Monday, June 6, 2011

Soundgarden - Superunknown

Of the four big bands to come out of Seattle in the early 1990s [Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden], Soundgarden was the first to get a major label record deal, but the last to get the big break. In a strange twist of fate, Chris Cornell’s one-off tribute to Mother Love Bone’s singer Andrew Wood, Temple of the Dog, was a big hit before Soundgarden got a hit. They got people’s attention with Badmotorfinger (1991), but in 1994 Superunknown launched them into the stratosphere. Everywhere I read about these guys they’re described as “grunge.” They sound like a cross-between of metal and hardcore punk to me. Kind of Black Sabbath sludge mixed with Black Flag. Wait! I think I just unknowingly defined “grunge” [duh!]. Since I’m going to see Soundgarden in July, I’ve been listening to them a lot lately. With that said, here are my thoughts about my favorite Soundgarden album, Superunknown.

Superunknown opens with a thunderous one-two punch of Let Me Drown and My Wave. If these two songs don’t get your heart pumping, nothing will. There’s lots of monstrous fast-paced riffage [especially for Soundgarden] from Kim Thayil here. Kim is a human riff machine like Keith Richards and Tony Iommi. The rhythm section of Ben Shepard and Matt Cameron grabs you by the lapels and then kicks you in the ass. Chris Cornell’s scream at 2:33 of Let Me Drown is otherworldly. How the hell does he do that? Check out Ben Shepard rocking the wah-wah with his bass on My Wave.

Fell On Black Days is dark and very moody. It’s time to exhale. After Let Me Drown and My Wave, Fell On Black Days slows it down and turns down the volume. It doesn’t get loud until the bridge [“How will I know that this could be my fate?”]. Chris Cornell provides a very controlled vocal for this one and saves his banshee vocals for the bridge.

Mailman is one of Matt Cameron’s songs. As the title says, it’s about a mailman, only this one is about to go postal [“I know I’m headed for the bottom…”]. Kim Thayil pours the sludge on thick with his detuned guitars in a grinding riff, and Ben Shepard’s bass makes the sludge even thicker. Add to that a Mellotron to push the song into “psychedelia land.” This one has got a sinister vibe to it. Yeah I’m riding you all the waaaaaayyyyyyy…

I have no idea what Superunknown [the song] is about, and I don’t care. It’s loud, it’s fast, it’s brutal in its intensity, and it’s relentless. It absolutely has to be played LOUD! If you don’t, you’re wrong! Chris Cornell continues to amaze me. How does he sing the way he does without blowing out his voice? Much wah-wah drenched madness from Kim Thayil in the solo. Ben Shepard and Matt Cameron are kicking ass. This is Soundgarden at the top of their game. It’s my favorite from the album [My Wave is a close second]. Alive in the Superunknown indeed…

Black Hole Sun is the monster hit from Superunknown. Peter Frampton covered it on his Fingerprints instrumental album. The band made one of the strangest videos I’ve ever seen to promote it – MTV fans loved it [they still showed music videos then]. This one sounds like “Black Sabbath meets the Beatles.” Critics have said Chris Cornell has a Beatles fixation. If that’s true I must be missing something because this is the only Soundgarden song I know that has that vibe. During the chorus [“Black Hole Sun won’t you come and wash away the rain…”] the guitars sound like they’re being fed through a Leslie speaker, one of George Harrison’s favorite effects. When Kim Thayil steps up to take his solo, it’s a wah-wah drenched atonal psychedelic freak-out. Black Hole Sun is more of a mood than a song, but that’s ok.

Spoonman is another fast one…and another hit. What has gotten into these guys? Uptempo tunes just aren’t Soundgarden’s thing, except for Jesus Christ Pose from Badmotorfinger. Street musician Artis the Spoonman makes an appearance. Whoever sequenced this album knew what he was doing.

Ben Shepard contributed two songs – Head Down and Half. I guess they recorded these to show their musical diversity. It’s experimentation for experimentation’s sake. My reaction? Meh… At least Head Down provides a soft landing after the madness that is Superunknown, much in the manner of Long Long Long after Helter Skelter on the White Album. But all is not quiet for long as it goes “from a whisper to a scream” in a hurry.

Limo Wreck is more detuned sludge. Chris Cornell imagined what it would like if there was a multi-car pile-up on LA’s freeways and made a song out of it.

The Day I Tried To Live. This one goes back and forth between straight 4/4 time and 7/8 time. I thought this song was a suicide note, but I have since learned that is not the case. Chris Cornell said it was about a guy who tries to understand what is going on around him and get along with other people rather than hiding in a cave. Whatever you say Chris… Not one of my favorites.

Fresh Tendrils is another Matt Cameron song. I’ll show my ignorance here…what is a “tendril” anyway? It’s not a bad song, but it’s not essential either.

4th of July sounds like a leftover from the Alice in Chains eponymous album. I can do without this one. I can do without Kickstand as well.

Like Suicide closes the album. It has a quiet intensity to it. Kim Thayil and Ben Shepard lock together very tightly. Soundgarden released an acoustic demo of this on the multi-media Songs From the Superunknown. I like that version better – it’s a bit more moody and intense. This version is pretty good though.

Soundgarden [and Chris Cornell in particular] likes to use different tunings for their music. Most bands stick with the standard EADGBE tuning, but not Soundgarden. I count eight different tunings on the Superunknown album. For those who are interested, here’s a breakdown song-by-song:

Let Me Drown [DADGBE “Dropped D”] / My Wave [EEBBBB – 5/4 time] / Fell On Black Days [EADGBE – 6/4 time] / Mailman [CGDGBE] / Superunknown [DADGBE “Dropped D”] / Head Down [CGCGGE] / Black Hole Sun [DADGBE “Dropped D”] / Spoonman [DADGBE “Dropped D” – intro in 7/8 time] / Limo Wreck [CGDGBE –3/4 time] / The Day I Tried To Live [EEBBBB - 4/4 and 7/8 time] / Kickstand [DADGBE “Dropped D”] / Fresh Tendrils [DGDGBE] / 4th of July [CFCGBE] / Half [CGCGGE] / Like Suicide [DGDGBC].

When Soundgarden broke up in 1997 I thought that one of the few bands from the 1990s that was worth a damn would stay that way – broken up. Now that they’ve reunited [for how long, who knows?], I’m looking forward to hearing a lot of these songs at Red Rocks in July.

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