Talk about your easy targets. This collection of musical performances from “Saturday Night Live” just begs to be picked apart, just … asks for it, its chin thrust forward for a quick sucker punch. Twenty-four years of access to some of the greatest live acts in the history of rock and the best DreamWorks can come up with is a watery selection that features Jewel? The Dave Matthews Band? Counting Crows, for Christ’s sake? And why, dear Lord, does the world need another album that features Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You?” Bring me the head of Lorne Michaels. He ain’t using it anyway, at least not those ears.
Actually, the double-disc “Saturday Night Live: The Musical Performances” is credited to DreamWorks’ co-honcho Michael Ostin and “SNL” music talent coordinator Ryan Shiraki, the same man who felt it necessary to book the Corrs, Barenaked Ladies and the Backstreet Boys last season, resulting in channel-clicks that could be heard across the country at around 11:02 p.m. It’s surprising that none of those acts made the short list here, since 24 of the 30 songs date from the ’90s. That makes this a representative collection for those who’ve only seen “Saturday Night Live” on Comedy Central and who think Dennis Miller is an original cast member.
Ostin refers to this dreary, obvious collection as the first volume in a series of releases — “the launch of a franchise,” he has said, featuring “some of the most familiar performances.” He promises future collections will feature more sublime artists (perhaps Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman and Tom Waits, who have all performed) and musical sketches (no doubt Steve Martin’s “King Tut,” Bill Murray’s lounge-lizard “Star Wars” theme and performances from the Blues Brothers, the latter being less a promise than a threat). “We decided to go for the throat,” Ostin says of the first installation. No doubt with a razor blade in one hand and a bucket of salt in the other.
The show certainly has had its share of transcendent musical moments: the night Elvis Costello and the Attractions stopped short during “Less than Zero” and launched into “Radio, Radio,” against Columbia Records’ objections. Or the time the Replacements self-destructed while performing “Bastards of Young.” Or the time Paul Simon performed “Still Crazy After All These Years” dressed in a chicken suit. Or Nirvana’s 1992 appearance, the closest our generation has come to experiencing what it must have been like to witness the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s show. That’s not to mention tantalizing, revelatory performances by the likes of Waits, Gil-Scott Heron, Jimmy Cliff, the Band, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Talking Heads, Devo, the B-52′s, Captain Beefheart and a very young and very unknown Prince. Only Costello’s infamous appearance (which seems, in retrospect, quite quaint, considering that it was one of the moments he was invited to recreate with the Beastie Boys on last weekend’s 25-year anniversary special), ranked high enough to wind up on “The Musical Performances”; the rest have been relegated to later releases, if they show up at all. Instead, Ostin and Shiraki offer us the turgid and obvious: one disc full of old farts and their offspring, and another loaded with alterna-heroes and very, very little hip-hop and R&B.
The first disc begins with Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” from a 1986 appearance — even though Simon and George Harrison sang “Here Comes the Sun” together during the first season. Simon’s cut is as safe and benign as they come, white-washed Afropop fabricated for an audience that searches for its exotica by tuning into public radio. From there, it turns into a playlist only a mother, a frat boy or a VH1 programmer could love: Eric Clapton, James Taylor, Lenny Kravitz, Tom Petty, the Grateful Dead, Billy Joel and Sting. Costello’s “Radio, Radio” and David Bowie’s 1997 rendition of “Scary Monsters” (alas, no “TVC-15″ from 1979) are as out of place on that disc as a hooker in a monastery — sneers and smirks on a CD full of blank stares. Befitting a collection as ill-advised as this, Disc 1 ends with Randy Newman’s tired wink-wink anthem “I Love L.A.,” even though the compilers had myriad better Newman cuts from which to pick (say, 1975′s “Sail Away” or “Dixie Flyer” from 1988).
Disc 2 was custom-made for play at what’s left of alternative radio, beginning with Nirvana’s by-the-numbers rendition of “Rape Me” (and not the aforementioned “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which was simply too enormous for the small screen). The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” and Oasis’ “Acquiesce” come close to capturing a bit of that roar, but it’s too little of not enough; same goes for Dr. Dre’s “Been There Done That” and TLC’s “Creep,” studio products that now sound as though they were recorded inside a tin can. Only Beck’s haunting, perfect “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” — from January of this year! — stands up to repeated listens, if only to stop you from getting to Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket,” which follows two songs later. Then again, it could have been worse. At least there’s no Anne Murray, Billy Squier, John Waite or Loverboy — though listen to this thing once, and you’ll wonder why the hell not.