Monday, September 10, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 437: Audioslave

For the second review in a row, this album represents the last one in my collection by the band.  In the case of Tracy Chapman, I strangely rolled them in chronological order by release date.  In the case of Audioslave, I rolled them in reverse chronological order.  An ominous coincidence or just the mind’s never ending search for pattern recognition within the chaos?  I’m going with the latter.

Disc 437 is… Audioslave (Self-Titled) 
Artist: Audioslave

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover?  This cover is like one of those conceptual art pieces from the cover of a seventies sci fi novel, only minus the art.  Frozen fire?  Our relationship to the absurd expressed in alien-like landscapes?  Finding cold comfort on the deserted beaches of our own psyche?  I could write a hundred cool introductions to this cover and the art would still fail to inspire.

How I Came To Know It: As I’ve mentioned on previous Audioslave reviews, I was introduced to this band by my buddy Chris D.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Audioslave albums, which I believe is all of them.  This is their first and their best effort.  As I noted above, this again completes an artist and so here’s a quick recap for those who haven’t been reading along since Disc 25:

  1. Self-Titled: 3 stars (reviewed right here).
  2. Out of Exile:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 329).
  3. Revelations:  2 stars (reviewed at Disc 25).
Rating:  3 stars, but nearly 4

When I first got this record I was pretty stoked about how it sounded.  Here was visceral energy, with the powerful guitar licks of Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello matched with the peerless rock voice of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell.  For about a month I put it on for every fellow fan of hard rock that visited the house for longer than twenty minutes.  Most reacted with a polite ‘meh’.

Good friends are the ones who will tell you when your fly is down, when your breath is bad or when a band is not as great as you imagine they are in the flush of new discovery.  Ten years later, I still enjoy this album, but I can now see why my good friends weren’t as excited as I thought they should have been.

First the good stuff, and there is plenty.  The Rage Against the Machine band is incredibly tight and no one lays down that rare combination of heavy and funky that they do.  These are guitars that dig down into your innards and get a hold of that mystical organ that I imagine exists somewhere below the solar plexus and above the stomach.  That spot that always seems to be the source of flight in my dreams where that’s possible. Power chords seem to find a home there as well, from which they radiate out through the rest of the body.

Once he’s honed in on that spot, Morello adds a thousand other strange and wonderful pieces of genius with the guitar that spread upward to the hippocampus and other lower reaches of the back of the brain.  It won’t make you breakdance or vogue, but it’ll certainly get you swaying rhythmically in place.

Cornell is in fine throat as well, proving why of the three Audioslave records made this is easily the best one.  His voice is deployed as more of an instrument than a language centre.  There are places where he hits me, like the persistent – and slightly angry – demand to a higher power in “Show Me How To Live”:

“Nail in my hand
From my creator
You gave me life
Now show me how to live.”

He manages to sing these lines as both prayer and a renunciation of prayer at the same time.  It isn’t great prose on its own, but it proves that if you sing it with enough feeling, you can make anything seem deep.

Apart from the occasionally noticed snippets like this, I found a hard time concentrating on the lyrics.  Usually this bothers me, but Cornell just fits his voice in with the dense groove of the band so well that it is just another instrument, to be appreciated on that level first and foremost.  Cornell is just burning vocal gasoline and we shouldn’t take anything more from it than that.

Speaking of burning gasoline, when I did notice the lyrics, there were a few too many songs with highway and driving imagery.  In addition to the powerful and energetic “Gasoline” alluded to above, the band adds lesser songs like “I Am the Highway” and “Getaway Car,” both of which I could have lived without.

In fact, at fourteen tracks, the biggest problem with this record is it is slightly overlong.  I know I’ve said before that fourteen is the far edge of acceptable, but I’ve also said that every record is different.  For this one, I think a tightly chosen ten to twelve tracks would’ve ensured only the best appeared.  Always leave them wanting more, not less.

Instead, around track twelve, I found myself glancing at my MP3 player frequently, checking how many minutes were left in the remaining songs.  This is not a good sign.  I’ve noticed generally that Audioslave albums are a bit bloated, and front-end loaded in terms of song quality, and it is true here as well.

Songs like “Set It Off” are brilliant, with Cornell crooning slow and mournfully in parts, only to jump into full throat when the song kicks you in the tender spots at the chorus.  When he croons a bit too much, like on “I Am the Highway” or “The Last Remaining Light” you can see the shadow of his future overwrought solo albums (both of which I’ve long since sold).  Fortunately these moments are few and far between.

Also fortunately, the production on this album is top shelf, perfectly combining the angst-ridden sludge of Soundgarden and the precise fury of Rage Against the Machine into something that is new and interesting.  I was not at all surprised to find master producer Rick Rubin was responsible.  Mr. Rubin, I thank you again for all the music you’ve made that much better over the last thirty years or so.

In summation, Audioslave’s first effort is their best effort.  It has a few minor drawbacks that kept it from achieving four stars by the thinnest of margins, but those crimes were minor.  If you are ever inclined to give these guys a chance, this is the place to start.

Best tracks:  Cochise, Show Me How To Live, Gasoline, Set It Off, Exploder

No comments: