Tag Archives: Pearl Jam

Down on the Upside

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This was released when grunge was losing its popularity, but this “commercial disappointment” still went platinum several times over. Although this album is cleaner and less heavy on the whole than previous efforts, lyrics such as “only happy when you hurt” (from the standout album track “Rhinosaur”) show that the band hasn’t softened up too much. In fact, songs such as the lead single “Pretty Noose,” with it’s swirling guitar lines and monster drum fills, are as intense as anything the band has ever done.

Elsewhere, Zeppelin-esque highlights both minor (“Zero Chance,” “Dusty”) and major (“Burden In My Hand,” the album’s signature song and arguably the band’s best song ever) are heavily reliant on Eastern tinged atmospherics, while “Blow Up The Outside World” starts with a mellow, trippy Beatles-esque melody before exploding into the splendor of its huge chorus. Actually, the first half of the album is mostly excellent, presenting a more accessible Soundgarden that still rocked plenty hard. On the whole, the album doesn’t quite have the diversity of Superunknown, however, and it has much more filler, as the second half gets bogged down by too many unmemorable tracks. I wouldn’t miss “Never Named,” “No Attention,” or “An Unkind,” the albums punkiest songs along with the first side’s far superior “Ty Cobb,”, and though the playing on “Never The Machine Forever” is impressive, the songwriting is only so-so, while “Applebite” is a simple yet strangely alluring (mostly) instrumental that probably could’ve been cut in half. Better is more melodic fare such as “Switch Opens” and “Boot Camp,” while successful multi-sectioned epics such as “Tighter & Tighter” and “Overfloater” also attest to the band’s undiminished ambition and ability. On the downside, this mellower, less edgy album under utilizes their greatest asset by not unleashing Cornell more, but there’s still enough first rate stuff here that had the band left the lesser songs on the cutting room floor, they could’ve had another classic on their hands. As it is, this turned out to be merely a very good goodbye, as Soundgarden broke up soon after this albums release.

Having emerged from the first wave of grunge to stand tall amid other great Seattle heavyweights such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains, I am lucky to say that I’ve seen Soundgarden live twice  (Lollapalozza 2010 and Vegas 2011), and hope to see them more when the release their long awaited 7th studio album in Oct. 2012.


Black Gives Way to Blue

Initially when I heard about this album my thoughts were negative, as I felt that the Alice In Chains moniker should’ve died with Layne. Let’s face it, if Cantrell’s solo career had taken off this reunion likely would’ve never happened, but then I got to thinking that Alice In Chains were primarily his band (essential though Layne was to their overall sound), and it’s not their fault that Layne died on them. What’s shocking to me is how good this album is; though it doesn’t scale the mindbogglingly great heights of Dirt or Jar Of Flies (both of which this album recalls at times), this is another really good album that’s comparable to the rest of their back catalog.

Somewhat controversially, rather than continue as a three piece the band replaced Staley with one William DuVall, who shares lead vocals with Jerry and who also plays guitar and happens to be black, thereby increasing the surprise factor (but not in a bad way). And while he’s no Layne Staley (one of the best vocalists ever), he’s plenty good enough and their harmonies are still uniquely haunting (in fact when DuVall sings harmony at times he does sound eerily like Layne), while the band’s overall sound is still wonderfully atmospheric and heavy as hell. Although Layne is not around anymore, his ghost haunts this entire record; whereas earlier albums were the narrative to Layne’s drug-fueled self-destruction, this album can be seen as what happens after that self-destruction takes his life and how it affects those around him. In a way it’s both an epilogue and a fresh new beginning, albeit one that was 14 years in the making. This is made clear on the leadoff track, “All Secrets Known,” a fitting album opener with great creeping riffs, those harmonies which still rule, and lyrics about this being a new beginning because “there’s no going back.” After that comes the smash single “Check Your Brain,” whose mind melting, disorienting riff is an absolute killer, plus its dual harmomized vocals and catchy chorus also mark it as classic AIC. “Last Of My Kind” deals with the band’s current state as the only grunge band from their era, besides Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, to still be standing.

Maybe it’s a bit generic and overly reminiscent of “Damn That River,” but more good twisting riffs and a deliciously dark aura more than compensates. The next song, “Your Decision,” is the emotional centerpiece of the album. Musically recalling “Nutshell,” lyrically this song is obviously about Layne’s drug addiction and death. Filled with sadness, pain, regret, and even a sense of betrayal, the song also features more affecting harmonies and some soulful, searing guitar work from Cantrell, whose playing is in fine form throughout. Rather than get into a track-by-track analysis, I’ll note the rest of the songs that I consider highlights. “When The Sun Rose” is more acoustic and somewhat exotic due to its creative percussive flourishes, with more nice guitar work, while “Lesson Learned” flat out rocks and has a good chorus. “Private Hell” is mellower and has more haunting harmonies, but it also has massively powerful surges at times and is lyrically affecting, while the title track ballad, featuring Elton John on piano, again directly addresses Layne’s death, but this time it’s a soothing and kind remembrance, which fittingly ends the album on a hopeful note.

As for the rest of the songs, “A Looking In View,” “Acid Bubble,” and “Take Her Out” aren’t bad either, they’re just less impressive than the rest and bring the album down a bit on the whole, as it seems a bit samey sounding at times over its hour plus duration. Then again, releasing a shorter album would’ve seemed cheap after such a long absence, and the album holds up well as an entire entity and gets better with repeated plays. They may have spawned a lot of inferior imitators, but with or without Layne few can replicate the emotional resonance and impact that this band achieves when they’re on their A game, which happens far more often than I expected.

Indeed, with this album Alice somehow managed to make a heavy rock album that appeals to rock radio without selling out, that’s true to their past without being a retread, and which pays the proper respects to Layne while proving that there’s a future for this band after all. In a way it’s their Temple Of The Dog tribute to Layne and it finally closes that last chapter in satisfying fashion. Whether future albums by this new incarnation of the band will measure up remains to be seen, but if not that won’t take away from the fact that this album has earned its place in the band’s legacy, and unlike the lead up to this album I won’t be negative about the next Alice In Chains album. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.


Superunknown

The band further tone down the grunge by cleaning up the production and tightening the songwriting, and as a result Soundgarden reached new heights of commercial acceptance (though they never achieved the level of popularity of Nirvana, Alice in Chains or even Pearl Jam). Deservedly so, it should be added, because the band’s music is more impressive than ever, as full artistic maturity is finally reached. While Cornell stakes his claim as the best hard rock singer of his generation (he’d get my vote), bassist Ben Shepard and drummer Matt Cameron prove to be one of rock’s most potent rhythm sections, providing the perfect backdrop for Kim Thayil’s low-tuned guitar exploits.

This album shows a new level of maturity and diversity that’s evident in tight, turbo charged rockers such as “Kickstand” and “Let Me Drown,” which contrast with methodical, sinister compositions such as “Mailman,” “4th of July,” and “Like Suicide.” Soundgarden broke into the Top 40 with the bludgeoning “Spoonman” (a great song despite its cheesy megaphone spoken word vocals) and the massive hit single “Black Hole Sun,” a darkly psychedelic power ballad that finally made the band stars. Ironically, this overly repetitive song is actually among the album’s least impressive songs, though its tightly coiled intensity, cool multi-tracked vocals, and wailing guitars in the background are easy enough to admire. Still, I much prefer album tracks such as “Let Me Drown,” with its churning riffs and blistering chorus, “Head Down,” which hauntingly rises from a whisper to a scream without ever losing its intensity, “Limo Wreck,” which contains vocal acrobatics galore, and “Like Suicide,” a slow building epic with inventive tribal beats and a great jam ending.

Other well-known highlights that saw some radio time include “Fell On Black Days,” which features a deliciously dark riff and a beautifully controlled vocal, “My Wave,” whose heavy psychedelic pop was catchy yet crunchy, the sleekly powerful and catchy title track, and the awesomely anthemic “The Day I Tried To Live.” These songs all demonstrated the bands newfound restraint and Cornell’s more varied vocal delivery, though it’s his ear piercing epiphanies that remain most riveting. Alas, as with most ’90s albums this 70-minute effort is a little too long for it’s own good, but this is most definitely a minor quibble about an album that became an instant hard rock classic, as you can almost feel the band’s increased confidence throughout. And though I’d argue that its predecessors peaks arguably rose even higher, Superunknown was easily Soundgarden’s most consistently excellent album to date, and as such it’s remembered as the band’s creative and commercial peak.


Facelift

This album predated the grunge explosion, though the band would thereafter get lumped in with the other major Seattle bands (Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam) who “broke” at around the same time. Still, each had their own distinct sound, and Facelift was an ultra heavy and dark debut album with a brilliant beginning barrage.

“We Die Young” immediately introduced Jerry Cantrell’s crunching guitar riffs and singer Layne Staley’s intense vocal delivery, while the heavily wah wah-ed “Man In The Box” became a signature song and the one that first got the band noticed. Next, “Sea Of Sorrow” surges along on a sing along chorus before the band gets more atmospheric for “Bleed The Freak” and “I Can’t Remember.” On the latter song you can really sense Staley’s feelings of helplessness, and (the overly long) “Love Hate Love” features an equally tormented vocal performance. “It Ain’t Like That” and the brighter, bluesy “Sunshine” keep things rolling right along, but aside from “Confusion” the rest of the album can’t quite maintain the impressive pace of the album’s first half.

Still, the albums less than exemplary conclusion doesn’t too badly mar this strong introduction to the band’s singular sound. A big part of that sound is the band’s eerie vocal harmonies, which add a unique, otherworldly element to their thick and muscular attack. This is Alice in Chains’ most straightforwardly metallic album, and it’s extremely effective as such, but this mighty quartet would soon broaden their palette considerably and deliver even more richly rewarding efforts.