The nearly simultaneous release of new albums by Canadians Avril Lavigne and Alanis Morissette is enough to make you wish the bureaucrats in Ottawa would regulate the export of rock. Or maybe we could write something into NAFTA. Whatever the answer, let's just agree that the system isn't working, because the market for frostback pop in the guitar-strumming, cranky-female category is about to be flooded.
It's a situation best described as "lose-lose." When Ms. Lavigne went global with her gargantuan debut, "Let Go," in 2002, everyone was too busy touting her as the un-Britney to focus on her debt to her idol, Ms. Morissette. Avril added wristbands and some bratty skater-girl 'tude, but the rest of it -- the jaded-soul vocal style, the high-maintenance persona, the easy-access choruses -- was all Alanis.
And for Morissette, preceding a disciple into record store bins by just seven days -- her "So-Called Chaos" was released yesterday -- can't be a picnic, either. She should be flattered by the imitation, and separated in age by about a decade, these two ladies aren't exactly targeting the same market.
But listen to "So-Called" back-to-back with Lavigne's new "Under My Skin" and you realize just how rote the Morissette catechism has become, and how easy it is to duplicate. Alanis has created a monster, and on "Under" the monster is starting to sound as thin-skinned and self-involved as the original.
Well, nearly. "So-Called Chaos," the second album in a row that Alanis has written and produced on her own, is so unflinchingly rueful and nakedly confessional that it feels as much like therapy as rock. She's Joni Mitchell in the Dr. Phil age, a woman with an angelic voice and total faith in the public's fascination with her innermost anxieties. We don't really listen to Alanis as much as we enable her.
Or maybe we're eavesdropping at her invitation. "So-Called" is essentially a diary set to music, and the album delivers the peculiar sense of embarrassment you feel when privy to a stranger's most troubling secrets. "Eight Easy Steps" is a road map to Alanis's most unflattering traits -- her inability to trust loved ones, her feelings of worthlessness, her piety.
Every sentiment on the album is rendered in the stilted, syllable-overloaded poetry that is her trademark. On "Doth I Protest Too Much," Alanis tramples her rhyme meter to nearly comical death as she describes, in ironic couplets, just how secure she feels around her boyfriend: "I'm not threatened by every pair of legs you watch go by / I don't cringe when you stare at women, it's just a thing called guy."
When Alanis broke through in 1995 with "Jagged Little Pill," her struggles, freakouts and the occasional declarations of independence seemed like the start of a journey that would eventually lead somewhere.
But if her albums are a tour of her mind, this bus is going in circles. She's still lamenting her failures ("Excuses"), nursing her anger ("This Grudge") and embracing the occasional emotional breakthrough ("Knees of My Bees").
Musically, "So-Called" is just as stuck. Morissette is unwilling to abandon the verse-catharsis-verse song structure that has long been her Top 40 blueprint of choice. The songs start with intimate electronic beats, erupt into anthemic outbursts, then get quiet again.
It's pretty monotonous. And, sadly, the top-notch musicians assembled here never get a chance to shine because Alanis keeps interrupting them.
Avril isn't quiet as talky on "Under My Skin," but this drama princess is well on her way to becoming a drama queen. The album is less playful and far darker than her debut, which was largely the work of a production and songwriting team called the Matrix.
It was the Matrix that crafted "Complicated," the breezy, starter-grunge number that was pitched as a gritty antidote to teen pop. Avril was every bit as packaged as the underdressed damsels she was supposed to vanquish -- maybe more so, since the label tried to convince us that Avril was unpackaged and implied that she wrote her own songs, which seemed highly doubtful whenever Lavigne spoke candidly about the genesis of the music.
But it worked, largely because the Matrix wrote so well and because Avril is truly a little surly, or at least she has none of that fake beauty-queen cheer that is required of 20-year-old singers in acrylic pants.
The Matrix doesn't contribute to "Under," and it shows. Half of the 12 songs on the album were (allegedly) written with Chantal Kreviazuk, a platinum-selling singer-pianist from Canada, and she has pushed Avril to drop the kid stuff and get grim. There's lots of wintry piano here, and Lavigne is constantly telling off the insensate men in her life. "Don't patronize me, yeah yeah" she sings on "Forgotten," one of a handful of farewell numbers here.
Lavigne is still spunk personified, and she has learned a few new vocal tricks -- such as knocking off the style of Dolores O'Riordan, lead singer of the Cranberries. (Check out the faux-Irish lilt on the first single, "Don't Tell Me.") When she lets loose her inner brat, as she does on the intro-to-punk "He Wasn't," she sounds like the indomitable anti-vixen we know and love.
It's too bad there isn't more in the same carefree, shove-it vein. "Under" is nothing if not professional, but when you hear Avril sing a line like "I'm not afraid of anything, I just need to know that I can breathe," as she does on "How Does It Feel," she's channeling Alanis so well it's downright creepy. Somebody ought to tell Avril that the United States has a quota for melodic sulking from north of the border and as long as Morissette is around, the quota is filled.
Alanis Morissette is scheduled to appear Aug. 10 at Merriweather Post Pavilion.