“Lonely and weary from this troubled task of trying…” Chris Cornell, RIP

When I first heard Temple of the Dog’s “Hunger Strike” it was before I knew who Chris Cornell was (though I’d heard of, but never heard, Soundgarden). I also didn’t know who Eddie Vedder or Pearl Jam was, as they were still many months away from releasing their first album. As far as I was concerned, Temple of the Dog was some new band. I was suitably impressed, remarking to a friend, “This band has two of the best singers I’ve ever heard.” I didn’t hear the song again for nearly a year, when the record company finally realized, in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten that it was failing to promote what was, essentially, a “grunge” supergroup.

Since then, Chris Cornell has always been there, the most powerful voice from a scene that included singers as visceral and exciting as Vedder and Mark Lanegan. His range was close to four octaves, and when he hit those higher registers he could strip the paint off your car.

In Soundgarden, Cornell brought out the heavy. Soundgarden’s stated intention was to be “Black Sabbath, minus the parts that suck”, and at first they were unsure of what that meant. Their early material is brutally heavy, crashing chords, searing leads, and Cornell’s glass-shattering wail riding on top. It was the songs he wrote for Temple of the Dog that showed the first indications of maturity. While “Hunger Strike” and “Wooden Jesus” were originally written for Soundgarden, Cornell held them back because they weren’t the right fit for the band. Yes, they were hard rock, but the lyrics were more personal, the melodies more refined, the instrumentation more diverse. The experience of working on these songs, and collaborating with three-fifths of Pearl Jam, was instructive and Cornell took the lessons back to Soundgarden. There’s an enormous leap of songwriting skill between 1990’s skull-crushing Louder Than Love and 1991’s still bruising but more eclectic Badmotorfinger. The latter wasn’t short of pummeling guitar on tracks like “Rusty Cage”, “Outshined”, and, especially, “Jesus Christ Pose”, but it was leavened with slower, denser songs like “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”, which contained elements associated with genres like psychedelia.

That songwriting leap, and Cornell was not the only writer in the band though he was the most dominant, was matched in the years between Badmotorfinger and Soundgarden’s breakthrough album, Superunknown. In the summer of 1994, “Black Hole Sun” was ubiquitous, a magnificent combination of Cornell’s soaring vocals and swirling textures unlike any heard in rock or metal at that time, or since. It sounded like nothing else before it, and was miles apart from what was being played on the radio. The video, a surreal and disturbing glimpse of suburbia that made judicious use of the then fairly recent technology of morphing, was a breakout on MTV in the waning days of music on that channel. Soundgarden were suddenly alternative rock superstars, held in the same light as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Smashing Pumpkins, but they were always different. “Black Hole Sun” won the MTV Video Award for Best Metal Video, prompting guitarist Kim Thayil to say in their acceptance, “I thought we were ‘grunge’.” But truthfully, no label really fit. Their music was intricate and challenging, with oddball tunings and time signatures that were far removed from conventional rock music (one of their most famous songs, “Spoonman” alternates between standard rock 4/4 time and 7/4 time; “Limo Wreck” is in 15/8 time).

The band broke up after one more album, Down On The Upside, and Cornell went solo with 1999’s Euphoria Mourning, a grab-bag of styles that proved Cornell could sing anything from acoustic ballads (“Preaching the End of the World”, “Sweet Euphoria”) to sludgy hard rock (“Mission”) to alternative (“Can’t Change Me”, “Pillow Of Your Bones”). He was even adept at R&B; “When I’m Down” is a song that in a different life could have been a blues standard or, with only a slightly modified arrangement, sung by Frank Sinatra. On “Wave Goodbye”, his tribute to his late friend Jeff Buckley (another virtuoso singer with a multi-octave voice), Cornell’s voice drips with pathos and heartbreak until the bridge when he hits his upper register and does the most spot-on imitation of Buckley imaginable. For those few seconds, Cornell has brought his friend back to life, and the effect is both devastating and thrilling.

In the years since Cornell has released solo albums, broke out his heavy rock chops as the lead singer for Audioslave, reunited with both Soundgarden (for 2012’s excellent King Animal) and Temple of the Dog, and done solo acoustic tours. With the exception of one serious misstep, the beats-heavy techno pop album Scream, his career has been one of consistently high quality. Even his Casino Royale song, “You Know My Name”, was the best James Bond theme since “Live And Let Die”.

As he got older, his songwriting only got better. Higher Truth, his last solo album…unfortunately…was also his best, a stripped down, largely acoustic collection of songs that sounded like a gifted writer just hitting his prime. While his voice may have lost a few notes off the high end, he remained one of the most versatile and gifted vocalists rock music has ever produced. The fact that he could marry that voice to smart, sophisticated rock songs that never sacrificed an intensity best described as pulverizing, made Chris Cornell a rare and unusual talent.

In the end, the gifts he had and the adulation he received as one of the most successful musicians of the past thirty years were simply not enough. The demons that haunted him, that he tried to exorcise through his lyrics and his electrifying performances, convinced him that his troubles were permanent and that they required a permanent solution. It was a tragic and heartbreakingly sad end for a truly gifted man.

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The Listening Post: Spring 2013

Without the daily four-hour grind of commuting, I’m not listening to as much stuff these days. But there are a few things that have sparked the ear.

  • King AnimalSoundgarden. It’s not supposed to work like this. Bands that broke up nearly two decades ago and then reunite should not put out new material that is this good. Of course, it helps that Chris Cornell has made good music fairly consistently since Soundgarden’s 1996 opus Down On The Upside. And drummer Matt Cameron has certainly kept his prodigious chops intact by joining Pearl Jam. Nobody’s really sure what guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd were doing in the time between Upside and King Animal, but they certainly kept in touch with their instruments. The Achilles heel of almost every album Soundgarden released at their peak (Badmotorfinger, Superunknown, Upside) was their insistence that every bit of data that could be squeezed onto a CD was squeezed onto a CD. At 52 minutes long, King Animal sounds positively short compared to the earlier albums. What the length of those earlier albums meant was that some songs were too long, or there were songs included that would have been left off in the days of vinyl: filler. Even an alternative rock classic like Superunknown has several songs that would have been better off never seeing the light of day.

    King Animal is the shortest Soundgarden album since 1986’s Ultramega OK. It’s also the most consistently good album they’ve ever done. There is nothing on here that surpasses the classics that blared out of car radios back when you could actually hear music like this on car radios. There’s nothing as good as “Black Hole Sun” or “Blow Up The Outside World” here, but the songs on this album are not far off from those peaks and they’re all on that level. There are no sub-Sabbath dirges like “4th of July” or “Half” here either. The opening tracks are a statement of purpose. “Been Away Too Long”, “Non-State Actor” and “By Crooked Steps” serve notice that Soundgarden is back and that they’ve lost none of the chemistry that made them such a formidable presence back in the early- and mid-90s. The balance of the album brings the heavy (“A Thousand Days Before”, “Blood on The Valley Floor”, the punishing “Attrition”), but also plays up the band’s secret weapon: swirling, vaguely psychedelic instrumentation and melodies. It was this secret weapon that made “Black Hole Sun” so arresting when you first heard it. The reaction is similar when hearing “Bones Of Birds”, or “Black Saturday” (a close cousin to “Burden In My Hand”). There are curveballs like the album closer, “Rowing” which rides a Shepherd bass line straight to the delta and sounds like a Charley Patton field holler updated for the iTunes generation. There’s also “Taree”, an ode to growing up in the Northwest that has a time signature that defies description. “Eyelid’s Mouth” is a moody, sinuous mid-tempo number that ends in a welter of rhythmic riffs and searing lead guitar over Shepherd’s rubbery bass.

    What the future holds for Soundgarden is unknown. Matt Cameron is an essential ingredient both for his drumming and his songwriting, and it’s doubtful he’d be willing to leave his very lucrative day job with Pearl Jam. But if the next album is as good as this one, whatever the wait is it will be worth it.
    Grade: A
  • Document (Deluxe Edition)R.E.M. The golden children of Athens, GA are in the process of re-releasing all of their albums in 25th anniversary editions. The original albums have been thoroughly remastered, a second disc of unreleased material is included, along with a poster, postcards, liner notes, etc. They’ve done a great job with this, but then R.E.M. has done a great job on almost everything they’ve touched in their career. Document was the first R.E.M. album that broke through to the mainstream based on the Top 10 hit “The One I Love” and the FM/MTV favorite “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” but what’s so remarkable listening to it again after so many years is just how bizarre the album is. There may have been a hit single here, but Document was far from a bid for mainstream acceptance. Even that hit single was just one verse repeated three times (with a slight change the third time) and a one word chorus: Michael Stipe howling “Fire!” as if he was being tormented in Hell. The backing vocal in the chorus (Mike Mills singing “She’s coming down on her own now”) was inscrutable even if you could discern it. “The One I Love” was a fluke hit, most likely due to its beautiful production and a complete misunderstanding of the darkly vicious lyric. It was 1987 and Document sounded nothing like the Pet Shop Boys or Michael Jackson. “They’re numbering the monkeys/The monkeys and the monkeys/The followers of chaos out of control” sang Stipe on “Disturbance At The Heron House”. Who knows what it meant? Who cared? Army Special Counsel Joseph Welch is heard in his famous rebuke (“Have you no sense of decency?”) of Joseph McCarthy in the politically charged lyrics of “Exhuming McCarthy”. Stream of consciousness lyrics touching on everything from Donald Trump to, of course, LEONARD BERNSTEIN!! are rattled off at breakneck pace in “End Of The World”. “Strange” is a cover song of post-punk heroes Wire. The guitar that opens and punctuates the verses in “Finest Worksong” is discordant and distorted. And these are the songs that are on what’s usually considered the radio-friendly side of the album! Maybe in another universe, but in 1987 America this was as far from radio material as you could get. Side two is even stranger, with “Fireplace” (an ode to the Shakers), “Lightnin’ Hopkins” (which has absolutely nothing to do with the famous blues singer), the completely incomprehensible “King Of Birds”. Then there’s the album closer about a drunk who lives in his car behind the Oddfellows Local hall, where he drinks 151 proof rum and rants at the members of the order.

    Document was a breath of fresh air in 1987 when I spent the autumn listening to it until it had burned a hole in my brain. It is still a breath of fresh air; it’s a brilliant, confusing, mysterious album whose lyrics and instrumentation consistently undermine it’s radio-friendly production. The second disc included is a live show from Holland that shows the band at the end of an era, and at their creative peak (which lasted for many more years). In 1988 R.E.M. would sign with a major label and begin their assault on superstardom. In this show, they are still very much the little band from Athens, Georgia but they are putting themselves in place to dominate the music world.
    Grade: A+ (original album)
    Grade: A (live disc)
  • The Solution Is The ProblemMark Scudder. The first album from singer/songwriter and one-man band Mark Scudder (available on iTunes and through his website markscudder.com) is a low-budget affair with grand pretensions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though Scudder sometimes gets a little carried away. Recorded at his home, with Scudder playing every note, The Solution Is The Problem swings between bracing post-alternative rockers (album opener “Moving To Silence”) and hushed acoustic ballads (the title track). Scudder is clearly a guy with music in his blood. His voice is limited; you can hear him straining when he goes for higher registers. However, he plays all the instruments with no small degree of skill (the exception, as is usual in most of these non-Dave Grohl one-man band albums, is drums, where Scudder is only adequate). Still, the album never really sounds like a band. Even when all the instruments are charging ahead and Scudder is joined by some backing vocalists, as on the anti-Occupy Wall Street broadside “Occupied”, it still sounds like the meticulously crafted work of one guy. This has the effect of making the album seem static. There’s no sense of spontaneity. Still, it’s hard to argue with music that’s this well-played, and Scudder does yeoman’s work here. His lyrics are quite good, and his conservative politics are certainly unusual for someone in this field whose name doesn’t rhyme with Bed Stugent. Throughout the album he takes shots at the Occupy movement, and at an unnamed left-wing television host (“Follow Me (The Hypocrite Song)”), and “Free” is a statement of broad intent whose target is either unnamed or too many to name. But politics is only part of the game, and thankfully not that big a part; politics in rock music (whether it’s on the Left or the Right), is best done in either small doses or obliquely.

    There are two big flaws with the album. The first is that many of the songs sound the same: strummed acoustic guitars and Scudder’s deep voice eventually building to anthemic choruses or finales (“Free”, “I Want To Be With You”, “Alera”, “Occupied”). The songs are best when this device is used sparingly or when Scudder finds a groove and sticks to it (“Moving To Silence”, the excellent “I Will Love You If You Let Me”, “Follow Me”). The second, and more serious, flaw is that nearly every song is several minutes too long. Of the eleven tracks, only two come in under five minutes while a whopping seven are over six minutes, and four of those are over seven. The finale, “Real Hope”, is a nearly eleven minute-long instrumental soundscape that comes perilously close to New Age. Virtually every song on the album would have benefited from some judicious pruning. Mark Scudder is a talent to watch, but he would greatly benefit from playing with other musicians and from adhering to Rock and Roll Songwriting Rule #1: keep it short and powerful; it took the Beatles years before they wrote a song as long as the shortest one here.
    Grade: B-