Monday, May 16, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 106 - Soundgarden

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Apparently Soundgarden was supposed to be the big breakout act from the late-80s Seattle grunge scene. The band had the talent, had the ambition, and even started building up the proper CV to impress hard rock enthusiasts (opening for Guns'n'Roses on a couple of tours, as well as spurring a religious controversy with the "Jesus Christ Pose" video). Such is the capricious nature of history that Soundgarden is now considered the bronze medal winner in the race (or even fourth, depending on how much you like Alice in Chains). 

Because of the popularity and cultural monopoly Nirvana and Pearl Jam have over the scene, I had always considered Soundgarden a kind of second rate imitator. But I was surprised to discover this week that not only are they pretty good, but they also made a significantly different kind of music, skewing closer to Led Zeppelin and heavy metal. Soundgarden was less likely to tap into the melancholic moodiness of the alternative kids, and more likely to scream about the coming apocalypse or something wild like that. 

Why didn't Soundgarden emerge as the number-one Seattle act, despite the best efforts of the record companies? It could be that their hard-rock posturing didn't tap into the vibe of isolation and alienation the way that Nirvana or Pearl Jam did. It could be that Chris Cornell isn't a particularly interesting frontman when compared to Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder. It could be the troubles that Soundgarden had finding a decent bassist (they went through three in about two years).

But most likely its that Soundgarden can perform really good, rocking songs that somehow fail to be iconic. I don't think they had a "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in them. Their best songs are epic, fuzzy soundscapes flush with riffs and screams and cymbal crashes. It's great. But they pushed so hard in this direction that there's nothing particularly memorable. I listened to Soundgarden all week, but very few of their songs were running through my mind at the end of the day. They had the sonic depth, but none of the melodies or hooks to back it up. 

WEEK 106


MY LISTENING: I listened to Superunknown (1993) every day this week. I also listened to Badmotorfinger (1991) three times, and Louder Than Love (1989) twice.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Just a vague idea that Soundgarden was some kind of grunge band. I think I played "Spoonman" on Guitar Hero once. And I've listened to that Bond song that Chris Cornell did for Casino Royale.

WHAT I LIKED: I think Soundgarden functions best as the soundtrack to something else, rather than music that you sit down and actively listen to. The lyrics are sort of blah and Chris Cornell's vocal tricks get repetitive very quickly. But the band knows how to meld everything together - the vocals, the drumming, the weird guitar sound effects - to create an interesting piece of sound. Some artists write good songs and then perform them with a titanic production value that transforms them into epic rock and roll. But I don't think Soundgarden would really be that interesting without the epic production; the most interesting part of them isn't the songwriting, but the blow-your-socks-off performance. (Example: listen to Johnny Cash do "Rusty Cage"; I like most of his covers, but this one doesn't really work - the cadences sound weird without Chris Cornell screaming).

The best Soundgarden songs are the musical equivalent of a perpetual motion machine, with the guitar riffs and the drumming naturally unfolding into more of the same, keeping the energy up longer than humanly possible. The epic drumming that appears in the middle of "Jesus Christ Pose" is the best example, and "Spoonman" is basically over halfway through the track, but keeps plugging along with some excellent instrumental work. "Rusty Cage" starts with a nice little ostinato that continues underneath the vocals, getting more and more intense as the song goes on. 

Cornell's vocals aren't really important to the songs, but his voice is loud and scream-y enough that it can basically play counterpoint to the loud guitars and drums, and he gets to shout some nice little mini-choruses, like in "Superunknown" and "The Day I Tried to Live." And then there's "4th of July," which demonstrates that Soundgarden can do slower songs with just as much power as their frantically-paced stuff. 


In general, I thought Badmotorfinger was the best demonstration of the band's talents. Louder Than Love had the unfortunate problem of imitating those 80s hair bands just a little too much. I guess "Big Dumb Sex" was supposed to be a parody of this sort of thing, but the chorus ("Fuck fuck fuck fuck you") got old really fast. 

Superunknown is immense, both in sound and scope, and while the band tries to throw in all sorts of tricks, I think I'd rather have them stick with their grungy Led Zeppelin influences. Two of the non-Cornell tracks on this album, "Head Down" and "Half," are bores, trying to act like some sort of hypnotic metal-psychedelia. And while "Black Hole Sun" might be the group's biggest hit, it struck me as the band trying to hard to put in a palatable, memorable single that would get lots of airplay. I guess it worked, but sounds out of place on this album. 

Really, Soundgarden was one of those bands who got old by the end of the week. They were energetic and full of loud, boastful, epic pieces. But, as I've discovered with a lot of bands in this project who do loud, boastful, and epic, I'd rather take this stuff as a side dish and not as the main course. Superunkown is a fine album, but parsing through its 70-minutes worth of hard rock was a bit of a drag by the end. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Just following Chris Cornell alone, there's a lot of different paths I could take. There's is solo work, his stuff with Audioslave, and some project with the guys from Pearl Jam called Temple of the Dog. I'm not sure if I'll be seeking any of this out. Soundgarden was fun for a week, but not that fun. 

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Jesus Christ Pose"

I don't think this was as big as any of their singles from Superunknown, but it was a big enough hit in its own right, and features some great drumming. 

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Room A Thousand Years Wide"

I've said it before and I'll say it again: more hard rock songs should feature a brass section.