Monday, June 30, 2014

In Defense Of: Stone Temple Pilots

This week's In Defense Of was contributed by Square Zeros' Jon Mann.

“Stone Temple Pilots were able to turn alternative rock into arena rock; naturally, they became the most critically despised band of their era.” — Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi.

"I had a period in my life in the 90s where I was young, dumb, and full of even more dumb." — Scott Weiland

Let’s get one thing straight — I love a shit talker.

Despite my own good nature and belief that there’s rarely anything gained by belittling someone or their achievements (Welcome to In Defense Of, where we locate the positive in impossible to find places!), there’s a certain level of braggadocio that’s like catnip to me. So
Scott Weiland, trumpeting his own greatness, no doubt.
God, what a son of a bitch.
when I heard an interview with Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland in the late 1990s where he said that STP wasn’t America’s best rock and roll band, they were America’s only rock and roll band, I bared my teeth into one of those movie smiles where sunlight glinted off a particularly pristine surface on one of my incisors.

What a son of a bitch, right?

Well, I’m hear to defend that beautiful son of a bitch and the sons of bitches with whom he cut six studio albums. Now, I’m not trying to go to bat for every one of those, but I'll dive right in to the material after I venture a few thoughts as to why STP became so reviled in the 1990s and whether that’s a sustainable position.

When Stone Temple Pilots debuted with Core in 1992, and critics tossed them into the pile with grunge, that meant they were already placed on a second wave after bands like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains, and indeed, they were dogged early on for being derivative of these bands. On Core, I tend to agree with the critics. The opener, “Dead and Bloated”, comes off like an early Soundgarden song minus Kim Thayil’s psychedelia and Chris Cornell’s higher-soaring vocals; “Piece of Pie” shows Weiland trying on Layne Staley’s snarl and Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell’s cadence; and, honestly, across the record, Weiland borrows heavily from Staley and Eddie Vedder. Whether you decide to see that as a negative, the distance between those four singers indicates Weiland’s command of his voice, which is one of the greatest strengths of STP: Weiland’s ability to write hugely melodic vocal hooks and deliver them with a great deal of power or nuance, depending on the situation.

That said, if there’s a song I love on Core, it’s the one you’re sick of: “Plush”. The shitty guitarist in your first-year dorm knew how to play it, and anyone can try on Weiland’s deep baritone for a run at it. Hell, as a guy with a deep, stentorian voice, I’m willing to admit there’s a bit of narcissism in my love of this song. Rock and roll is so often for the screamers; there’s something comforting about being able to drop way down low and bellow. The fact that you don’t have to know the largely incomprehensible lyrics — you can largely blast vowel sounds over the instrumental track at your karaoke night — isn’t a negative for me. The melody carries you, the rhythm of the song entrances, and there are nice dynamic shifts in both Dean DeLeo’s guitar and Weiland’s vocals. It’s a solid pop song, and Weiland's demented, orange-haired performance in the achingly early-nineties video is a nice touch.

That’s where 1994’s Purple really took off for me: as a pop record. Tabbing STP as a grunge band was fair and unfair in the one stroke: though the snarling, distorted guitars that bring in the opener “Meatplow” and the feedback that envelops you at the introduction of “Vasoline” might signify grunge, the melodic tendency of these songs scream pop.

You want to know why I respect Scott Weiland as a singer? Let’s use “Vasoline” as a case study. Take that verse riff (bah-NAH bah-NAH bah-NAH bah-NAH bah-NAH) and write me a vocal melody over it. I’ll bet it isn’t stronger than Weiland’s, and he was given a weird, weird riff to write for. Then, instead of continuing that pretty, flowing melody over the straightforward power chords of the chorus, Weiland chose to give us a punchy rhythmic vocal that punctuates the song and indicates that a big change has occurred. What I point out here in “Vasoline” is a tendency toward archetypal pop song structure and melody that Weiland shows again and again across STP’s major releases.

And Weiland’s not the only one who carries that mantle. “Interstate Love Song” shows the DeLeo brothers (Dean and bassist Robert) underpinning those vocals with riffs that are catchy, technically proficient, hard-hitting, and occasionally quite beautiful. While Dean doesn’t do as much sonic experimentation with his guitar tones on Purple as he would with later releases, the chorus to “Still Remains” is an extremely pretty moment, between the reverb-laden guitar arpeggios and the slide guitar lead he adds on the second and third go-arounds. Alternately, the wah-heavy riff to “Silvergun Superman” is pure cock rock, but the absolutely growling verse riff makes me want to eat someone. Not content to just write one vocal melody for the verse, Weiland tries two on: one low and seductive, one higher and cascading.

Above: Purple (1994). Below: Tiny Music (1996).
In “Big Empty”, it’s two voices: one soft, breaking, and vulnerable; the other big, towering, and brave, while Dean’s layered guitar sound ranges from muted trumpet tones to chiming chords. The vocal harmonies that come in with the last two choruses are the sort of addition that STP consistently uses to build sound across the length of a song. “Big Empty” gives way to the two biggest rockers on the album, the driving, radio-friendly rocker “Unglued” — remembered for its excess-loving opening declaration "Moderation is masturbation" — and the holy-hell-give-me-a-guitar-right-now-so-I-can-figure-out-that-gigantic-chord-progression charge of “Army Ants”. “Army Ants” also features what I can only describe as a perfectly crafted homage to Jane’s Addiction in the verse/pre-chorus/chorus change. Dave Navarro and Perry Farrell probably would’ve gotten litigious if they weren’t so busy rocking out. Making out? Rocking out. Rocking out and making out.

The solo in "Army Ants" [at 2:35 in the song] is also an absolute explosion: it's way, way of the grid, note-wise, and sonically nasty. It deserves its own mention.

So I’ll be honest with you at this point: I didn’t realize how much I loved Purple until I just had to intellectualize it, and I know some of you have heard those hits so much on the radio that anything I say about them won’t alter your associations. I expect to have more luck with STP’s third album, Tiny Music…Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop (1996), because #1, it’s totally awesome, and THERE IS NO #2.

Out the gate, this album was sonically way more raw and interesting than the hard rock and pop albums STP had previously released. Remember when all those bands like The Strokes started cranking up amps and jangling their guitars in the early 2000s, getting everyone all hot and bothered? That lo-fi, Nuggets-meets-glam-meets-late-seventies-rock sound was getting laid down in 1996 by STP when people were forgetting to pay attention due to Weiland’s frequent drug trouble.

The stomping, chugging guitars from “Pop’s Love Suicide” coupled with Weiland’s hoarse, reverb-drenched vocals (thanks, heroin addiction!) introduced this new angle. Again, we have Dean DeLeo adding guitars across the verse to build extra dimensions into the song; new are the handclaps and “YEAH YEH Yeh yeh” backing vocals after the second and third choruses. “Tumble In The Rough” ambles out the next gate with a choppy, all-downstroke guitar riff punctuated every so often by Eric Kretz positively slamming his drum kit. The harmonies on the chorus are mixed so tight as to be almost missable. The souped-up fuzz tones on Dean’s solo are sonically new to the STP palate and totally satisfying.

And, in case you’ve forgotten the hilariously tongue-in-cheek, super-cool, lo-fi-psychedelia music video for “Big Bang Baby”, it’s a flashback you’ll enjoy. You’ll also enjoy the low-heavy guitar tone and the way it segues into the soaring back-end of the chorus. By the end of video and song, STP has run the gamut from Bowie to Iggy, and the song ends in a snotty snarl. “Lady Picture Show” is the proof that Weiland was born to write pretty pop melodies, and the choo-choo train refrain is delightfully Sgt. Pepper’s. [Editor's note: maybe Magical Mystery Tour. My Beatles-fanatic wife/life editor informs me that it's a bit more Magical Mystery Tour. Thanks, honey.]

While I haven’t played up his contribution too much yet, “Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart”, which is a charging ripper of a song, is a breakout track for bassist Robert DeLeo. Under Dean’s two-chord verse and descending chorus, Robert goes absolutely wild, leaving no space open. The solo, as you may recall from the days this song saw radio airplay, is fat and gross and choppy and gnarly in all the right ways. The following song, the charmingly daft and indescribably weird yet catchy “Art School Girl” shows the DeLeos weaving their guitars while a
guiro chirps its wooden song; then, the loudest guitar imaginable stomps in and careens over itself while complementary low/high vocals shout the meaningless refrain “I TOLD YOU FIVE OR FOUR TIMES, I TOLD YOU FIVE OR FOUR TIMES.” Again: indescribably weird. Just listen to it.

“Adhesive”, “Daisy”, and “Seven Caged Tigers” are pretty enough filler tracks to close out the album, while the song they frame, “Ride The Cliche”, is notable for having a titanic guitar riff, for anyone who’s not tired of hearing me talk about that. The bass in the chorus is also particularly buoyant, for anyone who’s not tired of hearing me talk about that.

Unlike, say, John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose music got sweeter and softer after his stint in rehab for heroin addiction, 1999’s No. 4 showed STP reaching for big, thunderous, fuel-injected muscle car riffs. Apparently, car exhaust was Weiland’s anti-drug, because the first three tracks (the single “Down”, “Heaven & Hot Rods”, and “Pruno”) are among STP’s most driving (puns are God's way of showing that he loves us). “Pruno” sees Weiland back in that nice Jane’s Addiction range I liked so much earlier, and “Sex & Violence” continues that theme. In fact, it might be safe to say that No. 4’s raison d’etre is tight-fisted verses with wide-open choruses. There’s the traditional pretty track (“Sour Girl”) and the slide guitar track (“I Got You”), but most of the songs carry the rock and roll throwback tone of the homage “MC5”. On the subject of hero worship and homage, the closer “Atlanta” is so Jim Morrison that I had to make sure it wasn’t a Doors cover. If Weiland was trying to put those Vedder-sing-alike critics to rest by explaining that he was really a Morrison disciple — uh, nailed it. I'm still not convinced it's not a Doors cover. Mother, should I trust the Internet?

Though the 2000s didn’t hold as much for me, STP-wise, that’s not to say they lost it. “Days Of The Week” off of 2001’s Shangri-LA DEE DA is as poppy a song as they ever concocted. Beyond that for STP laid Chester Bennington (shudder) and for Weiland, Velvet Revolver (whose single “Slither” I have, perhaps, too much of an affinity for to speak of here. Surely I’m not dumb enough to completely ruin any credibility I have by telling you I like that song, right? Right, guys?), neither of which were fair ends to a decade of often great, pop-oriented rock and roll.

Whatever you might think of Weiland, Kretz, and the brothers DeLeo, I hope we can all agree that no one deserves Chester Bennington. And that Tiny Music is the noise.

— JM

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