“Singles” – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Deluxe Edition (1992 / 2017)

easystreetcornellUnless you’ve been living under a rock or the terms of your probation don’t allow you to access the internet, you know that Chris Cornell passed away a few days ago.  Chris was an icon in the Seattle music scene, first with OG grunge rockers Soundgarden and later with Temple of the Dog, Audioslave, and his solo projects.  He was a supremely talented man and music fans in Seattle probably feel his loss just a bit more deeply than do people everywhere else.  He was one of ours, born and raised.  I’m certainly old enough to have experienced the loss of other musicians who were part of my formative years, including more than a few local talents.  Cobain, Staley, Wood… But Cornell.  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  He had survived the reckless years.  He’d won Grammy’s.  He did a James Bond theme song for Christ’s sake.  And he was back with Soundgarden and touring.  And then he was gone, choosing to exit the stage permanently.

Holly and I were playing Louder Than Love the evening he died, possibly right around the actual time his death occurred.  And we were already planning on heading out to the record store on Saturday to buy the new deluxe edition of the Singles soundtrack that was coming out that Friday.  So Chris was, even if a bit indirectly, in my thoughts this week, and perhaps that’s what I’ve been feeling so reflective about his passing.  Many of the others weren’t terribly surprising.  Heroin has taken its pound of flesh from the Seattle scene, and many of the previous casualties had struggled with the dragon for years.  But Chris had made it through.  But the scars were still there, and ultimately the pain was so overwhelming that in his mind there was only one resolution.

A piece of my remembered teenage innocence died with him.

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We watched Singles on Thursday night for the first time in a long time and it helped a little, putting a smile on my face and giving us a quick glimpse at a young Chris Cornell looking on as Bridget Fonda’s new stereo blows out all of her car windows.  And we went out to pick up the soundtrack on Saturday morning like we planned even though we knew the entire city was sold out of it on vinyl (♠), so we settled for the CD.

The first disc is the original soundtrack, 13 tracks that could almost be a Seattle best-of album in their own right had only Nirvana contributed a song (I can’t really explain how Paul Westerberg and Smashing Pumpkins ended up on it… though I have to begrudgingly admit that Westerberg’s “Waiting For Somebody” is, to me, the song that best captures the overall feel of the movie).  It’s an eclectic mix of tunes, though.  It opens with the menacing bass line of Alice In Chains’ “Would?,” a dark way to start the soundtrack of what is in effect a rom-com.  Pearl Jam gets us a bit more into the vibe of the movie with “Breath,” and then it’s Cornell’s turn.  I can remember originally buying this CD back in 1992 and being blown away by “Seasons,” a very un-Soundgarden-like song that was the perfect vehicle to showcase Chris’ voice, exposing a side of his musical talent that I’d never heard before.  I still think it’s the most beautiful song not he album, though “Chloe Dancer / Crown of Thorns” gives it a run for its money.

There were some intriguing selections on Singles and I respect director Cameron Crowe for staying with Seattle even when he goes back in time, using Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love” in the scene when Campbell Scott and Kyra Sedgwick play records together in Scott’s apartment and also getting Ann and Nancy Wilson (Crowe’s wife at the time) involved performing as The Lovemongers with their near-perfect interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore”.  There was a real effort here to make this as Seattle-centric an experience as possible.

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Left to Right:  Chris Cornell (RIP), Jeff Ament, Matt Dillon, Layne Staley (RIP), Cameron Crowe

I’d actually forgotten that Mudhoney contributed a song to Singles.  Well, technically two songs, I suppose, but only one that made it onto the soundtrack.  They were given a budget of $20,000 to record “Overblown,” but as the story goes they hit up a local studio and paid producer Conrad Uno $164 for a day’s work, banged out their song, and walked out at the end of the day $19,836 the better for it (♥), which is a pretty punk move.  The movie’s fictional band Citizen Dick, fronted by Matt Damon, also performed a song called “Touch Me I’m Dick,” a modified version of the underground Mudhoney hit “Touch Me I’m Sick”.  Somehow this didn’t end up not he soundtrack (♣), but was eventually released as a 7″ single on Record Store Day back in 2015 and also makes an appearance on this deluxe edition, opening the bonus CD.

The original soundtrack was every bit as good as I remembered, but what I was truly excited about was the bonus disc full of extras – live tracks, demos, acoustic versions, you name it, a decent amount of it never-before released.  Cornell is all over this thing, contributing seven of its 18 tracks, one with Soundgarden and the rest as a solo artist, including an early pre-Superunknown version of “Spoonman” and the Beatles-esque “Flutter Girl”.  But the three live tracks, “Would?” and “It Ain’t Like That” by Alice In Chains and Soundgarden doing “Birth Ritual” (complete with the intro, “Cue musicians, go!”), are the highlights to me, well-recorded and capturing both bands in their more formative and energetic years.

And then there’s Paul Westerberg again, and dammit, I want to resent him for bing a non-Seattle musician on this soundtrack, but his songs are just so damn good I can’t do it.  The bonus disc gives us four Westerberg tracks – beautiful acoustic renditions of both of his soundtrack contributions “Dyslexic Heart” and “Waiting for Somebody,” as well as a pair of previously unreleased tunes in “Blue Heart” and “Lost In Emily’s Woods.”

The two biggest “surprises” on the bonus disc were tracks by Truly and Blood Circus.  If I’m being completely honest, I’d never heard of Truly before even though two of its three members came from Soundgarden and Screaming Trees.  I may have to track down some of their stuff if I can.  As for Blood Circus, I’d forgotten how grimy they were.  “Six Foot Under” is heavy, hitting you like a grunge version of a country song.

While I’m still a vinyl junkie, I have no regrets about buying Singles on CD as it was the bonus material that interested me the most.  It’s too bad they didn’t do the whole thing on vinyl, like a four record special edition box set – now that I probably would have bought.  But regardless, I’m very happy with the both the quality and price (got mine on sale for $15) and highly recommend it to any fans of the old school Seattle sound.

(♠)  The vinyl guy at Easy Street told me they’d ordered 200 copies and only got 20.  They’ll certainly have more, but given that all the bonus material is on CD, even with the vinyl release, I figured I’d just save myself $20 or so and buy the disc.

(♥)  Mudhoney:  The Sound and Fury From Seattle by Keith Cameron (2013), p. 157-58.

(♣)  It probably had something to do with the literal use of the word dick, along with the euphemism “little Elvis” and the repeated phrase “I won’t cum”.  Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center would have had field day with that song.

Alice In Chains – “Live Facelift” (2016)

I’ve written about Alice In Chains and Layne Staley before, so I won’t rehash all of that other than to say that there have been exactly two bands in my entire life that the second I first heard them I thought to myself, “Yes!  Someone read my mind and is making music that is EXACTLY how I feel.”  One of those bands was Godsmack; the other just sang about smack – Alice In Chains. (♠)

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There’s been a lot of great Seattle stuff coming out on Record Store Day in recent years, and the vinyl version of AIC’s 1990 Live Facelift is the most recent example.  Apparently the opening band for this show at Seattle’s Moore Theater was named Mookie Blaylock; you may know them better by their current name, Pearl Jam. (♣)  And it sounds like there were a couple of songs by Temple of the Dog in there for good measure.

The sound quality on Live Facelift‘s six songs is top notch, and a number of AIC’s early hits are here, including “Man In the Box” and “Sea of Sorrow”.  I never got much into their debut Facelift (other than the aforementioned “Man In the Box”), being more of a Dirt and Jar of Flies / Sap fan.  I guess I liked Layne best when he was at his darkest.  But dammit, that early material flat-out rocked.  I know AIC gets lumped in with the grunge scene, and even made some appearances in the grunge-commercializing movie Singles, but they’re more of a hard rock/proto-metal band to my ears; not much grungy here at all.  They flat out rocked on their debut before things took a much darker turn, and Live Facelift catches them at their hardest and rocking-est.

Live Facelift was originally released on VHS, and as near as I can tell it never got an official vinyl or CD release until now.  The RSD Black Friday vinyl treatment came in two versions – the US release of 5,000 numbered copies, and a separate edition of 3,500 in Europe.  It’s a healthy enough number of copies to have kept the price reasonable, so if you’re interested definitely pick it up because it sounds great.

(♠)  To be clear, I’ve never done smack.  I just was way into AIC’s dark rock.

(♣)  Mookie Blaylock’s performance at this show was described in a contemporary review as “the music leaned more towards bad ‘70s country rock (Bad Company comes to mind) than the punk-metal angst of Green River or the flamboyant grooves of Mother Love Bone.”  Which may very well have been true about that show.  Fortunately they got better.

Mad Season – “Above” Record Store Release 2013

I wrote yesterday about the luck I had in picking up a copy of the Record Store Day release of Mad Season’s 1995 album Above (remember… I live in Seattle; it was probably not as “in demand” in other places).  I previously wrote about Mad Season when their 10″ was released as part of Record Store Day Black Friday in 2012, so I won’t rehash the history of the band here – that info is available in plenty of other places.  Today I want to reflect on Above and its importance to me personally and to music in general, plus touch on the new tracks sung by Mark Lanegan, formerly of the Screaming Trees that appear on this release.

There were two times in my life when I heard a band for the first time and was flat out stunned and thought to myself, “this is exactly the type of band I’ve been waiting for.”  One of those bands was Godsmack (“Whatever”).  The other was Alice in Chains (“Man in the Box”), and Lane Staley’s voice was a huge part of that reaction.  Alice in Chains was dark, brooding, and heavy, but Staley’s voice had this odd high pitch that made it stand almost separate from the music.  The man could reach enormous emotional depths with his voice, depths that he certainly wallowed in as part of his own experience as a heroin addict spiraling around the drain of life.  You felt that the pain he sang about was real and came forth from a wound in his soul.  A friend of ours once referred to Alice and Chains as “slit your wrist and die music,” which, while a major exaggeration, speaks to the strong reaction people, including me, have to to their work.

My pain, is self chosen,
Or at least I believe it to be.
I could either drown,
Or pull off my skin and swim to shore,
Now I will grow a beautiful
Shell for all to see.
“River of Deceit”

The Record Store Day vinyl re-release of Above is a limited edition of 5,000 copies, and I scored #1280.  It consists of two 180 gram, heavy duty records, with the 10 tracks of the original album filling up the entire first record and accounting for the first three tracks on side C.  The remaining five songs are “new” material.  Logically I probably should have just bought the CD version, which in addition to the all of the songs appearing on the vinyl also comes with a live CD and DVD… so most likely I’ll break one of my own rules and buy both the vinyl and CD/digital version of the same album (plus I still have the original CD I bought back in 1995).  For Mad Season I’m willing to make that sacrifice.

The cracks and lines from where you gave up
Make an easy man to read.
For all the times you let them bleed you,
For little peace from God you plead.
“Wake Up”

Heroin took a major toll on the Seattle music scene in the 1980s and 90s, and Mad Season could be the poster band for staying away from it.  All four members had battled various addictions prior to working together as Mad Season, and heroin eventually claimed the lives of two of them – John Saunders in 1999, and Staley in 2002.  The pain and longing of addiction can be felt throughout Above, and one wonders if such a powerful album could have come from men who weren’t struggling.  But the cost was staggering.  The album is beautiful, but the toll was too much.  Can you separate the struggle from the art?  Could Above have been so brilliant if the musicians hadn’t had such deep reservoirs of pain to dip into?  I don’t know.  But it would have been a different album.

I don’t know anything,
I don’t know anything,
I don’t know anything,
I don’t know who I am.
“I Don’t Know Anything”

It actually hurts to listen to this album.  It always creates an emotional reaction in me… a slight tightness in the chest that comes from being able to “feel” the pain of another person.  So why listen to it then, right?  That doesn’t sound enjoyable.  But here’s the thing:  It’s real.  It’s the most real album you’ll ever listen to.  Ever.  The band members open themselves completely bare and say, “here we are, with all of our faults and struggles… come take a look, because we have nothing to hide.”  They don’t hold anything back, and that type of honesty is all too rare.

So what about the new songs?  Well, Mark Lanegan has a great voice… but it’s hard to think of his songs as Mad Season.  It just doesn’t sound right.  It’s hard for a band with a distinctive singer to continue without that voice, though some have certainly pulled it off successfully (AC/DC immediately comes to mind).  But really it may as well just be a new band.  And when the voice is as unique and integral to the band’s sound as Staley’s was, it’s almost impossible to continue on.  The new Alice in Chains album Black Gives Way to Blue is good… but it’s not Alice in Chains to me.  Lanegan can sing a soulful and even a sad song, but he doesn’t convey the type of anguish that Staley brought to every single word.  The songs are good… but to me it just isn’t Mad Season.

The last song is a remix of “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier,” one that didn’t appear on Above but still includes Staley’s vocals.  To hear this after a few songs sung by Lanegan simply confirms what I already thought – without Staley there is no Mad Season. I’d never heard this song before, and while it’s more of an upbeat tempo piece that the songs on Above, there’s still a longing quality to it, a man expressing his fears in a very clear way.  It’s a cool track, one that gives you a sense of what Mad Season’s second album could have sounded like – not as dark as Above, and with a more rock sound and faster pace.  I’ll bet it would have been great.  But we’ll never know.

Mad Season – “River of Deceit / I Don’t Know Anything (live)”

I wasn’t planning on going to look for Record Store Day releases today.  It’s “Black Friday”, and I didn’t feel like being out there on the roads with a bunch of half-crazed Walmart bargain hunters who have been on the go since sometime last night.  That crowd is bad enough when working on a full night sleep.  Plus there was only one thing I really wanted, the Mad Season “River of Deceit / I Don’t Know Anything (live)” limited edition 10″ single.  My local record shop wasn’t carrying it, so that meant going to Seattle… and this being the home of Mad Season, I figured my chances were about zero of getting a copy without standing in line in the cold and rain for two hours.  I even contemplated buying a copy someone had on eBay the night before the release for $29.99, but figured there would be more chances to pick it up online cheaper after the event.

But Holly was persistent, and with the promise of lattes from Uptown Espresso regardless of our level of Record Store Day success, it seemed worth a shot.  So we got in the car and drove to Easy Street Records in West Seattle, getting there at 7:15 AM, just after they opened.  Lo and behold, the group crowded around the Record Store Day section was small, and I was able to pick up a copy of the Mad Season 10″ (#1,767/2,000 on red vinyl, and only $6.99!), along with a mono 180 gram re-release of Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain”.  I also picked up a collectible used record I’m super excited about that will appear in a future blog.  Stay tuned.

So… Mad Season.  For those of you not familiar, this band formed in Seattle in 1994 and was a bit of a super group, featuring Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, Barrett Martin from the Screaming Trees, and bassist John Saunders.  They released their only album, Above, in 1995, and I personally was blown away by it.  It’s heavy and dark, and the songs perfectly fit Staley’s vocal style.  I played the hell out of the CD for a year or so, before shelving it for over a decade.  When I came back to it, it sounded just as amazing as it had before, if not more so.  Unfortunately Staley’s heroin addiction limited the band to just a handful of live shows, and he couldn’t get it together enough to work on another album.  Saunders died of a heroin overdose in 1999 (ironically he met McCready in rehab prior to the formation of Mad Season), and when Staley too succumbed to addiction in 2002 this dashed any hopes of a future album.  However, in 2012 there was a reunion concert, and allegedly there is a new album coming in 2013 with Mark Lanegan of the Screaming Trees doing some of the vocals.

I was excited about this 10″ because of the live version of “I Don’t Know Anything” (the A Side “River of Deceit” is the album version).  This is only the second live track I’ve come across, the other being, ironically, a version of “River of Deceit” appearing on the 1996 compilation, Bite Back – Live at the Crocodile Cafe.  The difference between the two is that  this vinyl track was recorded live in studio for radio in January 1995 prior to the release of Above, while the other was actually live from a show the band played at Seattle’s infamous Crocodile Cafe.  This radio version of “I Don’t Know Anything” was supposedly part of Pearl Jam’s Self-Pollution pirate radio broadcast, which Mad Season contributed along with “Lifeless Dead,” which will hopefully see the light of day on another record someday.  The track is of good quality, though it doesn’t sound like Staley’s voice was at it’s best.  There are some moments when you can really hear that classic Staley power and delivery, but overall it doesn’t capture his essence as well as the song on Bite Back does.  And that’s too bad, really, because few singers could plumb the depths of emotional despair the way Staley could.

There is also a VHS of Mad Season Live at the Moore, and this will supposedly come out on DVD in 2013 around the same time as the new Mad Season album.  Any chance to get some more live Mad Season songs is one I look forward to.  And I’m sure I’ll pick up the new album as well, but much like the post-Staley Alice in Chains album, replacing Staley will likely prove a daunting if not impossible task.

I’m disappointed that I never got a chance to see Alice in Chains or Mad Season live. The opportunities were certainly there, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes.  Staley was yet another Seattle heroin casualty, and we lost an amazing musician way too soon.  You can hear his pain in some of the Mad Season songs, most notably (in my opinion) “Wake Up”, just as you can in many of the Alice in Chains classics.  It’s a shame that no one was able to reach deep enough to help him with that pain before it was too late.