Saturday, August 15, 2015

Stone Temple Pilots - End of an Era

I love a group to carry on despite line-up changes, it sometimes forces a band to maybe progress in a direction they may not have had things all stayed hunky-dory within the dichotomy of the artists. Sometimes, depending on who is replaced, that shift is more radical than it needs to be. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Stone Temple Pilots have taken, in my opinion, a huge step backwards by replacing their very versatile vocalist Scott Weiland with the fuckin' guy from Linkin Park. Unfortunately, this is only compounded by the fact that they're also doing their best to not only retain their classic sound, but harken back to the glory days of their success by writing songs with similar structures to their first two (and coincidentally) most successful albums.

Mind you, this is all only based on a 5 song E.P. release that came out in 2013, which to be honest - still wasn't as bad as I'd thought it would turn out. So I can't write them off completely; but never-the-less it feels like the end of an era. Stone Temple Pilots got a bad rap as being both clingers to the wave of alternative rock that swept through radio land in the first half of the nineties, as well as writers of rock-radio friendly songs that gave them no merit. Unfortunately, while the first half of that statement may have credibility, the second has none. Here is my list/eulogy of my favorite/best Weiland-era STP albums; perspective....

#6 - Core (1992)

Not what you expected eh? Core is solid no doubt, it's got an instantly identifiable sound and the songs are really well written and drip with trademark characteristics of a little bit of everything that tickles your fancy about the golden era of Grunge. It rocks, it grooves, it contemplates and at times charmingly makes no sense to the listener at all. This album is a classic to most, and unfortunately mostly for the wrong reasons. Following in the wake of newly revealed heavy hitters in the genre like Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Alice In Chains, looking back Core could be construed more as an L.A. chapter's strategic attempt to strike while the iron was hot using a hammer with the most comfortable grip than a watermark in the genre that helped propel it's popularity to a self-imploding apex. It's only upon the gift of hindsight 20 plus years into the band's catalogue that we experience what they're capable of, and how Core falls short of anything really inspiring and in it's true reflection is simply paint-by-numbers rock n' roll for the 90s.

That's not to say that I don't lose my shit when 'Dead and Bloated' kicks the fuck in, boogey the F out to the beginning of 'Naked Sunday' everytime it comes on, or yarl like a ninties rock god all the words I think I know to 'Plush'. On it's own away from the other children in the discography Core is still a good/great record, god bless the restraint of the mid-paced Grunge waltzes like 'Where The River Goes' and to a degree 'Sin' - complete with mandatory acoustic breakdown three fourths the way through. Call it a foot in the door for the group, or perhaps the early stages prior to their evolution, Core is still fairly one dimensional - as is most obvious in Weiland's singular vocal delivery from front to back, a type of Vedder-like deeper sing-style he would all but abandon by the time the group released their final album as a whole. I would wager this album is a lot of people's favorites more for it's nostalgia and accessibility than anything else, which I can be guilty of as well no doubt, the key is to make sure you're not confusing a favorite work of a group, as opposed to their best. Never-the-less, had STP come out of the West Coast gate pumping an album like Tiny Music to the masses back then, none of us may have ever heard of them.

#5 - Purple (1994)

For a long time after this album's release - well into the rest of the group's catalogue - I made the mistake of dismissing this album as nothing more than a sort of Core part 2. It was only a few years ago that I came back to it appropriately and was forced to applaud it as a proper evolutionary step in the band's career. Everything here minimally hints at what's to come, and also pays maybe a bit too gratuitous tribute to what already had gone. If you were to tell me that this was the best thing they've done I couldn't really argue it because I'd understand. It retains the thick grunge rock of it's predecessor ('Meat Plow', 'Vaseline', 'Lounge Fly') while also utilizing that sound to write different kinds of songs ('Interstate Love Song', 'Still Remains') thus in effect beginning to conceive a sound and style all their own. All of the songs however display a more versatile range in Weiland's vocals that wasn't present in the monochrome Core and add a very enjoyable looseness to the tracks which in turn helps in perceiving this album a bit more multi-dimensionally.

All that being said Purple's formula still doesn't stray from it's predecessor, and in turn does wind up sounding a bit more like a big budget sequel to their debut in it's totality. 'Meat Plow' takes the place of the lumbering 'Dead and Bloated', 'Vaseline' flaunts the rock of 'Sex Type Thing', 'Lounge Fly' arguably mimics the pattern and structure of 'Sin', 'Pretty Penny' is the mid-album acoustic interlude that 'Creep' acted as (though the former is superior), 'Big Empty' is the anthemic radio song that 'Plush' was, 'Army Ants' vs. 'Crackerman', and 'Kitchenware and Candy Bars' serves up the same kind of closure that 'Where The River Goes' did - and for the most part they're all located geographically in the same spots on the tracklist. So maybe I wasn't too far off on my initial generalization. Purple feels like baby steps out of the shadows of the peers in the scene that may or may not have influenced them, but they ended up sounding a whole lot like anyways - for that reason alone I appreciate a movement in any direction rather than standing still, and Purple raises the stakes by having better written songs than their debut. But in the grand scheme of things I could argue that Purple is merely a roided up, more conditioned version of Core.

#4 - Shangri-La-Dee-Da (2001)

Shangri-La-Dee-Da has always felt like the most epic, bombastic performance from the band to me. A characteristic I attribute to the huge production sound on the record, not to mention the more subtle yet lush instrumentation that fills in the less layered spots here and there that you may be privy to miss if you're not tuned into it. It's an interesting perspective considering the whole middle of the album is very chilled back. It's also bookended with a pair of thick-ass swinging anchors almost giving the batch of songs a sort of harkening back to the early days, the album's writing and pace feel like an almost back-to-basics approach, comparable to the formula of Purple. The opener 'Dumb Love' is arguably the heaviest thing the band has ever spat forth, possibly rivaled only by No.4's 'Down'. Followed up by the juxtaposition of the up-beat radio anthem 'Days Of The Week'. I'd go out on a limb and say Shangri-La-Dee-Da's four opening songs are as a batch the best first four opening songs on any of their releases. Nearly everything after the opening gallop never manages to get passed mid-pace, which is a slight unbalance that's evened out with each song's near-grandiose presentation. 'Bi-Polar', 'Regeneration', 'Coma', 'Wonderful', and 'Hello It's Late' all feel magnanimus to me, and longer than they actually are (in a good way). I still can't decipher whether or not it's a testament to the production on the album or a misconstrued first impression that I never got over. Here's something else I can't get over, unfortunately: 'A Song For Sleeping' - I absolutely can't stand it when a band, or perhaps more specifically a lyricist pens a song on an album specifically to his child/wife or whatever; utilizing a name drop in the lyrics and thusly negating any relation that could be conceived from an objective listener; especially considering how beautiful both the instrumentation and melody are with that song. Save that shit for home, nobody else cares except for the handful of listeners with kids of the same name. Staind's fucking 'Zoe Jane' is the same shit.

It's a fantastic record none-the-less, and a shame I have to put it so seemingly low on the list - but it's just a testament to everything else the band has done in the rest of their catalogue because Shangri-La-Dee-Da is still a beast of a rock record. I also think it's got some of the best compositional melodies going on in the background of the songs and is Scott Weiland's best vocal performance. Perhaps I'm a bit biased towards the seemingly less calculated approach, less produced sound the two albums that preceded it set as a standard. I actually like this record better than 2010's epononymous album, but can't sit here and tell you that it's better than it in terms of all the songs both individually, and packaged together as a whole. Shangri-La-Dee-Da was originally planned by the band to be a double-album, until the record company quickly refused to back that idea, I'd still love to hear twice the album this could have been; probably would have wound up pacing a whole lot better and truly been a monster of a sonic journey. Placing the raw, Seattle grunge-influenced rock of Core on one end of the spectrum, and the 60's influenced alt-pop trip of Tiny Music on the other, I'd say Shangri-La-Dee-Da would land you somewhere in the middle in terms of the evolution of their sound, yet still retains an identity and discernible vibe all it's own.

#3 - Stone Temple Pilots (2010)

The band never reached the pinnacle again the way they did in the couple of years that followed Purple; the last couple of albums prior to their self-titled were a bit under the radar in comparison to how they came out of the gate in the early nineties. Tours cut short due to the singers substance abuse issues and the problems with the law that ensued restricted the proper support to keep them on top. When they reformed in 2008 and confirmed that they were in fact working on new material for release I got really stoked, mostly because I had the opportunity to truly appreciate the body of work they'd done up to that point and had come to realize that you'd never really be able to put your finger on what exactly new material from STP would sound like, and that's an excitable trait for me. By this time I'd begun to view them as the 'Grunge' version of Faith No More; songs like '12 Gracious Melodies', 'So You Know', 'I Got You' and 'Atlanta' were evidence of a group with really progressive ideas that didn't mind experimenting a bit and throwing the listener a curve ball that may or may not go over well, all the while retaining their identity and sound beneath it all. A lofty perspective on my part considering the new trend of 90's bands reforming after extended time away and trying to replicate the 'glory days' of whatever the most successful album was in their catalogue through the medium of  a new album. Stone Temple Pilots did not disappoint.

Stone Temple Pilots was damn near as ninety degree an angle in their style as Tiny Music was upon it's release. While the first two tracks are the absolute embodiment of what had become the traditional STP sound ('Between the Lines', 'Take A Load Off'), the rest of the album was peppered with songwriting that went beyond showcasing influence and felt more like paying tribute to the bands that motivated them at their roots. 'Huckleberry Crumble' felt like the channeling of Aerosmith (whose guitarist Brad Whitford was an admitted influence of Robert Deleo), 'Dare If You Dare' seemed latter day Beatles-esque (a track not surprisingly written during the Talk Show sessions), 'Cinnamon' borrows from the pop-side of Cheap Trick's body o' work, and 'First Kiss on Mars' sounds like Bowie. You can throw 'Peacoat' in any tracklisting after Core and not bat an eye at it's fluidity, and everything in between is the band continuing to stretch their sound. The whole thing comes off as a stained-glass mosaic of styles and influences, making for one hell of an enjoyable listen.

Considering the praise I give Tiny Music for a lot of the same shift in effort, you'd think this would end up even higher on the list than it is. This is, to me, a stellar record - but the hold up I have with it is that some of the songs just don't feel as strong as past practice in my opinion. Both 'Bagman' and 'Hickory Dichotomy' could be plain fuckin' annoying to a casual listener, an opinion I shared for a while there upon the early few ingestions of the album. And while I love the fact that 'Cinnamon' is a track that more than a few would be (or were) hard pressed to identify as an STP song on first listen without prior knowledge, the lyrics just seem a bit underwhelming to me, even though upon recent listens it feels like they're simply reflecting the simple pop sensibility that the song was written to represent. In the end it is, especially considering the 9 year hiatus, a strong and ballsy four-star record, that keeps you excited to hear what's to come on first listen, and a yearning to hear it all again on subsequent indulgences. I will say that while 'Maver' is per their tradition a fantastic final track on the album they should have kept 'Samba Nova' on as the closer and not regurgitated it as a bonus track - that shit is butter.

#2 - No.4 (1999)

Following a failed tour, legal problems, the drastic sonic variation that was Tiny Music, and a side project that was basically STP minus Scott Weiland (Talk Show), not to mention the thick wake of  Nu-Metal's rock popularity sweep, STP's fourth album - appropriately titled No. 4 - slipped into the scene with barely any fanfare. Perhaps both the tribulations that came before it, as well as it's low profile in the mainstream subliminally added an element of pleasant surprise to it's presentation, because No.4 winds up being a complete consolidation of all of the band's musical strengths, in turn showcasing everything that STP was and was to be in a blueprint of sorts.

No.4. fronted a bass-heavy lower tone in the thicker songs here, an arguable influence of the aforementioned popularity of Nu-Metal at the time (let's not forget Scott Weiland's guest appearance on Limp Bizkit's 1997 album Significant Other), most notably in the slow-swinging wrecking ball that is the album opener 'Down'. While the band has always been able to flaunt a fantastic low range, on No.4 it sounds so much more organic and not overproduced than anything else they've done, a huge trait that keeps this album's tone magnificently palpable and almost dirty. The over-all sound is a perfect congelation of the thick power chords that dominated early albums, and the thinner more natural production reminiscent of Tiny Music. And with that perfect concoction of sound they run the gamut of their capabilities here. The thick stomp of 'Down', the heavy gallop ala 'Sex Type Thing' of 'Heaven and Hotrods', the art-rock of 'Church On Tuesday', the punk rock of 'Sex and Violence', the trippy folk swirl of 'Sour Girl', the soaring melodies of 'Glide', lounge-influenced 'I Got You', and closing with the phenomenal sunset serenade that is 'Atlanta'. In the end this record winds up sounding like a greatest hits of Stone Temple Pilots without actually being that; all of their best qualities and styles spread across 11 fantastically versatile and eccentric songs.

#1 - Tiny Music... (1996)

STP was virtually on top of the radio world with the success of Purple and more specifically songs like 'Interstate Love Song' and to a lesser degree 'Big Empty'. Remembering that lofty positioning only serves to amplify the greatness that is Tiny Music, as it not only presents as a ballsy experimental shift in sound, but also a kind of push back against all of the big business execs and mainstream hangers-on that were most likely trying to convince the band to rest on their laurels. Instead of going bigger and more bombastic, STP thinned out their sound, toned everything down - including the production, and even added more eclectic instrumentation into their songs in the form of organs, electric harpsichords, vibraphones and clavinets. The end result is a trippy little rock gem that feels like it does whatever the fuck it wants, including two idled down instrumental pieces ('Press Play', 'Daisy'), a trumpet solo ('Adhesive')  and a borderline lounge samba number ('And So I Know') which I believe to be one of the best songs in their catalogue (which most in my limited experience tend to skip right over, dummies). Weiland completely changes his primary vocal style for this record, only distancing themselves further from their previous trademark sound and it works on every level.

Written, produced and engineered to sound like the influences it's cut from which is 60's rock, but filtered through a mid-90's alternative rock conduit, Tiny Music sounds timeless. It ultimately has no edge to it (barring the aforementioned against the grain attitude by which it was conceived), even the "heavier" tracks on the album feel like they just sort of float about on a cloud, a bizarre juxtaposition to the real life events paralleling the records creation; which was the chronic substance abuse problems that led to the singer's multiple arrests and cancellation of a tour. Never-the-less Tiny Music flows wonderfully from start to finish and with it's highs and lows feels like the end of a fun little journey when it's over (maybe it parallels more to the effects of being high as a fucking kite)  - and oh how it ends. Arguably the best song the band has ever done, 'Seven Caged Tigers' ties the bow like a syrupy rock epilogue, it's final dissonant, reverberating chords drift off in such a beautifully haunting way; reminding me of the end of Led Zeppelin's 'Over The Hills and Far Away' - a procession I often wish would go on for another 10 minutes or so. Tiny Music is genius; it has the ability to give me comfort in it's sounds without ever losing any of it's muster, even after all these years. The saddest part about this record - besides the fact that it only resonates the awful truth that Stone Temple Pilots as we know it is done, is that I was only allowed to hear it for the first time once.

*If you dig this record as much as I do, and haven't checked out Talk Show yet maybe do so. It's a one-off album that's basically STP minus Weiland, and was written at the same time as Tiny Music. The Deleo brothers even admitted to splitting up the thirty or so songs they had done as either going to be an STP song or a Talk Show song by writing the singer's name on each track's demo tape. Barely compares in my opinion, but is still an enjoyable chapter to experience.