Green Day (Reprise 46046)
As anyone old enough to remember the Jam or the Buzzcocks could tell you, Green Day is hardly the most original punk rock combo to hit the radio, but it does have an impressive amount of pop savvy. After all, what put "Dookie" over the top wasn't that it articulated the angst and anomie of a generation; it was because the album's best songs were undeniably ear-catching and energetic. Unfortunately, that's not the case with "Insomniac." Although the band relies on the same basic sound as on "Dookie" -- crunchy, powerchord guitar, tuneful, surging bass lines and tough, English-style vocals -- it doesn't deploy those elements with anywhere near the same imagination. Where hits like "Longview" and "When I Come Around" offset their punchy choruses with low-key verses and dramatic shifts in dynamics, all "Insomniac" offers is a steady blare, as "Geek Stink Breath," "86" and "Walking Contradiction" bury their hooks in an undifferentiated roar of guitar, bass and drums. Even when the group does try for a little instrumental finesse, as on "Jaded" or the itchy "Panic Song," the arrangements seem too static to deliver the kind of impact the band's big hits had. As a result, "Insomniac" is mostly a snooze.
Various Artists (Go! Discs/London 422 828 682)
Civilian casualties from the war in Bosnia may not rank as a major concern among American rock stars, but they matter quite a lot in Britain -- particularly when the casualties in question are children. That's why some of the biggest names in British rock decided to help, and recorded "Help." All of the album's 20 tracks were recorded in a single day (though at different locations) and range from moody, thought-provoking work like Radiohead's "Lucky" to an all-star rendition of "Come Together" BTC that finds Paul Weller harmonizing with such friends as Paul McCartney. The music isn't always as good as the intentions, as the conceptual humor of "Eine Kleine Lift Musik" by Seymour (aka Blur) is a tad too obtuse for Yanks to appreciate, while Sinead O'Connor's "Ode to Billie Joe" manages the impressive feat of sounding even sillier than the original. Balance that against Orbital's dark, moody "Adnan" or Suede's melancholy take on "Shipbuilding," and on the whole, "Help" offers an impressive cross-section of contemporary British rock.
Sonic Youth (DGC 24825)
Although Sonic Youth has never been an easy band, it has made attempts at pop accessibility. That was definitely the idea behind the albums "Goo" and "Dirty," and the warped hooks and almost-catchy choruses that peppered those albums seemed typical of the group's major-label output. Until "Washing Machine," that is. By returning to the cycle that gave us darker, demanding works like "Sister" and "Daydream Nation," the Sonics seem to have abandoned their fascination with pop subversion, stressing relatively abstract concepts such as resonance and texture over accessible elements such as melody and song structure. "Junkie's Promise," for instance, starts out as gut-level catchy as any garage rock classic but refuses to settle for the droning menace of the verse, slowly upping the rhythmic intensity and harmonic density until it explodes in a white-light blur of guitar and percussion. Difficult? Sure. Thrilling? Absolutely. And it's that visceral impact that makes the chordal complexities and ripsaw textures of "Saucer-Like" and "The Diamond Sea" worth enduring.
Electrafixion (Sire 61793)
When Thomas Wolfe wrote that "you can't go home again," he should have added, "or re-form your old band." At least, that seems to be the lesson of Electrafixion, the band that reunites Echo and the Bunnymen founders Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant. Although there are moments when the band evokes the arch melodicism and atmospheric clangor of the Bunnymen, those mostly seem like false echoes, playing off a musical vocabulary that has long since lost its meaning. So even though such songs as "Lowdown" and "Zephyr" seem similar in approach to Bunnymen oldies, there's something awkward and artificial about their sound and feel, as if the participants really couldn't remember what was so magical about the old days. At least they are honest about one thing -- anyone hoping for another helping of Echo and the Bunnymen is definitely going to feel "Burned" by Electrafixion.