Pretty on the Outside

Hole moves from the slums to the sunshine.

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Melissa Auf der Maur is feeling frisky. She's just spent the day shopping in Kansas City, where Hole is playing later in the evening. Auf der Maur, the band's bass player, wasn't trolling for a sleeveless gown but light-hearted show props. "I'm on the road, getting a little delirious," she says via cell phone and between bites of the house salad at a local restaurant. "I need more fun onstage."

Auf der Maur reports that she bought a piece of headgear with a miner's light, plastic noses, and some inflatable device whose purpose does not sound kinky. Judging by the results of her shopping spree and the tone in her voice, Hole's recent defection from its tour with Marilyn Manson has been liberating. The night before, at an outdoor show in Tulsa, a lightning storm crackled in the sky; Hole invited a few dozen young women in the audience onstage to escape the fury and dance around. Auf der Maur accidentally stepped on a few toes. "Every time I moved a step, I heard a little girl go aah!," she says.

The Manson-Hole arena tour--a double dose of artfulness, ego, excess, and (oh, yeah) rock music--seemed like a good idea for about five minutes. Manson and Hole both released records last fall that were met with critical nods of approval but with indifference by the record-buying public. The tour was a chance for each band to display its formidable survival instincts. If Manson could put up with Hole, and Hole with Manson, what's your problem?

There were problems, though, and Hole quit the tour. "That's two weeks out of my life, and I haven't even noticed," Auf der Maur says. "It was kind of like a kink in my side, and now it's gone." The arenas were ruled by Manson fans who weren't ready to watch their lanky hero leave Satan's Little Workshop for Suffragette City, let alone a band fronted by a woman not afraid to tell them to go screw themselves. The package was touted as the Rock Isn't Dead Tour, but based on Auf der Maur's description, the Male Juvenile Idiocy Isn't Dead Tour would have been a more appropriate theme. Manson may understand the irony of his shtick; sixteen-year-old boys do not.

"The hate chants and all that, I just didn't get it," Auf der Maur says. "I just don't see how that helps anything. I don't hold them--the band--accountable, but you do have to have a responsibility to shed some light behind whatever statements are being made, and I didn't see that there. Manson--Brian--he's a smart guy, but he's not thinking about the scope of things."

Saddling up with Manson was an especially strange move for Hole, in light of allegations that Courtney Love had already ridden the talents of other men--late husband Kurt Cobain and longtime friend Billy Corgan--like a mean-spirited jockey. The 1994 album Live Through This was issued just days after Cobain swallowed a shotgun (there were grumbles from the fringe that he shared his songbook with her and she, well, murdered him), and a who-deserves-credit skirmish between Love and Corgan, who co-wrote some of the tracks on the band's latest album, Celebrity Skin.

Having split with Manson, Hole will spend the spring and summer playing cozy theaters and outdoor venues, including a multi-group tour across Canada. Love's crew is the only American band on the bill, which delights the Montreal-born Auf der Maur.

Where the pairing with Manson seemed all wrong, this seems right: Hole, in the summer light, working "Awful," the third single from Celebrity Skin. After all, the band's music on the new album has more in common with Brian Wilson's endless summer than with Kurt Cobain's long winter of discontent. To make the album, Hole shook off the soot of the grunge revolution and sank its toes in the beaches of Southern California. If 1991's Pretty on the Inside was Hole's punk record and Live Through This a rock record, Celebrity Skin is pop music. What makes the album work is not an eagerness to please that damns so many pop records, but its laid-back feel. It's not unlike the great albums by the Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac, which may have been hell to make, but sounded free and easy, like a dispatch from utopia.

Auf der Maur says the band didn't set out to make a California record, but after trying to write and record in other cities, the group settled there, and the place began to weave beautiful, perverse magic. No, Celebrity Skin doesn't rise to the level of Pet Sounds and Rumours, but it captures something. Love may have groveled for acceptance in Hollywood, but on the record she sounds as though she's standing on the outside with the rest of us. Even Love acknowledged the influence, says Auf der Maur, and when it began creeping into her lyrics, "She said, 'Let's look to California as a muse.'"

Hole used acoustic guitars on Live Through This, but has perfected their use on Celebrity Skin, where they're used confidently on tracks like "Northern Star" and the so-pretty "Malibu." The softer-edged sound suits the band and helps Love seem like less of a poseur than she did back in her raunchy days. Today, it's hard not to look back at Pretty on the Inside and Live Through This and chuckle at Love's defiance. She positioned herself as the angry swan, but would later surrender to the plastic surgeon's knife and start modeling Versace. "I don't think it was an aesthetic change," Auf der Maur says of Celebrity Skin's sound, "as much as 'Let's learn our craft' and listen to the Beatles as much as Mudhoney."

Auf der Maur's been a nice addition to the band (she replaced Kristen Pfaff, who died of a heroin overdose in 1994). She co-wrote a handful of the songs on Celebrity Skin and is a strong player, and her swirling background vocals prop up Love's limited pipes. Recently, Auf der Maur was named bassist of the year in a poll conducted by the Gibson guitar company. She calls the honor "one of the best things that happened to me in music."

Auf der Maur's lack of cynicism can be refreshing, but she grows defensive when asked if she's surprised that Love brought the band poppier material to record for Celebrity Skin. "Every song is written as a band, as a collaboration," she says, her voice hardening. Later, Auf der Maur complains that Guitar Player magazine won't give guitarist Eric Erlandson more than a half-page write-up--more evidence that the members of Hole still don't quite realize how completely Love dominates the endeavor.

Certainly Hole is more group project than vanity piece, but, hey, that's not a picture of Erlandson as a barefoot adolescent on the back cover of Live Through This. Hole is Courtney Love. She's too damn famous for it to be any other way. (The recent news that drummer Patty Schemel is no longer in the band, for example, made barely a ripple.) In some ways, Love is like Mango, the male stripper on Saturday Night Live who demands to be adored, but won't allow anyone past his dressing room door. It works both ways. The soft returns on Celebrity Skin and the film 200 Cigarettes, which featured Love, suggest we like gawking at and reading about her more than we like consuming her art.

Auf der Maur, though, doesn't seemed wigged out that Celebrity Skin failed to match the media-generated hype. "It wasn't an overnight explosion like Alanis Morissette, but I don't think many bands with a history or a future do that. So, no, we're okay with that," she says. And if it bothers Auf der Maur that she and the rest of the band don't get their props, she can commiserate with the woman at center stage. Says Auf der Maur: "Everyone thinks Kurt wrote the last record and Billy wrote this one."

Hole, with Imperial Teen. 8 p.m., Friday, May 21, Nautica Stage, 2014 Sycamore Road, the Flats, $26.50 ($29 day of show), Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.

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