Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger wasn't fully cognizant of his own Live fanaticism until he wrote this review.
It's easier not to be great—from "I Alone"
Awake: The Best of Live is exactly what a "best of" compilation should be. Such albums aim to make us reflect on a band's history, determine what their music has meant to us as the years have passed. "Best of" albums should include the hits, but they should also give us a condensed peek into the soul, character, and identity of the band.
Live is a band with enough history, soul, and character to support a "best of" album without coming across as pretentious. Live also has enough gas left in the tank to keep this album from signaling desperation. The time is right for Ed Kowalczyk and company to release the retrospective Awake: The Best of Live.
Lest I forget to mention it, Awake: The Best of Live comes with a nineteen-song CD that features the highlights of Live's career. The band has been kicking for twenty years; though they've shifted focus a few times, their core vibe jelled remarkably early and has stayed consistent. Early songs from Mental Jewelry and Throwing Copper are so good that you could mistake them for the band's peak. But Live is no one-hit wonder. Their latter albums continue the introspective, honest, and energetic thrust of Live's sound and lyrics while exploring variations of tone and focus. The hits you'd expect are there, such as "I Alone" and "Lakini's Juice." There is also the previously unreleased "We Deal in Dreams" and a cover of Johnny Cash's "I Walk The Line." The CD is an eclectic, yet cohesive, collection of songs without much dead weight.
The CD is good, but DVD Verdict is a DVD review site so I'll focus on the "bonus" DVD. Watching this thing was like visiting myself in high school, then college, grad school, and beyond, and asking myself "hey man, how you been doing?" at each step. The DVD menus were like pages from my own personal history, and you might feel the same way if you were a fan of Live from the Mental Jewelry days. In fact, it was such a powerful frame of mind that I felt compelled to pack the disc up and drive over to my friend's place. For the sake of discretion, this friend will remain nameless. The important thing is why I'm dragging him into this review.
Ryan and I (we'll call him Ryan, since it is too late to hide his name now) nearly died because of Live. It was the mid-1990s. We were in his parents' house alone, a little bored. His parents had set up a new "hifi." We'd been itching to try out this high-end gear with something more suitable than classical and jazz, which is the only thing this poor stereo system had been fed thus far. I happened to have Throwing Copper handy, and I was anxious to share "I Alone" with Ryan.
Timid at first, we put the CD in and listened to the song at a reasonable volume. It simply was not enough. We kicked it up a notch and the song took life. Before we knew it, "I Alone" was on its sixth rotation, the glass frames on the wall were in sonic peril, and Ryan and I were thrashing around the room, stomping the floor and flinging our heads around in circles. The music had us; there was no reason to be seen in that room on that afternoon. The next thing I know, my head is entering the same airspace as Ryan's whirling noggin. Had I not hit the floor at that instant, our skulls would have become a pair of crumpled Styrofoam cups. His parents would have come home to find two dead bodies on the floor, with the angry strains of "I Alone" pounding the walls.
I mention that story to make a point. I could have said "Live's music is catchy" and left it at that. But it is deeply stirring in the same way that Smashing Pumpkins, Led Zeppelin, or any other self-aware rock artist can be. Live is from the heart, and they pound out their rhythms with a sincerity born of personal truth. That sincerity is catchy, and probably explains why Live has outlasted most of their 1990s contemporaries.
The main menu of the DVD gives you the option to Play All, Select a Video, or view an interview with Ed Kowalczyk. If you Select a Video, the first menu will give you:
• "Operation Spirit"
"Operation Spirit" is an impressive early hit for the band. The video shows the very young band members on a beach in front of a fire, riveting us with only music and energy. "Pain Lies on the Riverside" is quieter, letting us breathe a little bit before "Selling the Drama" brings us crashing into the manic "I Alone." It is a hell of a first menu—and you know what, it would have made for a decent bonus DVD had they stopped right there.
As wonderful as it is to relive these music video memories, I'm forced to pause and interject criticism. I'm not convinced that video is the best medium for Live's music. As good as some of their videos are (and there are some good ones), the videos never seem to live up to my internal expectations. The band members always seem too introspective, too restrained. I want to reach through the screen, shake them, and say "what's the matter with you guys, aren't you hearing your own music?" Ed should be one step away from a seizure, twitching his arms at the sky in rapture as the rain of divine understanding washes over him. Chad and Chad and Patrick Dahlheimer should be tearing roots out of the ground. The reality of their comparatively composed videos doesn't jibe with the energetic internal experience of their music.
That pretty much sums it up, and renders my criticism petty in the process. Live's music is profoundly conceptual; it gets into your head and expands. If the crude medium of video doesn't quite reach the heights that Live fans attain in their own minds, it is hardly an insult.
Menu Two brings us:
• "Lightning Crashes"
The flip side of "I Alone"'s highs is the low known as "Lightning Crashes," which kicks off the second menu of videos. "Lightning Crashes" hardly needs comment because the pain and depth of the song are self-evident. The video does a good job of bringing home some of the song's heavy themes, but again the song alone is even more powerful. "White, Discussion" is something of an anthem for Live, and the video is unadorned performance footage that preserves its grass-roots style. "Lakini's Juice" takes us on another rampage of rock energy. The two versions of "Turn My Head" couldn't be more different; one is a high-concept art video, while one is a secular love video. The real standout in purely visual terms is "Freaks," which immerses us in an oppressive environment of conformity by using a highly creative visual device. A man walks into a bar where everyone is drinking the same white drink. He orders coffee and the shit hits the fan.
Although "Ghost" is representative of the softer side of Live, I find both the song and the video unremarkable. "The Dolphin's Cry" corrects that quickly. From the first glance at Ed's face, you know that restrained mayhem is about to bust loose; it does so in both video and song. "Run to the Water" is memorable for the bathroom in the video more than anything else; it looks like the bathroom where Morpheus got his butt kicked in The Matrix. In another of this disc's many ironies, the video for "They Stood Up for Love" features the band at their most animated, and the video is a great fit for the song, but the song isn't what I'd consider classic Live.
This brings us to "Overcome." If you'd asked me if any video in their oeuvre could top "Lightning Crashes" for sheer interpersonal pain and poignancy, I'd have said no. But Lightning stuck twice when 9/11 occurred. Live may be the perfect band to put into words that tragedy without seeming capitalistic. The video is something you can't simply watch; it will stir every painful memory of 9/11, but provide catharsis at the same time.
"Simple Creed" is the perfect video to follow the intensity of "Overcome." The song is flippant by comparison, lighter in tone and peppier. It quickly erases our residual melancholy as we watch male models fight in the dirt and wonder what's up with Ed's hair.
Finally, we end with menu four:
• "Like a Soldier"
Shoot me, but "Like a Soldier" is just weird—and the video reminds me of Primus for some reason. "Heaven" is more like it, and we get two versions. Of the two, I think the Concept version captures the song most successfully. "Run Away" with Shelby Lynne is a curious choice for ending this compilation of videos, because it is atypical Live in many respects, from the collaboration with other artists down to the Vin Diesel–like threads that Ed is wearing. Never let it be said that Live sits stagnant.
Whew, that is one impressive body of videos—but we aren't done yet. The last thing on the disc (or the first thing, if you pick option three on the main menu) is an extensive interview with Ed Kowalczyk. Honestly, I don't care for rock star interviews. But Ed is not much of a "rock star." He seems both humble and cocksure, centered while being fully aware of the sex-drugs-exploitation aspects of rock music. Whatever the cause, this interview held my interest and seemed free from artifice. He is up front about his influences, perceptive about the band's strengths, and aware of their weaknesses.
There you have it. Nineteen songs (including a few new tracks), twenty-two videos, an interview, and great liner notes make for a satisfying "best of" compilation. You might be surprised at how many of these songs you recognize. Live is a band that can slip under the radar, but after experiencing this CD/DVD set you'll realize how solid they've been over the years. Even if I were not a fan of their music, there is no other rational judgment to make than…not guilty!
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