Tuesday, June 7, 2011

CD Odyssey Disc 283: Soundgarden

Of late, my 'hard marker' reputation has taken some serious hits, and this next review is my 6th 5 star rating in only 14 albums. That's too many.

Some have tried to console me by saying this is just a function of my good taste in music; others go with the obvious - I'm more likely to groove on a music collection that I myself built. My consolation to myself is twofold.

First - over the first 270 discs or so, approximately one in ten received a rating of five. Statistical analysis says this is a pretty strong sample (25% of the total roughly) so the number should bear up at the end, regardless of temporary anomalies.

Second - wherever the percentages fall at the end, I've been one lucky dog getting this much killer music. And so, here's one more.

Disc 283 is...Badmotorfinger

Artist: Soundgarden

Year of Release: 1991

What’s Up With The Cover?: Not sure about this one. I like the simplicity, but I'm not sure what it is supposed to be. The Soundgarden coat of arms? A rim design for a pimped-out ride? The kind of gear you'd expect to find in a 'badmotorfinger'?

How I Came To Know It: Another of the famous Celtic Folk/Grunge wars of my early twenties. I fought on the side of Celtic Folk then, so when Badmotorfinger went on the CD player, I lost - bragging rights anyway. I won when it came to being exposed to another great band, as this was my first introduction to Soundgarden.

How It Stacks Up: I couldn't have had a better introduction. I have five Soundgarden albums, if you count the combination of the EPs for "Screaming Life" and "Fopp". I'm only missing their debut LP, "Ultramega OK". Of the five that I do have, I must put myself solidly in the "Badmotorfinger is best" camp - thus alienating the purists that go with "Louder Than Love" and the late bloomers who prefer "Superunknown".

Rating: 5 stars

As I've just noted, "Badmotorfinger" is not only the first Soundgarden album I ever heard, it remains my favourite. "Louder Than Love" is more visceral and angry, and "Superunknown" is more catchy and memorable, but for my money "Badmotorfinger" straddles the best of both worlds perfectly. And by straddles, I mean it takes the stage ten feet tall, plants its feet far apart and rocks out.

The album begins with two songs that notwithstanding the lukewarm charting the record achieved, remain two of the greatest hard rock songs ever written; "Rusty Cage" and "Outshined". Both were mainstays at alternative night at Scandals Nightclub in the day, and if you were to be brave enough to put them on today, they'd still move the crowd (if only there were a few more brave DJs out there).

Lest you were to think that 'loud' equals 'good' on A Creative Maelstrom, I'll point out that Johnny Cash remakes "Rusty Cage" on his 1996 album "Unchained" and even in the hands of a sixty-four year old country musician, the song's vitality remains unchecked.

"Rusty Cage" and "Outshined" are so great that over the years I've been guilty of giving short shrift to the rest of this album in my zeal to play those two songs. The CD Odyssey has cured me of this mistake. The power that the album starts with is maintained throughout.

Other notables include, "Searching With My Good Eye Closed", which begins with sampling of one of those children's toys that teach animal sounds ("a pig says...a rooster goes...etc.). Despite a pretty gimmicky intro, the song is still great twenty years after I first heard it. Also the last animal sampled is "The devil says..." which would be really handy to know as a kid (hint - it sounds like screaming).

Musically, despite Cornell receiving the lion's share of the band's popular notoriety, everyone in Soundgarden is a master of their instrument. Guitarist Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron's drumming and yes - even new bass player Ben Shepherd, which the interwebs advises me was not on "Louder Than Love". Soundgarden was great for the reason that all good rock bands become great - because all their members were at the top of their game.

Of course this is not enough, and what I also like about "Badmotorfinger" in particular is the production quality, which keeps all the instruments pretty even in the mix, without getting muddy like I sometimes find on their previous releases.

They are the heaviest of grunge's Big Three, and the music is so powerful and heavy in places it can feel a little bit like a barrage, particularly the pounding bass beat on "Room A Thousand Years Wide" and to a lesser extent, "Jesus Christ Pose". At the same time, it never loses its melodic quality. Also - it is a barrage I enjoy.

Lyrically "Badmotorfinger" also serves as a sort of shorthand for many of my similarly aged friends; all of us hearing the record in our early twenties. If you were of that age and were from Powell River you loved Cornell singing on "Outshined":

"I'll take the river down to Stillwater
And ride a pack of dogs"

Because when we grew up, Stillwater was the remedial school you went to after getting kicked out of regular public school. It is the kind of place you'd expect to hear Soundgarden.

Or if you were just a broke young twenty something hundreds of miles away like we ended up being five years later, you might get more out of "Drawing Flies", with:

"Sitting here like uninvited company
Wallowing in my own obscenities
I share a cigarette with negativity."

It was music for disaffected youth, which is what I was when I first heard it. But to dismiss it for that reason, or to diminish its musical impact would be a mistake. Every time I hear the album, the quality of its musical expression reminds you of exactly what that feeling is like. I expect many future generations to discover this music in the same way ours later discovered The Clash or Alice Cooper or Bob Dylan.

In 1991, I listened to more folk than grunge, and I wouldn't go back and change that if I could. Still, I knew something good when I heard it. 1991 saw the release of Pearl Jam's "Ten", Nirvana's "Nevermind" and "Badmotorfinger". I have reviewed both those other albums previously, and gave them both five stars as well. I prefer Pearl Jam for their overall body of work, but I'm going to stick with "Badmotorfinger" as the best of the three great 1991 grunge albums.

Best tracks: All tracks are good, as befits a five star album.

1 comment:

Chris said...

I am definitely in the SuperUnknown camp.

I do love this album however. If only they could have done without the sax solo.