These don’t go to 11

Imagine being a critic who writes for Entertainment Weekly or Time, and you’re faced with the problem of addressing the latest Madonna record. The magazine you work for is owned by the same company that owns Warner Bros., which releases Madge’s records. Do you pull your punches or tell the truth? As the arts editor at SN&R, I’m faced with a new compilation CD, Sacramento Unplugged, which was produced under the aegis of this newspaper. So, here’s my assessment.

First, a recording (as well as a book, a play or a film) can be handicapped by a major flaw in its organizing principles. Consider Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York. It looked good enough to garner a ton of Oscar nominations, but it was undercut by screenwriter Jay Cocks’ insistence on boiling an epic tale down to the hackneyed story of a boy who grows up to avenge his father’s killing—with a superfluous pickpocket with a heart of gold, played by the not-at-all-believable Cameron Diaz, thrown in for no reason. As talented as Scorsese and that cast were, there was no way around that bad script.

Ergo, Sacramento Unplugged. The original Unplugged was an MTV series that featured acts, most of them known for high-volume electric sounds, in a more intimate, stripped-down, acoustic setting. On the plus side, it allowed a song to stand alone without studio trickery; on the minus side, it gave lesser acts a new weapon to inflict mediocrity on the masses—which had impact, both internationally and locally. There’s nothing like suffering through some hair-metal strutter howling buttrock clichés over furiously strummed acoustic guitars, as many open-mic audiences subsequently found out.

The basic problem with Sacramento Unplugged is that it is rooted in an aesthetic that has not aged well. Though few of the bands on the CD were around during classic rock’s heyday, most of them sound, at least here, as if they’ve decided that it’s still Twofer Tuesday in Rocktober and that someday they’ll graduate to Bill Graham’s Day on the Green.

Not that it’s a truly bad record. Brian Wheat, the Tesla and Soul Motor bassist who chose the bands and produced, recorded and mixed the 15-song CD, has fashioned a sound bed whose occasionally swirling instrumental parts owe a little to the pensive textures of Led Zeppelin’s quieter moments. And there are some fine tracks here: the Ricky & Del Connection’s “Submarine,” ¡Bucho!’s “Tonight Will Come,” Anton Barbeau’s “Keep My Face Clean” and Looking Star’s “Read You,” to mention a few.

The biggest disappointment, however, is that Sacramento Unplugged doesn’t represent the richness of our local music scene the way it could have.

(The third of three Sacramento Unplugged showcases at the Radisson Hotel, 500 Leisure Lane, will take place at 8 p.m. Friday, August 8. On the bill are Honeyspot, Anton Barbeau, the Bob Zoppi Band and Looking Star. Tickets are $12.50 advance and $15 the day of the show; all ages are welcome.)