Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Stone Temple Pilots and my strange relationship with grunge music

Stone Temple Pilots, Self Titled
Atlantic Records

I've always been weirdly fascinated with grunge music, in the same way one gets fascinated with a plane crash or an open wound on one's arm: a strange mix of pleasure and brain-churning pain. As the first musical movement that I "didn't get" (I was all of 21 when it hit, and painfully out of step with my own demographic), I was absolutely hide-bound and determined to know everything there was to know about it -- even moreso than if I'd "gotten it," since I figured there was something I was missing.

The end result being I've probably heard more grunge music than most people who generally hate the stuff. And of course there wasn't anything I was missing -- grunge music was nothing more than heavy metal with somewhat more masculine trappings than hair metal, but, ultimately with worse songs. Hair metal was a combo of hard rock and bubblegum (meaning it had hooks); grunge thought it was Zeppelin but it was really Foghat (meaning it really didn't).

But as always happens when I explore a musical genre, I always come away from it liking more of it than I probably should. Weirdly, the stuff I like isn't the stuff most critics do. I hate Pearl Jam, for example. Po-faced, over-serious bullshit, the Grape Nuts of rock and roll (good for you, tastes like gravel). I can't stand Mudhoney, either, and Soundgarden actually sends me into spasms of anger. Especially "Black Hole Sun." God, I hate Black Hole Sun. And I still have mixed feelings about Nirvana -- I love "In Utero" but I still think "Nevermind" sounds like a hair metal album, and I notice all the cut-and-paste work Butch Vig did to clean it up to a radio-friendly sparkle.

No, the stuff I like from that genre is the stuff that doesn't pretend it's more important than it actually is. Alice In Chains, for example, seems well aware that it's a Camaro-metal band and makes really good but completely shallow Camaro-metal records for today's heschers. I have no problem with them because, oddly, they're good at what they do, even if what they do is kinda awful. But my favorite grunge group is the band I used to call the Strawberry Alarm Clock of the grunge scene (because they seemed like bandwagon-jumpers that accidentally did a better job of encapsulating the scene than the main practitioners) -- Stone Temple Pilots.

STP always seemed like they took themselves way less seriously than their compatriots. They wrote songs with massive, catchy hooks and seemed unabashed in their love of pop music. They switched gears mid-stream and made a record that sounded like it wanted to be T.Rex's "Electric Warrior" (1996's "Tiny Music", which still sounds completely left-field even today). Unlike 99.9% of the other grunge bands, they were a little bit sexy, which was something most of those bands were too busy bitching about how famous they were to comprehend the necessity of. Sure, they haven't ever been able to write a lyric to save their lives -- but does it even matter? I'd rather have total nonsense than Vedder's po-faced tripe.

Still, there was no reason a new STP album should be any good. Their last (2001's "Shangri-La Dee Da") was only okay, and Scott Weiland's last gig as lead singer of Slash's Velvet Revolver was a total bust -- not a single memorable song across two albums. Nevertheless, their brand-new self-titled album is kind of awesome anyway -- more hook-laden than anything they've yet done, still just as silly, but, oddly, still just as sexy and righteous. It sounds like grunge + bubblegum, which, if you see my previous paragraph about hair metal, kind of rights a couple wrongs.

Most interesting is Weiland's continuing fixation with glam rock; namely, early-to-mid-70s David Bowie, whom he channels quite effectively on the album's two best songs, "Hickory Dichotomy" which roils along on a spung Bowie cockney, and the positively astonishing "First Kiss On Mars" which is easily the best song the group's ever done, with a lovely melody and a mammoth hook.

Elsewhere, the band channels great hard-rock hooks into tightly-written songs that almost always resolve to righteously fist-pumping chorii. My favorite is "Take a Load Off" -- the shift from minor to major in the chorus is one of those delicious "sigh" moments that just automatically brings to mind summer-day drives under bright blue skies. "Hazy Daze" sports a wicked boogie-rock groove, while "Cinnamon" sounds like New Order filtered through the the Osmonds.

The band only stumbles a couple of times -- lead single "Between The Lines" sounds like an attempt to write an archetypal Stone Temple Pilots Hard Rock Single, which unfortunately means its a bit drab, and "Dare If You Dare" tries a little too hard at Beatle balladry, arriving somewhere at Klaatu territory.

In terms of ongoing grunge concerns (there ain't many left -- Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, the newly-reunited Soundgarden), STP rests comfortably way at the top in terms of actually remaining both relevant and highly entertaining. "Stone Temple Pilots" is a terrific album -- fantastically heavy and surprisingly optimistic. Grunge, even though I hate you, you continue to amuse.