Punk was different. That was the whole point. It stood in opposition to the aging rock-star aristocracy, to the rock welfare-state notion that anyone who was once a member of a group that made a good record in 1965 should be allowed to make boring solo albums with superstar session musicians for the rest of his (almost always his) life. Now, of course, such acclaimed punk bands as Husker Du, X and the Dream Syndicate are as defunct as the Beatles or the Byrds, and such singer-songwriters as Bob Mould, John Doe and Steve Wynn are in the solo album biz. The results may not be the height of hypocrisy, but they're not the height of excitement either.
Bob Mould: 'Black Sheets of Rain'
Whatever its faults, Husker Du always had barnstorming energy on its side, so it came as quite a surprise when ex-Husker Bob Mould produced his first solo album last year. As morosely self-indulgent as any '70s superstar effort, "Workbook" was a despondent, overreaching debacle. By comparison, Mould's new one, which comes with the cheery title of "Black Sheets of Rain" (Virgin), is positively upbeat, at least instrumentally. Its message -- which shifts from environmental degradation to romantic dissolution as it progresses -- may be despairing, but at least its guitars sound defiant.
Beginning virtually as an eco-gloom concept album, "Black Sheets" finds Mould bemoaning that "toxins fill my bloodstream," "in the forest all the trees are turning black" and "the fish in all the streams are dying/fluorocarbons fill the sky." These raging, sprawling songs (five of the 11 are more than five minutes long) are often short on melody. There's nothing here to compare with the tuneful zest of "Shine a Little Light," the saving grace of "Workbook," and those who saw Mould's most recent tour might wish that guitarist-backup singer Chris Stamey, whose pop instincts are sharper than Mould's, had kept that role for the recording of this album. (The tour's other musicians, drummer Anton Fier and bassist Tony Maimone, are featured here.)
Still, "Stop Your Crying," "Disappointed" and especially "It's Too Late," with its "Can't Explain"/"Clash City Rockers" chords, coalesce amid the maelstrom, and even the epics -- "Sacrifice/Let There Be Peace" and the title tune -- are not fatally ponderous. With "Black Sheets" Mould doesn't dig all the way out of his post-Huskers hole, but he's beginning to see a little light.
John Doe: 'Meet John Doe'
Since the band's traditionalism could easily be glimpsed through its ragged harmonizing and high-speed tempos, X was the L.A. punk band that mainstream critics were most comfortable endorsing. If there were any doubts after the increasingly rootsy sound of the band's latter albums, the solo debut of X singer-bassist John Doe should dispel them. "Meet John Doe" (DGC) is a bid to be accepted in L.A.'s granola-rock establishment, complete with keyboards by Little Feat's Billy Payne and backing vocals by ex-Bangle Vicki Peterson.
Musically, the country-tinged effect is predictable; "Meet" strongly resembles Steve Wynn's "Kerosene Man" (Divine Horsewoman Julie Christiansen sings on both), with Doe even managing to suppress the stylishness of ex-Television guitarist Richard Lloyd (identified as one of the five members of "The Band") in his pursuit of a rough-hewn trad sound. Fortunately, some of Doe's genuine anger seeps through, corroding the ready-made maudlinness of his Hank Cochran and John Hiatt covers. Both "Let's Be Mad" and "Universal Brotherhood," whose refrain is unfortunately unquotable in a family newspaper, rattle the walls of respectable L.A. solo album craft; "My psychosis rips the hinges off doors," Doe snarls in the latter, and it almost does.
The music for "Universal Brotherhood," a rhythmically nimble track that's the album's standout, is credited to the other four members of The Band. If he cultivates these guys, perhaps Doe, who performs at the 9:30 club tonight, can sidestep the solo album trap.
Steve Wynn: 'Kerosene Man'
Rock auteur theorists tend to emphasize the role of the singer-songwriter. Yet just as a film editor can significantly shape a director's vision, so the contributions of a seemingly secondary band member can be crucial. The Velvet Underground, for example, was unquestionably Lou Reed's group, but it was never the same after the departure of avant-garde violist John Cale. And the Dream Syndicate, an L.A. outfit that first attracted attention with its eerie resemblance to the Velvets, never recovered from the split between singer-songwriter Steve Wynn and guitarist Karl Precoda. Wynn has worked with fine musicians since then -- his new solo album, "Kerosene Man" (Rhino), features ex-X drummer D.J. Bonebrake, former Lou Reed bassist Fernando Saunders, Blaster Steve Berlin, ex-Sea Train violinist Richard Greene and others -- but his facile-ity doesn't ignite without Precoda's spark.
"Kerosene Man" opens stirringly enough with "Tears Won't Help," whose ringing introductory riff owes more than a bit to Television's "Glory." "Carolyn," which follows, is also melodically well endowed. From there, though, things get as dull as "Chinese food in Alabam," with Wynn bogging down in ersatz country ballads and an utterly unconvincing good-ol'-boy persona. Reaching for down-home insouciance, he throws off bad rhymes as unthinkingly as one of his characters might drop a cigarette pack out the window of his pickup: "Three-day bender with Ray Milland/Scotch and soda and candied yams," he sings in the title track -- it's always a warning sign when rockers start writing about old movies -- while "Younger" lines up "youth," "uncouth," "vermouth," "Duluth," "tooth" and "John Wilkes Booth."
The album is dominated by dopey down and out ghost stories such as "The Blue Drifter" ("Here comes the Blue Drifter/Lost on the highway/Talks in a whisper/and he looks just like me") and the regular-Joe affectations of such songs as "Carolyn": "Well, I ain't no knight in shining armor/ Coming to rescue you/ I'm lazy and crazy and I think you know/ I get mean when I've had a few." Forget such transparently phony protestations; the truth about the Steve Wynn of "Kerosene Man" is, alas, far worse.