Jesus, this is really bad

On her just-released debut album Relish, singer-songwriter Joan Osborne has
included a song so quietly amazing it likely will go unnoticed or just plain ignored. At first, "One of Us" sounds like the ironically quirky, almost naive musings of a Julianna Hatfield or Jill Sobule, a woman asking her funny, smart-alecky questions: "If God had a name what would it be, and would you call it to his face if you were faced with him?" It's a loud and beautiful song, electric guitars and pianos and mellotrons, with Osborne's flat and pretty and plaintive voice sounding so much like someone who's more fascinated with the questions themselves than with the answers.

But upon repeated listenings, the song reveals itself as something much deeper, much darker than a funny pop song; rather, it's a song about faith in a faithless world, about conviction and belief, about doubt and fright. It attempts the impossible, reducing the idea of God to something much smaller than an almighty and all-powerful presence, something much easier to deal with--what if God is one of us, she wonders, "just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way home?" Most remarkably, Osborne has written a song about religion that is completely secular and totally nonjudgmental: you aren't going to Heaven just because you love Jesus, and you aren't going to hell if you don't believe.

It's a tricky thing to convey faith and religion in pop music; even so masterful a songwriter as Bob Dylan couldn't do it during his "saved" period, so conflicted was he about the idea. When it works, as in Osborne's song or the music of the Toadies (which is all about struggle and conflict) and Al Green (spiritual love and physical love as one) or even technohero Moby (the acid house of worship), then it's a powerful thing. But when it doesn't--when it preaches to the converted and damns the nonbelievers, or when religion becomes a substitute for something else--then there is no more offensive music in all the world, no matter your religious beliefs.

Such is the case with the Nixons, the Okies-by-way-of-Dallas preparing to make their major label debut May 23 on MCA Records. Over the past year, I have spent so much time despising their music on purely aesthetic terms--it mimics the arena-metal of Kansas, the bombastic posturing of Pearl Jam, the carbon-copycatting of Stone Temple Pilots--that I have often failed to notice that at their core, the Nixons are very confused men. And the result is an album, Foma, that is enervating musically and downright silly and infuriating lyrically. Which means, in short, they ain't no damn good any way you slice it.

The Nixons, like predecessors King's X from Houston, unsuccessfully try to cut it both ways--as an angry secular band and as devout Young Lifers with guitars. Amid a flurry of metal riffs (some provided by Judas Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton), the Nixons use Jesus like a prop, as some device to give weight and credence to their lightweight junior-high poetry and cliched aphorisms. Their passion is undeniable, but so is their ignorance; their messages are so conflicted and ridiculous, their words so jumbled and lost in their attempt to convey a "message."

Like most metal bands that rely on visceral images of blood and bone, equating undefinable emotion with something gory and graphic, the Nixons reduce everything to violence. In the song "Blind"--one of the seven songs that made it from the band's 1994 debut on the local Rainmaker label to the new disc--singer Zac Maloy reduces racism to a kill-or-be-killed extreme: "Nervous my finger caresses the trigger / Red line is trained on you," he whine-sings; then, after he kills his prey, he peels the skin from his skull to discover--ta da!--"nothing different." But most inexplicably, he then calls upon Jesus to "come and make us colorblind...we should all be blind."

And, from nowhere, Maloy comes to this conclusion: "You ignorant fuck"--the emphasis on "fuck," of course, perhaps to indicate how angry he is for being so ineloquent.

Foma is loaded with religious icons and references, and always with the understanding that those who believe will ascend to heaven and those who don't will descend to hell; heaven is the "sweeter beyond" of which Maloy sings in one song, while hell is a place filled with those who do not bathe (yes, it sounds silly, which is probably why there isn't a complete lyric sheet in the CD). For a band that claims to want to be color-blind, the Nixons see everything in black-and-white.

And yet the words never make sense, their intentions so hazy. It's unclear whether the addition of a small child singing "Jesus Loves Me" at the beginning of "Fellowship" (another leftover from last year's Halo) is meant as an ironic statement or a sincere plea; and then there's the song itself, which rips off the riff from "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and then ventures into the familiar territory of televangelist-bashing before reminding, "He's got my heart and I know that he needs nothing more"--"He," presumably, being Jesus or God.

But in the title song, they question even those who would believe: "Jesus Christ--is He someone you put faith in? Is He someone to wear your crown of thorns, bear your wrongs? Is He just another God?" Its tone is sneering, condescending. Where Joan Osborne asks to seek answers, the Nixons ask only to threaten: this is my God, and you are not worthy. Their messages are so mixed that finally they mean nothing.

But the Nixons fail not just on intention, but on execution: Foma is as bombastic, as two-dimensional, as cliched, and as derivative as any pop-metal album of the past 20 years. To listen to this record is to hear music that embodies much of what's wrong with so-called modern-rock radio, which has slowly but surely begun embracing the very sort of arena-rock histrionics that "alternative rock" was supposed to stand against. To listen to Foma is not to be reminded so much of Pearl Jam--though it took four months before I found out "Sister" was not a Pearl Jam song--but a band like Live, which has so little to say it must scream to get its point across, belching hysterical and grandiose Statements upon a foundation of '70s AOR no different than Kansas or Journey.

For their major-label debut, the Nixons have evolved into a metal-lite band (no doubt thanks to producer Mark Dodson, who has worked with Suicidal Tendencies and Judas Priest)--the edges of Halo sharpened, the guitars louder, the vocals more shrieking, the performances more overwrought. Which isn't as frightening as this small fact: the band has six records left on their MCA contract. Perhaps what they're really saying on Foma is there isn't a God at all.

Scene, heard
Out of nowhere, Deep Blue Something--with the singles "Halo" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in heavy rotation on Q102 and the Edge--is the next local band likely to leap to a major label, proof again that most major-label A&R folks lost their hearing a long time ago. So far, Atlantic, Giant, Mercury, MCA, and Interscope have sent reps down to check out the pop band; and as of April 20, Crystal Clear Sound, the band's distributor, had moved 6,000 copies of the band's 1993 CD Home on Rainmaker Records (past home to the Nixons, of course). Sherri Gesin, director of distribution at CCS, says that number is closer to 7,000 copies now. "It's moving like we've never seen." Gesin says, "It's like the Nixons all over again." You have been warned...

The Dave Zoller Sextet will perform at Sambuca in Deep Ellum on May 19, coinciding with the release of Zoller's new CD, Snug Harbor...

Techno-folkie David Wayne has been hired to find 15 local bands to contribute songs to the sound track of Post-Education, a low-budget independent film about a gay-straight love triangle to be shot in Dallas during July and August. Wayne is accepting tapes from local bands until June 1, and they can be sent to him at 1407 Jennifer Street, Richardson, TX, 75082.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky