Favorite Bands: Soundgarden

Soundgarden in concert

Photo: musicisentropy, used under Creative Commons

True story. I once drove a car off the Jake Sweeney lot for a test drive and bought it based on how Superunknown sounded on the speakers. There was a lot of good stuff on that album, and the musicianship was phenomenal. But what else could you say about Soundgarden? Of all the major grunge bands, they were the smoothest, their songs the most complex. Lyrically, they were a perfect fit with the angry Pearl Jam, the desperate Alice in Chains, and the darker-than-dark Nirvana. (We’ll leave the Foo Fighters and Garbage for later posts.) Early on, someone described them as “MC5-meets-Zeppelin/Sabbath” and that might refer to their club days.

But it’s Superunknown that caught my attention, and not just the popular songs like “Black Hole Sun” and “Spoonman.” The last song on the album, in particular, is pretty haunting and hypnotic. Called “Like Suicide,” it ultimately supplied the title to a short story I wrote later on.

If you listen to most of their songs, you can tell they’re born mostly of a jam session. But once the foundation is laid, they’re meticulously crafted layer upon layer. Like most grunge bands, they eschewed keyboards, going more for the classic sixties pre-power trio sound with two guitarists, neither one really lead or rhythm. If you had to press them, Kim Thayill is the lead guitarist. Fitting, since Chris Cornell is the lead vocalist, a role that usually doubles with bass or rhythm if the singer plays anything.

All this is backed by Matt Cameron’s drumming, which is rather complex in places. Cameron, along with Jimmy Chamberlin of Smashing Pumpkins, is probably one of the last jazz-influenced drummers in rock. (A case could be made for Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) Most drummers today have their roots in heavy metal or punk whereas the drummers of the hard rock era, guys like Keith Moon, John Bonham, Deep Purple’s Ian Paice, and Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, cut their teeth listening to swing music from the 40’s. Cameron has that same sense of intricate timing.

And yet there’s a jam session somewhere in those songs. They might be worked-over and multitracked to radio-friendly perfection, but you can hear the jam in their construction. Helps that Soundgarden clearly recorded the room when they made an album, whether playing the take “live” or piecing it together. (Butch Vig, Garbage’s drummer and a long-time producer from the grunge era, does this a lot as well, even with studio trickery.)

But it’s Cornell’s voice that is the band’s primary instrument. Cornell can hit those Plant-like high notes that all but disappeared from mainstream rock around 1991, but his voice better compares to David Bowie. Like Bowie, Cornell can sing a couple octaves lower and sound like a completely different singer. Sometimes, he’s his own backup singer, using his high notes like Steve Perry behind Greg Rolie on those early Journey albums.

What most people remember about Soundgarden, though, is “Black Hole Sun” and that creepy video with the CGI smiles and apocalyptic imagery. It was also the occasion of one of the funniest Beavis & Butthead commentaries during the show’s original run, when the video opens on a meadow and Butthead says, “It is in these hills that Juan Valdez picks the richest coffee beans with his trusty donkey.” And then Beavis freaking out every time someone had got one of those almost demonic smiles on their faces.

But the song itself probably is what is seared into people’s minds. Too bad, because the album’s second single, “Fell on Black Days,” is a much better song lyrically and musically.

But hey, if you must be creeped out to memories of your ill-spent youth watching MTV when it still showed videos, here you go!