In terms of commercial impact in their own time, hard-rockers Saliva are arguably the biggest rock band to ever come out of Memphis. (The Box Tops were more of a Top 40 presence, but those, as Lou Reed sang, were different times.) But I doubt many people, fans included, think Saliva's impact will outlive the band. There will be no widespread cultural impact, à la Big Star, or perhaps even lingering devotion to match relative commercial nobodies the Grifters or the Oblivians. And if ever there were a record that fit into the big-sales/little-impact category, the band's sophomore major-label effort, Back into Your System (Island; Grade: C+), is it.
Reunited with big-wig producer Bob Marlette, Saliva has produced a very expensive-sounding record but one that is distressingly conservative, even within the follow-all-the-rules-while-acting-like-wild-rock-and-roll-rebels -but-take-no-actual-chances world of mainstream hard rock. Last year's breakthrough, Every Six Seconds, was a palpable cut above the overcrowded genre pack. The lead single, "Your Disease," was durably crunchy pop-metal. The follow-up rap-metal anthem "Click, Click, Boom" brought the metal/hip-hop noise with convincing ferocity despite lead voice Josey Scott's meager mic skills, and it laid out a path of reasonable optimism and self-reliance that nicely set the band apart from the woe-is-me-isms then prevalent among their demographic. Though plenty was lackluster, the whole record had a just-plain-metal vibe that seemed true to the personality of the band and that kept the nü-metal calculation in check.
Well, Back into Your System sounds like all calculation, and the law of diminishing returns has set in early. The lead single, "Always," is "Your Disease" part two -- arena-ready pop-metal designed to appeal to both nü-metal's kiddie corps and the Aerosmith fans who love them. "Raise Up" conveys a bit of personality (such as the hometown shout-out "I'm a born entertainer, coming straight out of Memphis/And if Elvis was alive, even he would admit this"), but it bogs down too soon into its clichéd, macho chorus, and, as the only hip-hop nod on the whole record, it feels perfunctory. "Holdin' On" begins as Southern rock, with some slide guitar adding a bluesy tone. It feels like a needed change of pace for a few seconds until the paint-by-numbers radio-metal chorus takes over.
Lyrically, much of the record is forgettably bland, but, given the songs with messages that linger, perhaps that's a good thing. Scott spent part of his between-records hiatus lending his voice to the single worst song of 2002: "Hero," the achingly insincere and overwhelmingly cornball anthem he joined with the Nickelback lead singer to foist upon unsuspecting radio listeners. The inspirational message seems to have taken hold judging from "Storm," whose self-help line is "It's up to me/I'm on my own/The message of life is turning/Facing the storm." And then there's "Pride," a patriotic anthem ("Message to our enemies: Never fuck with one who's had to fight for being free" -- leave it to the linguists and grammarians to figure out what that means) designed for WWE fans too cool for country. "The pride of America is the fear that's in your eyes," Scott bellows to said "enemies," which presumably include al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein but not Phil Donahue, though it's even money on Iraqi civilians.
In sum, very disappointing. But hope it goes platinum. Better Saliva than those mopes in Staind.
In some ways, vocalist Susan Marshall is a ubiquitous presence on the local music scene -- fronting her own band for regular gigs, serving as a prime backup vocalist for the local recording industry (where she's worked with the Afghan Whigs and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among others), and lending her considerable talents to the work of other local artists (anyone who's seen Marshall and Jackie Johnston backing up Alvin Youngblood Hart on stage has gotten a real treat). But she's never put out a record of her own -- until now. Susan Marshall Is Honey Mouth (self-released; Grade: B+ ) marks Marshall's debut, and she'll celebrate the release Saturday, December 14th, at the Blue Monkey.
As one might expect from a solo record by a primarily backup singer, Honey Mouth is driven by collaboration, but there's nothing wrong with that and all the collaborations serve to enhance Marshall's centerpiece vocals. But Marshall also has a piece of the songwriting on eight of 11 tracks. The record opens with a bang on the John Kilzer-penned soul tune "Eyes of Love," which has Alvin Youngblood Hart on guitar and builds to a gospel-style vocal explosion that has Marshall belting alongside Jackie Johnson and Reba Russell. Similarly, "Love Me Again" shows off Marshall's chops in blues form, this time playing off both Ross Rice's Hammond B3 organ and Jimmy Davis' vocal accompaniment.
But elsewhere Marshall is more subtle. "Act That Way," co-written with Afghan Whigs lead singer and local drummer Harry Peel, is just the kind of dark, romantic slow burn that the Whigs crafted at their best. "Arkabutla," a sole Marshall credit, is lovingly understated folk-rock that evokes Lucinda Williams. Marshall beautifully negotiates Richard Ford's pedal-steel playing on that track, much as she does a pas de deux with his banjo on "These Things." Other collaborators include bandmate Steve Selvidge, who contributes to several tracks, Jim Dickinson, who lends piano and Wurlitzer organ to the moody "Let You In," and, of course, Marshall's husband Jeff Powell, who serves as producer and engineer for the bulk of the record.