Veruca Salt are innocent. Veruca Salt are mediocre. Veruca Salt are chattel.

Subject of one of the year’s most frenzied major-label bidding wars on the basis of an unbelievable gush of hype and a 2,000-run seven-inch single–the ubiquitous “Seether”–Veruca Salt are a seamless paradigm for marketable “alternative” rock. In the profit-motivated saga of the music business, Veruca Salt are just another chapter in an old story. What’s new–and particularly distressing–about their rapid ascent has been the manner in which the critics have uncritically held hands with the industry while it created the deafening buzz.

One expects label reps to have dollar signs for eyes, but the music press has always worked under the notion that it was looking for bands that would become successful artistically, not those who’d become financially successful. Now music writers are becoming like art investors: more concerned with the bottom line than with lines and shapes. Reading through Veruca Salt’s voluminous clips, one is hard-pressed to find any musical critique of the band apart from incessant (and somewhat well founded) comparisons to the Breeders–which, of course, is one of the band’s selling points. Instead you get lots of prognosticating on their great chances of scoring big sales. While Veruca Salt lack the savvy of Chicago’s grand dame of alternative rock, Liz Phair, a comment made by Phair in the Tribune Sunday magazine a few weeks ago also applies, sadly, to these inheritors of the mantle: “You don’t get big money based on merit . . . it’s not an issue in this equation.” It’s an idea Veruca Salt, in their desire for indie-rock credibility, would probably be loathe to admit, but at the same time they haven’t done much to dispel it.

Their recent sold-out performance at Lounge Ax, celebrating the release of their hotly anticipated debut album, American Thighs, was filled (like most of the band’s gigs) with greedy industry vultures looking to swoop down on their prey. Lost in all the hoopla was the fact that Veruca Salt aren’t a particularly exciting or compelling rock band. While their live playing has slowly improved, they still don’t try to produce anything more than carbon copies of the album versions of their tunes. A long-form video would provide the same experience as their shows, only in the comfort of one’s own home, without the sweaty throngs talking over the music.

The Breeders are the band’s closest point of reference, but don’t let the above-mentioned comparisons give you the idea that they’re as good as the Breeders. Fronted by singer-guitarists Nina Gordon and Louise Post, Veruca Salt are capable of some striking Breeders-style vocal harmonizing; Post’s full-bodied croon and Gordon’s high-pitched, near-angelic warble make a lush combination. And as songwriters they possess a convincing grasp on pop phrasing. But the hook of their sweet vocals set against loud guitar riffs and a thunderous rhythm section–Gordon’s brother Jim Shapiro on drums and former Maynard G. Krebs look-alike Steve Lack on bass–is hardly an innovative tack, and Veruca Salt practice it with very little imagination. Whereas the Breeders employ an endless, imaginative shuffle of guitar textures and attacks, Veruca Salt play two ways: soft or loud. While the Breeders’ songwriting incorporates influences from a broad range of genres, Veruca Salt incorporate only one: the slow to mid-tempo pop tune. The Breeders exude a skewed, carefree approach that gives their music an edge, while Veruca Salt have their formula down pat and rigid: play the tunes straight, straight, straight.

At Lounge Ax, with Gordon and Post swathed in feather boas–their sole concession to being “entertainers”–the band played most of the songs from American Thighs along with five or six tunes not yet recorded, all of them rooted in the same stylistic niche. Occasionally the sweet-meets-mean approach was spiced up with some perfunctory volume-pedal hopping, but by and large their approach was tediously straightforward, from Post’s linear, workmanlike guitar solos to the monotonous crunch of their riff workouts.

Perhaps because Gordon and Post are women, there’s been lots of talk about the feminism of their lyrics. “Seether” is the song about wanting to hurt someone you’re pissed at but struggling to control the impulse: “I tried to ram her into the ground.” It’s an interesting expression of unadulterated rage from the sex that’s not supposed to feel it, but it’s just not the feminist anthem it’s been credited with being.

Less than a week after the release of American Thighs, there’s already a significant Veruca Salt backlash in Chicago; in some circles the backlash began when the 16-month-old quartet first began attracting attention, after only a handful of shows and the circulation of a demo tape. Criticizing Veruca Salt because they haven’t paid their dues, which seems to be the subtext of the backlash, is stupid. If a band is original, vibrant, and engaging and for some strange reason they achieve success, it’s deserved whether they’ve played once or one hundred times. But it’s sad when a triumphantly ordinary band is talked about as if they’re the second coming, and sadder yet is when so many critics go along for the ride. Veruca Salt are prime candidates for the Sassy cute-band alert, bouncy and energetic, perfect for the demographic sector that answers the question “What kind of music do you like?” with “Why, alternative rock, of course” without a trace of irony. They’re a band for people who think The Real World is actually the real world. They are a beautiful, breathtaking testimonial to the massive power of media manipulation, but they’re not a very good band. And their biggest mistake is sitting still at the wrong end of the microscope.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.