Live – Birds Of Pray (2003)

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It’s hard to fault a band for wanting to stick to their “norms.” The fans have some expectations as to what the band’s signature sound is. Some bands set a precedent for themselves, that no two albums will deliver any similarities between others, but these bands are the ones who find a niche audience — perhaps after a significant single announced them to the world.

The problem facing bands that set out to experiment and evolve with each release is that with each album they risk alienating any fans who latched onto a particular style the band may have only briefly examined. They survive by playing to a small core of fans who thrive on the new textures and adventures these bands set out upon. But for even moderately successful (read: commercial) artists, the key to their continued success is not taking risks but in delivering what the fans want and expect. This, obviously, can be a tremendous cross to bear for a band: The soul of an artist is kept alive by experimenting, but experimenting is exactly what might turns fan away.

After experimenting (and failing, in most fans’ eyes) with popular dance-music trends on V, it’s hard to fault Live for sticking to the “Live formula” on their follow-up release, Birds of Pray.

V failed mostly because the band only tested the waters of electronics. If anything sinks an “experiment,” however mainstream and unchallenging as it may really be, it is simply not following through. The fear of diving into the deep end, into completely uncharted territory, prevents musical ideas from being fully fleshed out to the point where the songs can’t help but exceed expectations. Blur managed to successfully accomplish this task on their fantastic Think Tank, but it is only because they refused to let any notions of what “Blur” means interfere with the experimenting. Live very self-consciously incorporated the glossy sheen and churning rhythms of techno into their new songs, and the result was an insincere and ingenuine attempt to branch out.

Live found itself with a legion of upset fans, unhappy at the band for delivering not another album of energetic anthems but an album of techno’d-up “party songs” (or the closest thing Live could come to “party,” given the penchant for Buddhist-mantra inspired lyrics). When your forte’ is not taking chances but creating emotional anthems, fans feel slighted and even ignored by an effort like this — the album comes across as an attempt to garner new fans, not to supplement the current ones, but to replace them.

For album No. 6, Live employed their standard formula and provided an unsurprising, but pleasing, return to the form perfected on 1999’s The Distance To Here, an album many fans not stuck on the commercial success of their breakthrough album Throwing Copper considered to be their peak. Big guitars, chugging rhythms, and catchy choruses abound, but its high points are album opener and lead single, “Heaven.” For fans who’ve been wanting another out-and-out rocker like Copper’s “Stage,” they get it on Birds Of Pray in the guise of “Bring The People Together.”

“Sweet Release” is the track that finds the band successfully changing their traditional mood — if only a little — with the kind of uptempo, but very mature-sounding power ballad only hinted at by one other track in their catalog, “Overwhelmed” from V. It works, as “Overwhelmed” did, because it never resorts to retreading the well-worn ground of “Lightning Crashes” nor the passive blandness of Secret Samadhi’s “Turn My Head,” or the outright, deliberate attempt at a hammy prom-night ballad “Nobody Knows.” It also works because it’s the album’s only concession to the unspoken rule of having a “big ballad” on every album, and therefore allows Live to keep the tempo and energy up until the big closer, a vague and generic assumedly anti-war proclamation in the form of “What Are We Fighting For?”

Birds Of Pray probably didn’t garner new fans for having taken chances, but it satisfied long-time fans who simply wanted more of what Live does so well — provide big arena rock in a form that sits slightly outside of the mainstream.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Johnson
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