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The past year has allowed Kurt Cobain’s spectacular suicide to settle into perspective, but whatever analogies rock critics may draw from the Nirvana frontman’s death, the demise of Seattle’s music scene won’t be one of them. Fellow Seattleites Pearl Jam and Soundgarden have released hugely successful albums since Cobain ate his shotgun, and sales of Nirvana’s own posthumously released MTV Unplugged in New York are still brisk. However, it’s unlikely that new superstars will emerge from the city on the Sound anytime soon: The signing frenzy that followed Nevermind‘s success put even the most rinky-dink Seattle acts in the spotlight, bleeding the town’s talent pool white and making overrated bands the city’s second-biggest export (behind overrated Starbucks coffee).
But that doesn’t mean the Seattle money tree is dead. New releases and back-catalog sales by established acts like Soundgarden, Queensrÿche, and the apparently re-formed Alice in Chains should continue to suck up cash like a Wet Vac. In addition, record execs can hope that Seattle’s superstars will cross-pollinate in the form of supergroups. Temple of the Dog, a 1991 band featuring members of Soundgarden and what would become Pearl Jam, was a legitimate moneymaker, and now comes Mad Season, which boasts Alice in Chains vocalist Layne Staley and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready, as well as drummer Barrett Martin, borrowed from Seattle also-rans Screaming Trees, and bassist John Baker Saunders.
All this name talent makes Mad Season a bona fide supergroup and, as a rule, supergroup albums should be regarded with skepticism. Established, comfortable musicians working with their pals are intrinsically less likely to produce the kind of bracing emotion that a younger (or simply poorer) outfit can muster. Instead, such discs tend to exhibit little besides the egos of those involved. Fortunately, Mad Season’s Above isn’t nearly as overwrought as the work of, say, Asia. Subdued and terse, the disc contents itself with exploring vocalist Staley’s grim visions, although not to particularly electrifying effect.
Since supergroup albums are inevitably compared to the acts from which they’re spawned, it’s probably appropriate to say that Mad Season sounds more like Alice in Chains than Pearl Jam, mostly because of Staley’s vocal style, but also because Above pursues the relentlessly morose ambience of the typical Alice in Chains disc. The brooding, spartan opener “Wake Up” segues nicely into the arching melodies of “X-Ray Mind,” as Staley spits out his characteristically anguished commentary: “Slow suicide’s no way to go” in the former, “I don’t move an inch/Slowly draining me” in the latter. Staley’s angst is probably genuine (his drug and personal problems have been widely reported), but it nevertheless works better in the more bombastic style of his other band. Accordingly, Above‘s best tracks are the loud ones (“I’m Above” and “I Don’t Know Anything”), while “River of Deceit,” “Artificial Red,” and the other quiet tunes that dominate the disc lack conviction.
This can be blamed partly on McCready. When playing with Pearl Jam, the guitarist’s bluesy soloing style shimmers, chiefly because it’s complemented by tight support from PJ’s fine rhythm guitarist, Stone Gossard. On his own with Mad Season, however, McCready’s rhythm efforts are jangly and delicate—not overtly disagreeable, but hardly substantial enough to support Staley’s forceful vocalizing. Saunders’ light bass touch further deadens the mood on Above‘s more lifeless tunes.
It may well have been Staley’s intent to craft an album incongruous with Alice in Chains’ sound (the group’s future was in doubt during the recording of Above), and if so, he’s succeeded. Above is not a typically masturbatory supergroup effort, but it still reeks of competent musicianship fused with bored wealth. To take Staley’s word for it, money and fame hasn’t made him any happier than it made Cobain, and he comments most eloquently on his, and Seattle’s, fate on “X-Ray Mind” when he opines, “Rich and getting sicker/ Sell the dead ones quicker.”
But wait a second. What the hell is Staley complaining about? That he got too rich and famous? Exactly what he wanted when he formed a rock ‘n’ roll band in the first place? Does such carping, whether from Staley or Billy Corgan or Eddie Vedder, stretch credulity? Is it just possible that these moody millionaires are nothing more than sniveling, whiny, wretched little babies?
Well, yes. At least according to Mark Arm, guitarist and vocalist for veteran Seattle quartet Mudhoney: On the group’s new My Brother the Cow, Arm spends two tracks venting his spleen at today’s sensitive rock stars. “Listen to my songs, I guarantee you’ll relate/Look at me recognize your face/My daddy’s rich and my mama’s good-looking, yeah,” he grumbles on “Generation Spokesmodel,” and if that’s a tad subtle, “Into Yer Shtik” leaves no room for doubt when Arm asks a “tormented” rock star, “Why don’t you blow your brains out too?”
Yikes. Strong stuff coming from a guy who did, after all, perform on a song with aforementioned bellyacher Staley. Sour grapes? Possibly. Cow is Mudhoney’s second major-label effort; the first one, Piece of Cake, was an unabashed flop that made a beeline for record store cutout bins. Furthermore, Arm himself was the vocalist for what was arguably Seattle’s seminal “grunge” band, Green River (which featured Gossard and Jeff Ament, contemporaries of Arm’s that have, via Pearl Jam, vaulted into stratospheric tax brackets). And finally, the ultimate indignity: The “grunge” label, misapplied to virtually every band that crawled out of Washington state, is actually a pretty legitimate description of Mudhoney’s sound.
So Arm’s got reason to be pissed. But actually, the bile is fairly typical for him: He was taking shots at the Seattle scene as early as 1991 with “Overblown,” and on Cow he flings vitriol at multiple subjects—fundamentalist preachers, the poisoned environment, and so on. While all the bitching could make Arm his own best target, Mudhoney’s angst is exculpated for this reason: The quartet makes hate so much fun. Arm’s nasal snarl gives an aloof authority to his caustic lyrics, while the sloppy, bluesy rhythms populating Cow are consistently endearing; “Orange Ball-Peen Hammer,” trundles drunkenly on the strength of slide guitars and a harmonica, while Matt Lukin’s muddy bass and Steve Turner’s squealing guitars race through “Execution Style” before giving way to Arm’s spiteful wail on “Dissolve.”
Those kind words aside, it’s unlikely that Cow will fare any better than Mudhoney’s last disc—it’s just too scruffy, murky, and, well, grungy to score with the fey punk masses. But that’s fine. Despite his individualist rants, success would probably just turn Arm and his cohorts into a bunch of self-important creeps anyway, and that might discourage them from pulling clownish stunts like the one at the end of Cow. After the conclusion of the album’s 40 minutes, the rest of the CD’s space is devoted to repeating the album. Backward.