This Is Not A Black And White World: Live’s Mental Jewelry Turns 30

Why the York, PA band’s auspicious 1991 classic deserves as much appreciation as its multiplatinum successors

Live Mental Jewelry, Radioactive Records 1991

York, Pennsylvania rockers Live seemingly appeared out of nowhere at the end of 1991 with their album Mental Jewelry, released on December 31st.

Live would make a name for themselves over the next two years, first by appearing on a Spring 1992 120 Minutes package tour with Blind Melon, Big Audio Dynamite II, and Public Image Limited. They would spend the next year and a half touring regularly behind moderate alternative rock hit singles, “Pain Lies On The Riverside” and “Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition).”

But Live had been around for several years before the world knew about them. The group was formed in 1984 by four high school friends, lead singer Ed Kowalczyk, guitarist Chad Taylor, bassist Patrick Dahlheimer, and drummer Chad Gracey. They kicked around a few different names before deciding on Public Affection. They would play around the New England region quite regularly, building up a name for themselves on the college rock and alternative circuits. Upon graduating from High School, they decided to give Public Affection a serious, full-time push, aiming for a record deal. That deal would come in 1991 when they would be signed to Radioactive Records. One condition: a name change, and soon they were known as Live. (Several decades later, Kowalczyk was asked if, had known about search engines, would they have chosen the name. “Probably not,” he laughed.)  

When the band went into the studio, they were matched up with Talking Heads’ Jerry Harrison. They would go to work crafting their new album; in August 1991, they released their debut for Radioactive, the EP Four Songs, which featured the single “Operation Spirit (The Tyranny of Tradition),” which would prove to be a minor hit, thanks in part to what would become a common image in the band’s video; a skinny, shirtless Kowalczyk writhing around for the camera. The EP would prove a low-key but meaningful introduction to the world of the young band and their forthcoming album.

 

AUDIO: Public Affection Death of a Dictionary

It should be noted that Mental Jewelry is not the debut album from Live. It is their second album; their debut came in 1989 with The Death Of A Dictionary, released under their name Public Affection. That album takes cues from the college rock/roots rock sounds you’d hear from R.E.M., Toad The Wet Sprocket, or 10,000 Maniacs; it’s an interesting listen, albeit somewhat derivative, and while one can understand why they left that behind with the name change, it’s not without its charms. Give it a listen; you’ll be surprised at how good it is for such a young band.

For those whose introduction to Mental Jewelry came from Throwing Copper, the opening track “Pain Lies On The Riverside” deftly connects the dots. A blistering rocker with a combination Middle Eastern groove and a potent bass line, it’s as powerful as any of the songs on Throwing Copper. But listen to it closer; that electrifying number that hints at the potent guitar rock of Throwing Copper is, in fact, an acoustic rock number. It’s a testament to Kowalczyk’s increasingly powerful singing voice that one doesn’t notice the arrangement is stripped down. “Operation Spirit” and “The Beauty of Grey” may tone down the album opener’s intensity, but they’re equally powerful rock numbers. 

We should also note that Mental Jewelry was initially pushed as a funk album. As hard as it may be to believe, it’s absolutely true. The stripped-down acoustic-style arrangements brought the bass front and center on many of the tracks, almost distractingly so on the softer numbers. But man, Mental Jewelry certainly proves that bassist Patrick Dahlhamer can easily give Flea and Fishbone’s Norwood Fisher a run for their money.

While Mental Jewelry is an enjoyable album, it, unfortunately, suffers from one major flaw; after the first few numbers, a sonic monotony begins to set in. Not that the numbers are bad; one can only handle mid-tempo, earnest acoustic funk-based roots rock in one sitting. Kowalczyk’s lyrics are deep and meaningful, and though far from preachy, songs about world peace, the relationship one has with the rest of humanity, and the temporal nature of life can tire you out. For a young band indebted to and inspired by R.E.M., these little Michael Stipe-isms are understandable, even if they tend to become a bit insufferable.

Not surprisingly, the 1991 Gulf War looms large over Mental Jewelry. It’s an anti-war album that’s cloaked in Eastern spiritualism and philosophy. After all, the album’s first line is “I have never taken life, while the album’s title comes from a line in “Mirror Song,” (“Flags and mental jewelry’s all I know”) which discusses the blinding nature of patriotism. Kowalczyk’s songwriting also reminds us to remember that those in foreign lands are indeed our fellow man (“Brothers Unaware”) and that we should strive for peace and understanding (“10,000 Years (Peace Is Now)”).  

Live Mental Jewelry, Radioactive Records 1991

(Thankfully, Kowalczyk’s songwriting would blossom tremendously, and he would excel at couching his penchant for philosophy with straightforward metaphors, such as the circle of life in the form of two women in the same emergency room, the destructive nature of religion crouched inside a super radio-friendly alt-rock jock jam, or having the realization of the importance of meaningful love while getting a blowjob from a random groupie he kind of likes.)

Another reason Mental Jewelry slipped into obscurity is that the band simply outgrew it. Looking at their setlist history helps confirm the theory. Up until 1994, they performed most of the album’s 12 songs. After the release of Throwing Copper, they performed fewer Mental Jewelry numbers—a not surprising concession any band would make in the wake of a multiplatinum album. By 2000, they rarely performed more than two Mental Jewelry numbers a night, rotating between four key tracks: “Pain Lies On The Riverside,” “Operation Spirit,” “The Beauty of Grey,” and “Mirror Song,” all four of which are considered the album’s finest, not to mention the album’s four singles. As the music on Throwing Copper found the band warping beyond the relatively simplistic arrangements of Mental Jewelry, it’s inevitable that the little underdog “debut” would quickly be outgrown.

 

 

Mental Jewelry might pale in the shadow of its predecessor, but it’s still a lovely record. It’s the sound of a young band in its formative years, still trying to figure out who it wants to be and how it wants to sound. In 1994, drummer Chad Gracey credited that to producer Jerry Harrison: “The main thing he brought to us for Mental Jewelry is arrangement. Putting the songs together and making them as strong as they could be on a record. And he understands that because he’s made plenty of them.”

In later interviews, they would credit working with Harrison as being a two-part process. For Mental Jewelry, it was about learning to build powerful arrangements that would transform in the live setting; for Throwing Copper, it was about taking what they’d learned from their year and a half of touring and figuring out how to apply it to their new material. 

What was that realization they came up with? Their songs needed electric guitars. 

And boy, would that lesson they learned prove extremely lucrative for them the next time around…

 

VIDEO: Live “Pain Lies By The Riverside”

 

 

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Joseph Kyle

Joseph Kyle is a contributing writer for RockandRollGlobe.com. Follow him @TheRecoup.

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