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The Nineties’ rock sound pulled together elements of hard rock, punk, and post-Beatles pop, creating a foundation for a couple decades of mid-tempo, soft-loud-soft, ringing guitars, and the same drum pattern that relentlessly repeated on the radio, got stuck in your head, and melded together until you couldn’t distinguish the Gin Blossoms from the Rembrandts from Soul Asylum. Ok, that’s not fair to Soul Asylum, a band with greater range than those two and a larger influence on their peers and successors, based on two early 1990s albums, And The Horse They Rode In On and Grave Dancers Union. Soul Asylum’s experimenting and cross-genre came across on the earlier album, Horse, which featured songs like “Veil of Tears” and “Something out of Nothing.” Horse demonstrated their rawness, an album as much punk (of the time) as hard rock or alternative rock and Soul Asylum showed off their lyrical ambitions, as well as an inclination towards experimentalism, including one country song (“Brand New Shine,” reminds one of Led Zeppelin’s “Hot Dog”) and something James Taylor could’ve sung (“We 3”).
Two years later, we get Grave Dancers Union. I’ll pass on the usual format and dive into the key tracks, instead.
“Somebody to Shove”
The very first track starts with “grandfather watches the grandfather clock,” setting the tone for a mostly dark album with plenty of death, struggle, and aging themes, surprising for a young band. This one line haunts the entire album: “waiting for you to call me up and tell me I’m not alone.” “Shove” also sets a more aggressive sound, far more polished than HYRIO, with the ringing guitars and crashing but melodic chorus. Soul Asylum starts the album ensuring fans they’ve grown.
The band channels their inner Led Zeppelin and create something absolutely pure hard rock: an acoustic intro, crashing riff, then quiet melody – yes, it’s about oil and driving cars and all that, but the lines “I don’t care about no wheelchair” and desolation where a playground and town once was continues the dark themes and the sound the evokes Pearl Jam, contemporaries who left the hair metal sound behind, which, I hate to say this, was something Soul Asylum just couldn’t do, at least on this record.
Remember when Bruce Springsteen joined Jakob Dylan on stage for “One Headlight” and ended Jakob Dylan’s career by showing the world the vast difference between a real rock star and a bar band singer? Yeah, Soul Asylum was lucky Bruce never sang “Runaway Train” because the song seems written for Bruce, maybe even a Bruce and Jon Bon Jovi duet. Yeah, it sounds great and has the mid-tempo 90s not-quite-soft rock feel that littered that decade, so it’s pretty forgettable in its own way, for its own time. Catchy, “oh yeah I know that song,” but unless someone with Bruce’s gravitas sings it, the song just kind of floats and fades.
“Keep It Up”
This song sucks. Lazy, formulaic, could have been written and sung by Ratt or Quiet Riot and it would’ve sounded fine of their album, a reminder this band was one step removed from hair metal. Seriously, the first three songs range from good to great and then you get Soul Asylum’s singer mimicking David Lee Roth covering Poison…makes no sense.
Another country song slipping into a Soul Asylum album and I like this one because it mixes Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home,” “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger, and countless country ballads. Listening to this album in full makes you appreciate the band’s range. Not everything works and sometimes they crash through that fine line between influence and imitation, but most songs manage to sound good, most of the songs work on their own level. Maybe that’s the highest praise possible for Soul Asylum – most of their songs work on their own level.
“Get on Out”
What the hell is this? Somebody was listening to Boston and the Black Crowes nonstop before they wrote this. But, again, somehow this mash-up works just well enough.
This experiment doesn’t work. The grunge-blues-stomp thing either has an authentic rawness or it doesn’t. The much better version of this sound and song? Go to 7Horse’s “Meth Lab Zoso Sticker.”
“Without a Trace”
Infuriating. Simply damn infuriating. The melody, the guitar, the arrangement, the drums, everything in this song compels you to sing along, and then you hear yourself singing the worst lyrics on this album. And then some of the best. “I fell in love with a hooker…” Please, that is so overworked and lame. Good God, is this ‘Pretty Woman’? (the movie, not the song) “Might as well join the mob, the benefits are ok…” Ok, that’s kind of a cool line. “Standing in the sun with a popsicle, everything is possible…” Now I want to set myself on fire after throwing up in my mouth. That line could not be worse. “See the open mouth of my suitcase, sayin’ leave this place…” Ok, another excellent image, a well-crafted line. Ah, but this song will stick in your head. Opposite the name, it will leave a mental trace on your brain. And Soul Asylum executes the ringing guitars riffs, the syncopated drum snatches, and the melody-crash-chorus of the 1990s perfectly. “Black Gold” should be the song you think of when you think of this album. “Somebody to Shove” will make you keep the radio turned in when it comes on. But “Without a Trace” defines this album and their sound, if any single song can.
More experimental and worse than “April Fool.” Too many crap songs here.
So what do the union members say to this meandering, dark, perfectly early 1990s album?
Four memorable songs. One should’ve been sung by Springsteen. The best one has the worst lines. And two songs have a darkness close to Pearl Jam that makes you wonder what would have happened if Soul Asylum dropped the hair metal, incorporated the country, and completely took on the rawness of “Shove” and “Black Gold.” As a full album, you have to skip some songs, taking down in the ratings. As singles, those four tracks remain in semi-heavy rotation. And take one listen to “Without a Trace” and you’ll have it stuck in your head so long you’ll hate me.’