Soundgarden – “Live From the Artists Den” (2019)

I pre-ordered the colored vinyl version of this release, and unfortunately production delays meant that while the black edition was in the stores earlier in the summer mine just arrived in the mail a few weeks ago.  This was kind of a bummer, but it is what it is, and now that it’s here and I can see the attention to detail and quality of the overall package, I have to say it was worth the wait.

Somehow despite living in the greater Seattle area (though never actually in Seattle) since 1984, I never saw Soundgarden live.  Clearly I have no excuse for this.  I was buying their records before anyone outside of Seattle even knew who they were and there were plenty of opportunities to catch them.  But such is life.  Fortunately there are some great live recordings out there, like Live From the Artists Den.

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I love that they opened with a sludgy classic from their debut, the weighty “Incessant Mace”. Those first three Soundgarden LPs (and the assorted EPs and Sub Pop singles) are my favorite parts of their catalog.  One of the great things about Soundgarden live is that they don’t make an effort to sound polished – of course the songs are recognizable, but there’s a rawness as well, a sense that anything could happen at any time.  Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the vocals, with Cornell’s voice lacking the prettiness that came to define it on the band’s later albums.  This is aggressive Chris, singing like a caged animal.  This might be the one bummer I had on the collection as well, though, as he can’t (or maybe won’t) hit the high notes on one of my all-time-favorites “Jesus Christ Pose”.   Other than that, though, this one is solid from start to finish.

Ohio Players – “Honey” (1975)

ohioplayershoneyHoney is widely regarded as the best album by the Ohio Players, and it certainly had the chart success to back up that assertion.  The album itself made it to #2 on the Billboard 200 and the Players got a #1 single with “Love Rollercoaster”.  “Sweet Sticky Thing” also cracked the Top 40 in 1975, landing at #33, and that same year Honey was awarded a Grammy for Best Album Cover Art (the model is Playboy‘s Playmate of the Month for October 1974, Ester Cordet… and if you think the cover is risqué you should see what’s inside the gatefold).  All of that would be reason enough for me to have picked up Honey this weekend.  But none of those reasons have anything whatsoever to do with my decision.  No.  I bought it for something that happened a year later, in 1976, specifically the third single from the album peaking at #30.  Because, you see, that single has a tie to Seattle.  A dozen years after it first charted it would be covered by a then obscure band that was part of a blossoming musical scene that would shortly explode out of the Pacific Northwest like a drop-D-tuned comet.  The band was Soundgarden.  The Ohio Players song was “Fopp”, and the band recorded two versions of it, including a dub mix, on their 1988 four-song 12″ also called Fopp.

I bought Fopp on vinyl right when it came out and played the hell out of it, especially the two versions of the title track on the A side.  At that time in my life I wasn’t buying 12″ singles, had no concept of a remix, and had yet to hear of Adrian Sherwood, so I had no idea what to make of “Fopp (Fucked Up Heavy Dub Mix)”.  “Fucked up” I understood, as well as “heavy”.  But “dub” meant nothing to me.  All I knew was that the way the original track was manipulated, plus the inclusion of samples from Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, blew my teenage mind.

The original version of “Fopp” is some serious funk.  While Soundgarden rocked it up quite a bit, it’s still recognizable both for the underlying groove and the horns.  Even the vocals are familiar sounding, Chris Cornell using his trademark voice and screams to capture the pitch changes on the original (which appears to have multiple vocalists).  The other thing that works well is the speed – the Ohio Players keep things heavy in a funky way, methodically pacing the low end, which was right in Soundgarden’s wheelhouse. (♠)

There’s an urban myth that the song “Love Rollercoaster” captures the scream of a woman being murdered, and one version of the myth indicates that woman was the cover model Ester Cordet.  In later years the band has denied that a murder was involved, attributing the sound to one of their own band members Billy Beck.  Which is, of course, exactly what you’d expect them to say regardless of the facts.  That being said, you can barely hear the alleged scream, so I have no idea what the fuss is about even though I do love me a good urban myth.

Honey is a solid album even without the Soundgarden connection, definitely worth a listen on its own merits.

(♠)  Holly completely disagrees with me on this.  Completely.  Don’t worry though, we’re still together.  

“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.

Dear Chris…

Dear Chris,

The other morning I did the same thing that I do most mornings, grabbed my phone and laid in bed for few minutes, looking at Facebook and a few websites.  The news of your passing was quite literally the first thing I saw on a screen that morning.  My initial thought was it was some kind of click-bait bullshit headline, but it quickly became apparent it was the truth.  We’d lost you.

Then the inevitable dread set in, that feeling you get when a musician that you love dies too young, simultaneously hoping that it wasn’t drug-related while at also having a momentarily selfish facing-your-own-mortality moment of realizing that if it was due to natural causes, we’re close to the same age… Then when we learned it was suicide (possibly driven in part by prescription medication…)… It made the loss even harder.

We never met, and I never had the privilege of seeing you perform in person.  But that doesn’t mean your music wasn’t important to me, especially your early Soundgarden albums.  Growing up on the “Eastside” across the lake from Seattle, the city seemed like some kind of impossible plane of existence even though it was probably a 30 or so minute drive from our house.  Grunge was bubbling under the surface in 1987; it was still “our thing” to the locals, but we all seemed to understand that it was going to blow up and go national at some point.  We all had our favorite bands, who we mostly experienced via Sub Pop singles and EPs.  And while most people in 1988 seemed to think the band that was going to hit it nationally was Mudhoney, Soundgarden was always my pick.  The Screaming Life and Fopp EPs, plus your album Ultramega OK, shattered my ideas of what “rock” music was supposed to sound like.  Those albums altered the trajectory of my musical taste.

I was 16 years old.  You would have been about 22.  At that age, that age gap is real.  You felt like an adult and a rock star.  The reality is probably more like you were a young guy living in a shitty apartment working one or more jobs to make enough money to allow you to still play in a band.  I know that now, and it makes me smile a bit at my own innocence.

I remember going away to college in the fall of 1989.  I moved about as far across the country as possible, from Seattle to Pittsburgh.  I knew no one there.  But of course one of the things I brought with me was a bunch of CDs.  I was excited to find out that one of the guys in the dorm room next to me was a Seattle music fan… but admittedly a tiny bit deflated when I found it he was big into Metal Church and Queensrÿche, not because I had anything against them, but it just wasn’t the same.  He’d never heard of Soundgarden.  I found out that Louder Than Love was coming out and that Soundgarden would be playing Pittsburgh around the same time, but I couldn’t find anyone to go to the show with me, and truth be told lacked the confidence to go by myself.  But I did track down the CD.  I’ll never forget my country-music-loving roommate walking in when I was playing it for the first time.  “What is this shit?”  Coming from him, that was the perfect review of the album.

Badmotorfinger was Soundgarden’s watershed, at least to me. For a lot of people it was probably Superunknown.  Badmotorfinger spawned some hits for you guys in “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined”, and while those are great songs, to my ears they’re middle of the pack.  I can’t tell you how many times I shredded my own vocal chords trying to be you while hitting the high notes on “Jesus Christ Pose” in my car.

But you’re staring at me
Like I…
Like I need to be…
Saved… saved… 
Like I need to be…
Saved… saved…

I don’t think I ever bought any of your post-Soundgarden albums, but I always enjoyed hearing Audioslave on the radio and your James Bond theme song is one of my all-time faves.  For years I’ve been telling myself I need to catch you live.  And now I’ll never have that chance.

Chris, we can never know truly what is in another person’s mind, so I won’t pretend to understand how and why this happened.  I’m just sad about it.  Selfishly sad, of course, to know that I’ll never hear a new Chris Cornell song.  But much more importantly, and deeply, sad for the depth of despair you were obviously feeling in those last moments, and utter sorrow for those you left behind.  The children who you won’t see blossom into adulthood as they experience their own successes and failures.  All your friends and family and bandmates who have to try to create a new normal in their lives as they work around the big hole your absence leaves.

Holly and I were playing Louder Than Love the night you passed, probably just a few minutes before your life ended.  I don’t know why we decided to play it, but we did.  Over the last few days I’ve been struck by an odd sense of regret that while we were listening to your music you were going through hell.

Suicide generates a complicated set of feelings and reactions from people.  I’m not going to pretend to understand why you made the decision you did.  Death is probably the last great frontier, the one thing that we humans simply can’t understand despite all the science and religious texts.  Are you at peace now?  Does any part of your energy or spirit or whatever you want to call it still exist out there somewhere?  I don’t know.  And that’s part of the sadness too.

Thank you for sharing your life with us through your music, Chris.

Jeff

Soundgarden – “Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas” (2016)

I was able to get both of the records on my RSD Black Friday “want list,” Alice In Chain’s Live Facelift and Soundgarden’s Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas.  Fortunately for me Easy Street Records always makes sure to have TONS of copies of the Seattle limited releases on hand – I think I’ve only come away from there empty-handed once over the last three years.

Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas is a five track EP on purple vinyl, and I believe it’s limited to 3,000 copies.  Now, to be fair I don’t think there are any new tracks on this thing – all these songs have appeared before on other Soundgarden releases, some only as part of maxi-singles.  Side A consists of three covers:  soundgardensatanBlack Sabbath’s “Into the Void,” Devo’s “Girl You Want,” and “Stray Cat Blues” by the Rolling Stones.  Soundgarden has always had a pretty strong cover game, and these three tracks are no exception.  I got turned onto their version of “Into the Void” way back in 1992-ish when it appeared on a CD maxi-single for “Outshined”. (♠)  Different versions of this CD exist with differing track lists, and mine happens to the one that includes “Into the Void” (as well as “Girl U Want”). Cornell and the crew took the song in a bit of a different direction, though, substituting the original lyrics with the words of Chief Sealth, the Native American who Seattle is named after.  I won’t lie, I’ve always preferred this version to the original, but for a long time most people had never heard it.  Now it’s out there for a new generation to discover, and it even got played on KEXP the other day.

I’m a fan of the other two covers on Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas as well.  Soundgarden’s version of “Girl U Want” is slower and heavier than the original, though with just a hint of longing in Cornell’s voice, fitting given Soundgarden’s style at the time this was recorded back in the Badmotorfinger era.  “Stray Cat Blues” is definitely tuned down, sounding much more like a Soundgarden song than one written by the Stones.

The B side is given over to two original tunes, “She’s a Politician” and a live version of my favorite Badmotorfinger track, “Slaves and Bulldozers”.  The former has a bit of an earlier sound, reminiscent of something that might have been part of the Louder Than Love (♥) sessions.  As for the live number, it’s pretty good… lacks a bit of punch though, and the high notes that are so awesome in the studio version are more screamed than sung.

Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas is worth it solely for how good “Into the Void” and “Girl U Want” are.  I know I’m going to be dusting these off on my iPod and cranking them in the car again for the first time in a couple of decades.

(♠)  I don’t remember where I bought this, but it still has the price tag on the front – $11.99.  I’m surprised I still have it after all these years!

(♥)  A painfully underrated album, IMO.  It might be my favorite Soundgarden LP.