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Review: Hole flaunts survival with polished 'Celebrity Skin'

Web posted on: Friday, September 04, 1998 12:44:31 PM

From Reviewer Wendy Brandes

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Paula Jones gave it her best shot, but the award for Most Amazing Makeover goes to Courtney Love. No more secondhand baby-doll dresses, thank you; Ms. Love will wear Versace to the Oscars. The former "kinderwhore" practically danced down the red carpet last year, each step taking her farther from grunge-rock widowhood to ... what?

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Four years have gone by since Love's husband, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, killed himself, days before Love and her band Hole released their breakthrough album, "Live Through This." And it's been two years since her star turn in "The People vs. Larry Flynt."

A little coasting can turn into a bad habit, and Love's foes, who are legion, thrilled to think that the former groupie/stripper would slip back into the obscurity from whence she came, or that she would at least lurk forever at Hollywood's fringes, typecast as a junkie, another blonde with a history of rehab, plastic surgery and carbohydrate-free diets.

Alas for the naysayers, Love has a knack for surviving and she flaunts it on Hole's polished new album. "Celebrity Skin" is more pop-oriented than "Live Through This," on which Love screamed out gory details of her personal domestic hell to the accompaniment of Eric Erlandson's grinding guitar. "I'm Miss World," she groaned. "Somebody kill me."

While she was working on the songs for that album, she was half of rock's ultimate power couple, but her husband was plagued by depression and heroin addiction. In addition, the pair briefly lost custody of their infant daughter after a 1992 article in "Vanity Fair" alleged Love used heroin while pregnant.

Detoxed darling

A lot has changed since then. Today, Love is the detoxed darling of the very Establishment that she railed against and that once savaged her. By 1995, "Vanity Fair" was portraying her lovingly on the cover as a tattooed Renaissance angel. And now "Celebrity Skin" brings Love's music to a more mainstream audience.

The new album makes clear that she's growing out of mosh pits and monotonous soft-LOUD-soft-LOUD verse-chorus patterns. As she sings on "Awful," "It was punk/Yeah, it was perfect now it's awful."

So on this album, Love, Erlandson, drummer Patty Schemel and bassist Melissa Auf der Maur try out a slightly mellower groove. "Hit So Hard" has a folky lilt that makes it sound like a Lilith Fair refugee, and "Malibu" channels Stevie Nicks. The album's best songs -- including the title track and "Petals" -- combine the new tunefulness with the hard, simple hooks of yore.

Of course, Love wouldn't be Love without controversy, and this album bears its share. The Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, who shares music credit on five of the album's 12 tracks, has reportedly bragged that he should get credit for the whole album. (Love has sole credit for all the lyrics.) Back in 1994, the acclaim for "Live Through This" was undercut by whispers that Love's late husband wrote the album.

Combine those conspiracy theories with the unfounded but persistent rumor that Cobain was actually murdered, and it is no surprise that, in the song "Celebrity Skin," Love calls herself "A walking study/in demonology."

She conjures up all the resulting angst for the powerful, grunge throwback "Reasons to be Beautiful," a devastating response to Cobain's suicide note, parts of which Love read to fans shortly after his death. Cobain wrote, "The worst crime is faking it" and quoted Neil Young's "It's better to burn out than to fade away." Love retorts: "When the fire goes out you better learn to fake/It's better to rise than fade away."

This ferocious will to survive ultimately outweighs the self-destructiveness of lines that echo "Live Through This," like "Love hangs herself/With the bedsheets in her cell."

Still showing her teeth

But does surviving mean selling out? Not necessarily. No matter how much Love yearns to be the public's new pet, the alienation and rage that have driven her so far still compel her to show her teeth.

The title cut makes that fiercely clear. Her sing-song "When I wake up in my makeup/It's too early for that dress" mocks her own desire to gain acceptance via better dye jobs -- and the public that reacts to her physical transformation by forgiving her past. And she expects a big payoff. "You want a part of me," she growls. "Well, I'm not selling cheap."

Love's little-known first album, which was the musical equivalent of scrubbing one's eardrums with sandpaper, was called "Pretty on the Inside." This time, she wavered over a title before settling on "Celebrity Skin." The choice says a lot about what has changed, and what never will.

Hole's "Celebrity Skin" releases September 8 on the David Geffen Company Records label.

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