 Selling the Drama; 4 I Alone; 5 Lightning Crashes; 6 All Over You; 7 We Deal in Dreams; 8 Lakini’s Juice; 9 Turn My Head; 10 The Dophin’s Cry; 11 Run to the Water; 12 They Stood Up For Love (Acoustic); 13 The Distance; 14 Dance With You; 15 Overcome; 16 Nobody Knows; 17 Heaven; 18 Run Away (with Shelby Lynne); 19 I Walk The Line
Note: This album reviews the South African version. There are Australian, European and American releases with slightly altered track listings.
Pennsylvania’s much celebrated rockers Live have finally decided that it is time for a greatest hits. I suppose there is no time like the present even if these things are often rejected by long-time fans who generally speaking will have collected all the material anyway. Their career spans thireen years and six studio albums, half of which have received little acclaim outside of their loyal fanbase. Having said that, there are not many people who won’t recognise a single Live track from their popular hey-day in the mid ninties.
The album is put together chronologically, often the best way for these albums to be compiled. Their debut record “Mental Jewelry” is represented sparingly, thankfully. A limited album that shows up the inexperienced song-writing abilities of the band, it presents two of the better tracks from it, ‘Operation Spirit’ and ‘The Beauty of Gray’. ‘Operation Spirit’, a song about lost faith (‘what a man was two thousand years ago/means nothing at all to me today’), is rhythmically quite strong, while the latter is a semi-acoustic track that asks us to be more tolerant to each other and accept that it’s ‘not a black and white world’. Note: Other versions of the album include the opening track from “Mental Jewelry”, ‘Pain Lies on the Riverside’.
The band’s golden era then kicks off. The smash-hit trio of ‘Selling the Drama’, ‘I Alone’ and ‘Lightning Crashes’ from their #1 Billboard album, “Throwing Copper”, is as well known as the band became. Lyrically-obscure rocker, ‘Selling the Drama’, is among one of the band’s many finer moments. Full of spiritual imagery (‘to love a God/to fear a flame; to Christ, a cross/to me, a chair’) and thumping guitar track, it delivers a memorable hook for the first time on the album. Indeed, the lack of a hook was the big problem with their debut record but it was something they put right from then on.
‘I Alone’ is the first Live song I ever heard on the radio here in Ireland in 1994, and remains one of my favourites. As close to metal as the band ever got, they moved from the far too literal lyrical content of their opening album to clever hidden spirituality in lines like ‘I sank in to Eden with you/Alone in the church’ and ‘The greatest of teachers won’t hesitate/To leave you there, by yourself, chained to fate’.
The track that broke them in the US was ‘Lightning Crashes’, a song adapted as an anthem by a country cracked by the Oklahoma bombings in 1995. Powerful and poignant it seems to tell the story of the cycle of life, referring to three generations of women; a woman who has just given birth (‘a new woman cries/her placenta falls to the floor’), a baby girl (‘the angel opens her eyes/the confusion sets in/before the doctor can even close the door’) and an old mother (‘an old mother dies/her intentions fall to the floor/the angel closes her eyes/the confusion that was hers/belongs now to the baby down the hall’). A memorable tune that, as much as anything else, showed that Live were serious songwriters. Also featured from their “Throwing Copper” opus is ‘All Over You’, a breakneck love song that pauses only during the verses and the brilliant, dark, forboding mid-section.
It’s easy to be critical of what is left off – ‘White Discussion’ could have slotted in here for example, – but four tracks is enough, bearing in mind that ‘We Deal in Dreams’, a previously unreleased song left off “Throwing Copper”, has been included. It’s familiar enough; a mid-tempo acoustic verse that laments how hard it is to live in today’s world (‘Don’t you feel so very pointless here/In the feelings of the rain/In the violence of the sun’), and the terrible sadness that seems to exist everywhere (‘What do you do/What do you say/When the blood spilled is of your loved one’). The chrous refrain of ‘We deal in dreams’ is a message of hope about religion. You don’t need to buy into it to enjoy it.
‘Lakinis Juice’, from their third record “Secret Samadhi”, is very, very different. The unmistakable riff, slowed-down, beefed-up sound, engrossingly cryptic lyrics and outstanding chorus make this one of the stand-out moments of this greatest hits. To release as the lead single after the chart-friendly ‘Lightning Crashes’ was a calculated message from Live to the public – this is us, how you like us now?
‘Turn my Head’ is the only other song from the album that makes it to this release. Very much a return to the tenderer side of the band, this beautiful ballad is restrained in every way and is a nice counter-balance to ‘Lakinis’. Rather surprisingly the band chose to leave off the excellent ‘Freaks’.
Their fourth album “The Distance to Here” seemed to edge back more towards the sound of “Throwing Copper” and features some great material. ‘The Dolphin’s Cry’ is a marvellous rocker, primed with more etheral lyrics: ”The way you’re bathed in light/reminds me of that night/God laid me down into your rose garden of trust’. But the song doesn’t wimp out, it features the same rock-out tendencies of material like ‘Freaks’ and ‘I Alone’. Excellent stuff.
‘Run to the Water’ is a decent mid-tempo moment. A song about the search for salvation it does suffer from slightly tired lyrics (‘Adam and Eve live down the street from me/Babylon is every town’ ) but the chorus is pleasant and it’s anthemic qualities are obvious. Shaking things up a little bit, the band include an acoustic version of ‘They Stood Up For Love’. I suppose for fans it’s nice to have an alternative, but I prefer the faster, rockier version on the studio album. It certainly gives the song a new dynamic though and the slowed-down performance actually helps accentuate the hard-hitting chorus of ‘We spend all of our lives goin’ out of our minds/Looking back to our birth, forward to our demise/Even scientists say, everything is just light/Not created, destroyed but eternally bright’.
‘The Distance’ comes up trumps although, as I pointed out in my initial album review of “Secret Samadhi”, lyrical content like ‘I’ve been to pretty buildings all in search of you/I’ve lit all the candles, sat in all the pews’ seems to impose a little more spirituality than it should. I don’t want to listen to a song and be told about religion – I want to listen and hear it for myself. ‘Dance With You’ is a disappointing inclusion, a song that really fails to inspire or interest much.
Their fifth album, “V”, a total change in direction, was a big blip. It came out a week after September 11th 2001 and suffered as a result. ‘Overcome’ did, in the aftermath, become another TV anthem for the victims of the 9/11 tragedy. The song, slow and emotive, features lead singer Ed Kowalcyzk singing to a piano and minimal string backing. Good song that represents a moment in time for many people. A curious inclusion is ‘Nobody Knows’, a song that wasn’t a single, but I’ve always had a liking for. An acoustic ballad that seems to reflect Ed’s strong religious beliefs (‘And nobody really knows what I would do for you/Nobody really knows how much i love you’; ‘I cleared my mind and I turned around/Grateful to the one who had laid me down/I was silent in love/Pourin’ down from above’).
Curiously the band have left off singles ‘Simple Creed’, ‘Like a Soldier’ (although maybe not that surprising as it’s not that great a track) and the excellent ‘Forever May Not be Long Enough’ from “The Mummy Returns” soundtrack. This is where I would have dropped something like ‘Dance With You’ and put one of the above tunes in just to spice up the tail end of this collection.
Sixth album “Birds of Pray” returned to the band’s classic sound and is represented by Billboard hit single ‘Heaven’ and ‘Run Away’. ‘Heaven’ is an uplifting power-ballad, a message to us to reclaim our faith: ‘You don’t need no friends/get back your faith again/you have the power to believe’. The reasoning for including mellow driving song ‘Run Away’ seems to be two-fold. Firstly it is a favourite of Ed’s despite being recognised as one of “Birds of Pray”‘s weakest moments, but secondly the version here is a duet recorded with Shelby Lynne, who I must confess I’d never heard of. She does a good job, fine singer that she is, but the song is not that worthy and it’s disappointing that it is here instead of some of the better tracks from their last record like ‘Sweet Release’ or ‘What are We Fighting For?’.
The album closes with a version of Johnny Cash’s ‘I Walk the Line’. It’s a curious but interesting inclusion and I suppose gives fans something new to buy even if it’s maybe not the best choice of song to represent Live’s back catalogue.
All in all, a fine collection. For a first timer or someone who lost track of Live about 10 years ago, this is a great way to catch up. Each of Live’s studio album’s have their high points and the biggest criticism you could aim at this collection is that it leaves off quite a few of them.