Thick as thieves 

With Creed and Paloalto, it's more than a feeling

It was 1991. Hair metal and cheez-pop were still king and queen of the charts. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came crashing down upon us and everything changed. But while it was nothing like the glossy pap it displaced, there was something strangely familiar about Nirvana's three minutes of disaffection.

That something was Boston. Not the city, the band. Consciously or subconsciously, Kurt Cobain had cribbed the chord progression for Boston's '70s shlock-anthem "More Than a Feeling" and built the song that would revitalize pop music around it. As Alanis would say: Isn't it ironic?

Theft is part of pop music. In fact, it's most of it. Presley, Dylan, the Stones, the Monkees, George Clinton, Tom Waits, Britney Spears -- they're all thieves. The clever ones hide it better than the thick ones, but anyone who tells you they're an original is full of shit. Pop music is built on that which has come before it. Most artists go out of their way to credit their forebears, at least partially out of fear of being flayed for ripping them off. So why are some thefts acceptable and even lauded while others are flogged mercilessly?

No doubt, the Orlando, Fla., foursome Creed have spent some time pondering that very question. Despite having sold nearly 15 million copies of their first two records and despite a string of seven consecutive No. 1 singles -- perhaps because of these things -- the band has been dragged through the streets naked by critics for shamelessly recycling the sounds of classic grunge.

A quick listen to their recent release, Human Clay, finds them guilty as charged. Forget, for a moment, lead singer Scott Stapp's uncanny vocal resemblance to Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder; the riffs, the tempos and even the attitude recall bands such as Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and (of course) Pearl Jam with frightening exactitude.

But is such musical mimicry inherently bad? Many of the same critics who've nailed Creed to the cross for their Pearl Jam-isms have responded with glowing praise to the California band, Paloalto, who just as thoroughly appropriate the sound and feel of another iconic '90s band, Radiohead. In fact, the band's self-titled debut, which has been garnering airplay on modern-rock stations nationwide, sounds a lot more like vintage Radiohead than Radiohead themselves do these days.

With crunching guitars, soaring melodies, dynamic orchestration and lead singer James Grundler serving up lyrics rife with alienation and despair in a mush-mouthed whine so much like Thom Yorke it's doubtful Yorke's mum could tell them apart, there's no question Paloalto could be comfortably squeezed between Pablo Honey and The Bends in Radiohead's catalog. In the words of Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath, a guy who knows a thing or two about musical theft himself, "Paloalto has made the record Radiohead should have made." Instead, of course, Radiohead delivered the more difficult and obscure Kid A this year.

Yet, for all its shortcomings, there's undeniably something more appealing about Paloalto than Creed. What, though? Neither band adds much to the classic sounds they borrow from so liberally. Neither rearranges the sounds in new or interesting ways. Neither even injects a new spirit or new emotion into its work. And both are equally earnest -- embarrassingly so, in fact -- in delivering the goods.

So why does Creed's theft ring so hollow while Paloalto's rings true? Certainly there's an element of snobbery and backlash involved in the dismissal of a band like Creed. Call it the Hootie factor -- something on the order of, "Nothing that 15 million people agree on can be all that good."

More likely, though, it's simply a matter of saturation. Thanks to bands such as Bush, Silverchair, 7 Mary 3 and Days of the New, we've already had to endure nearly a decade's worth of grunge, each successive wave of which feels more watered-down than the one before. By contrast, Radiohead's ascendancy to rock divinity has been a rather recent phenomenon from which we are only now beginning to see the fallout. Because they've managed to jump on the gravy train before we've tired of what it's serving, Paloalto seems somehow fresher and more vital. Aping Radiohead is, for now, still a relatively novel concept.

Of course, Creed's mega-platinum sales are proof the general populace has hardly tired of grunge. But history tells us they will. If future releases prove the group's talents do not stretch beyond mere imitation, Creed will continue to be the critics' whipping boy and their sales will inevitably decline. And though we may be able to put up with them now, if Paloalto don't find a new tune to hum, they'll be fodder for the wolves soon enough as well.

The inexplicable career of Lenny Kravitz notwithstanding, artists who are merely unimaginative thieves are destined to be little more than pop music footnotes. Of course, they often sell a ton of records along the way. Just ask Boston.

Creed play Philips Arena on Mon., Dec. 12. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $36.50, available through Ticketmaster. Paloalto performs with the Wallflowers and Vertical Horizon at the 99X Deck the Hall Ball, Sat., Dec. 9, at the Atlanta Civic Center. Show time is 7 p.m. Tickets are $39.99, available through Ticketmaster.


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