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EMPTY WAILS VAN HALEN'S DOWNWARD SPIRAL

REMEMBER Spinal Tap, the old metal band that kept losing its drummer? Spinal Tap was just a spoof, but when it comes to real-life rock 'n' roll, Van Halen suffers from a similar malady -- replacing lead singers.

David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar -- the stud and bud -- took turns as Van Halen's frontman during the past two decades. Now it's Gary Cherone's turn. Cherone came from the band Extreme and pleases Eddie Van Halen.

"I've been looking for a singer like Gary all my life," Eddie said with a straight face in a recent interview.

The bottom line, though, is that it really doesn't matter who is in front of the microphone. The heart of this band is Eddie Van Halen and his guitar.

Van Halen is one of the great rock guitarists of all time. He is a master at riffing and wailing, but that's not enough to inject energy into the band's new CD. This is packaged and bland Van Halen.

Sure, the band has sold nearly 70 million records in its entire history, but classic rock has its limits. Eddie Van Halen and his brother, Alex, on drums may be great musicians, but with all their skill -- along with help from Michael Anthony on bass -- they sound tired.

"Without You" and "One I Want" are halfhearted, punch-the-clock efforts. "From Afar" is more grumbling from Cherone, and "Dirty Water Dog" tries to sound nasty but fails.

There are a few highlights. "Josephina" has a Beatles flavor and displays a softer side of Van Halen, which is refreshing. The band turns to blues on "Year to the Day," and Eddie steals the show with a tender acoustic riff to start the number.

Overall, though, Van Halen may be played out, no matter who is doing the singing. Two decades is a long time, even in the decaying world of classic rock. Rating:** .

Women artists are blossoming on the pop charts and the latest is Natalie Imbruglia. She's 23, from Australia, and just might be the next Alanis Morissette.

Imbruglia's impressive debut was produced by Nigel Godrich, who works with Radiohead. The track "Torn" is already a hit single and showcases Imbruglia's contemporary sound. She combines pop, a bit of trip-hop and a touch of techno. "Torn's" success is no surprise to Imbruglia.

"That's the song I wanted to introduce myself with," said Imbruglia, who is best-known as a TV actress in Australia. "I felt that it set up the rest of the album because of its diversity. It fits in everywhere and nowhere."

Imbruglia's convincing voice and passion for lyrics make her work special. She turns to a longing mood on "Summertime" and seeks freedom on "Leave Me Alone." Imbruglia shows a rock sensibility, with some techno, on "Impressed." Rating:*** 1/2 .

What the heck are the Goo Goo Dolls doing on a Fleetwood Mac tribute?

Looks like the Buffalo rockers are paying some record company dues on a tribute album designed as a cash cow for younger acts, following in the footsteps of Fleetwood Mac.

The Goos try to be interested on "I Don't Want to Know," but it's almost as antiseptic as the rest of this misguided CD.

The Cranberries take a shot at "Go Your Own Way," but it comes across sounding like lead singer Dolores O'Riordan doing karaoke.

There's more to this Big Mac attack. Elton John sounds hung over on a techno-flavored "Don't Stop." Matchbox 20 seems outclassed on "Never Going Back Again" and Duncan Sheik turns overly morbid on "Songbird."

Shawn Colvin takes a turn at "The Chain," one of the better tracks on this album, but Tonic's "Second Hand News" is a sleepwalker. Sister Hazel turns back the clock with a trippy version of "Gold Dust Woman," but it comes across as spaced out.

Die-hard Fleetwood Mac fans will love this, but all others should stay clear. Rating:** .

Scott Weiland had a good thing going with Stone Temple Pilots until drugs got in the way.

The band's former lead singer has been kind of a rock 'n' roll junkie for the past couple years, in and out of rehab and struggling to stay straight.

Weiland is now back with a solo effort and seems as unpredictable as ever.

"I love rock stars," Weiland said in a press statement for the album. "I'm intrigued by the glamour and the danger."

Weiland sounds disjointed and uncertain on this effort. He's trying too hard to be David Bowie and, though the sound is new, the results are mixed.

"Desperation #5," the opening track, is a techno computer number with Weiland's electronically altered vocal dominating. The gimmickry overwhelms the song.

"Barbarella" begins with an orchestra and turns into a folky, pop number with Weiland's soothing voice adding a gentle touch. "About Nothing" sounds like a U2 rip-off from 1994, and "Where's the Man" has a Rolling Stones feeling from the band's "Angie" period.

Weiland works so hard trying to deny his musical past that he's lost his originality.

"Grunge is dead," Weiland says, "and I shed no tears at the funeral. I don't really give a s--- about what's cool and what's not cool, because I've never been regarded as cool.

"Rock 'n' roll is dying because record companies are trying so hard to load up their rosters full of wanna-be alternative bands. You get bands that are just so mediocre . . . "

Maybe Weiland should listen to Hanson. Then he could copy their riffs. Rating:** .

Pete Seeger's life and career is a reminder of what the power of music means. Seeger has touched generations of Americans and people all over the world with his lyrics and music.

A fitting tribute for Seeger is a two-disc set on Appleseed Records. Such artists as Ani DiFranco, Bruce Springsteen, Judy Collins, Bruce Cockburn, Roger McGuinn and Donovan capture the essence of Seeger's spirit and soul. Rating:**** .

VAN HALEN Van Halen 3 (Warner Bros. 46662-2)
NANCY IMBRUGLIA Left of the Middle (RCA 67634)
VARIOUS ARTISTS A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac (Atlantic/Lava 83054-2)
SCOTT WEILAND 12 Bar Blues (Atlantic 83084)
VARIOUS ARTISTS The Songs of Pete Seeger (Appleseed 1024)

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