“Finally I’m getting some of the rewards that I’ve strived for,” Chris Cornell stated in a 1989 Soundgarden rockumentary dug out of the A&M Records archives by Jeff Suhy. “All those years, um, lifting weights in front of the mirror, and uh, practicing combing my hair, using a lot of conditioner.” At probably 98% sarcastic here, Cornell still touches on something about Soundgarden that set it apart from its Seattle contemporaries. Compared with the locks of a Kurt Cobain or a Mark Arm, the Soundgarden manes are metal they’re glossy, they’re masculine, they’re all about prowess, and their music has rock stamina to match. Dave Grohl described their sound this way: “I remember discovering Soundgarden in the midtolate eighties and thinking, wow this is so cool, this is a rock band that’s surviving and thriving in this underground scene which can sometimes not want to support rock bands. To me they had that punk rock, underground, do-it-yourself ethic but they were playing really interesting rock music.”
Due in part no doubt to phenomena like the ‘Seattle cough’ and other delights brought about by endlessly damp, cold weather (and also, arguably, a generational fascination with mental illness and its stigmatization see: “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle”; further reading, Courtney Love’s choice of wedding attire), the early 90s music industry had latched onto grunge as the packaging du jour and tracks like “Touch Me I’m Sick” spoke to cultural currents, with a musical aesthetic to match. Meanwhile, Soundgarden maintained a healthy rock sound that didn’t shrink from the well executed guitar solo or virtuosic vocals. “There was this like, newspaper poll, or in a magazine, where it had like, these categories: best Led Zeppelin ripoff, and worst Led Zeppelin ripoff. And we got both,” Matt Cameron said in 1989. This is actually a pretty pithy way to describe the combination of grit, skill, and inclination that drove their songwriting. They could play totally convincing punk (Sub Pop 200’s “Sub Pop Rock City”), but their sound ran more consistently in a metal vein that carried the genre up and out of hedonistic top40s metal of the 1980s via darker subject matter, guitar lines tinged with the bizarre and beautiful, and Cornell’s haunting vocal timbre. “Black Sabbath tapped into [heavy metal’s] primal groove with ‘Iron Man,’ Led Zeppelin upped the ante with ‘Kashmir,’ and now Soundgarden pushes the envelope with Louder than Love,” Rolling Stone is quoted on their 1989 album, which followed Ultramega OK and featured some of the strange and challenging time signatures that course through the body of Soundgarden’s work to this day.
After selling over 22.5 million albums worldwide, Soundgarden has released a hefty 3-disc rarities collection entitled Echo of Miles: Scattered Tracks Across the Path (that title took me a few reads too) which spans their career and includes two previously unreleased originals, “Kristi” and “Storm.” The first disc gathers original tracks that appeared on 90s compilation albums including the legendary Sub Pop 200, the Seattle band compilation Deep Six, and the AIDS benefit album No Alternative, along with a handful of heavy b-sides. The second disc they’ve filled with 17 covers of classic rock, funk, and punk tracks from Budgie to Sly & the Family Stone. The third, “Oddities,” holds 14 weird and wonderful proto-compositions that largely work outside the constraints of verse-chorus-verse.
Certain covers in particular are seamless, genre-wise: “Swallow My Pride” by Green River, whose members went on to comprise Pearl Jam and Mudhoney, feels totally punk-rock, but upon closer inspection, is a pretty forward thinking melding of punk distortion and metal tropes that the band would go on to bring to arena level popularity. Axl Rose, by comparison, sounds like a little girl; John Lennon’s was one of the few screams that came to mind when I tried to think of any as raw. As often as Soundgarden has cited the Beatles as an influence, it’s rewarding to hear them add another layer of bizarre to “Come Together,” and something cavernous to the more straightforward version of “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey).” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” gets an Ozzy touch, while their cover of Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void” takes some emphasis off the bass and channels it into seriously raunchy guitar that, without Sabbath’s between phrase breaks, actually sounds like one of Kim Thayil’s Eastern tinged riffs. (“Even though, perhaps I’m not that good of a guitarist I am the first to earn the term ‘Guitar Guru.’ The term’s been sitting around waiting to be used,” Thayil mused in 1989.) Cameron’s drumming on this track adds a bit of Soundgarden’s creativity with time signatures, somehow without disrupting the simplicity of Sabbath’s death march sound. Their “Girl U Want” cover is a slower, more contemplative take on Devo’s art-punk.
One major plus of the Covers disc for me was that, frankly, it’s nice to hear such diverse lyrical content driven by Soundgarden’s musical muscle. Since the beginning, Cornell’s lyrics have been called a bit vapid (“much of what the band has to say is clichéd, confused or generally incomprehensible,” says Rolling Stone’s J.D. Considine of Louder Than Love), but the same reviewer concludes that “even when his lyrics are as dumb as rocks, Cornell delivers them with such fullthroated intensity that they actually sound impressive” and overall the songs remain “mean, lean and fighting fit.” Combine this sonic skill with the work of some of our century’s greatest lyricists, and you’ve got some rarities in an even larger sense.
The Originals disc is badass. Tracks like “Kyle Petty, Son of Richard” make it clear why SPIN Magazine would have called Soundgarden “Seattle’s heaviests contenders since Jimi Hendrix,” having both the weight and virtuosity of a classic like “Voodoo Child,” and some monstrous sound effects prophetic of late 90s/00s metal bands. (Does anyone hear a little bit of “Down with the Sickness” in the first few moments of “Sub Pop Rock City”? I mean, for better or worse.) “Toy Box,” originally a b-side to “Flower,” is a blissfully straightforward Black Sabbath homily, while in “Birth Ritual” Cornell’s vocals are like a rough knife ripping through some serious crunch guitar (think Alice in Chains’s Dirt, released the same year as “Birth Ritual”’s debut on the Singles soundtrack). Eastern melodic modes in “Cold Bitch,” released as a bside to “Spoonman,” foretell major singles like “Hands All Over” and showcase Cornell’s vocal power and ample vibrato. “Storm,” one of the two previously unreleased tracks in the compilation, is Soundgarden’s first new song since 2012 and has the kind of gothic romance you might find in some of Peter Murphy’s solo work, with heavy use of delay and the ever crowdpleasing chorus pedal. Cornell’s voice here is more along Audioslave lines, which works well in this atmospheric, almost industrial recording. Don’t miss the trippy “She Likes Surprises” or the supermelodic daydream “Fresh Deadly Roses.”
Soundgarden’s “Oddities” selection is a taste of the band’s weirdest impulses; a great soundtrack to a first date for a stoner and a jazz fanatic. “Twin Tower,” written by Matt Cameron, is a dissonant wall of sound with a driving, looping rhythm that nods to the band’s grunge roots, whereas “Jerry Garcia’s Finger” and “Night Surf” is are lofi moonscapes that could teach Best Coast a few things. The disc also contains a spoonheavy remix of Spoonman by Steve Fisk, the renowned audio engineer whose “Untitled” appeared alongside Soundgarden on Sub Pop 200, and “Black Days III,” a working version of what would become the 1994 single “Fell on Black Days.” The latter is one of the only tracks on the Oddities disc that follows a standard versechorusverse format, and is the roar to the single’s serenade.
In 1994, when Soundgarden recorded “Black Hole Sun” with Adam Kasper in Seattle, Dave Grohl remembers his thoughts on hearing the song for the first time. “I remember thinking, holy shit. […] This will be enormously huge, because to me it was that perfect meeting of the Beatles and Black Sabbath. Which is I think what we put in our Nirvana bio. Like, you know, we sound like Abba and Black Sabbath, or the Beatles and Black Sabbath, or something but I don’t think that it’d ever successfully been paired until that record and in particular that song. It was so much more melodically sophisticated than anything any of the other bands in Seattle were doing, or in rock it was a big deal.”
B-sides are usually b-sides for a reason, folks, and “oddities” are often unlistenable. But Echo of Miles is anything but scrapings from the bottom of the barrel, nor does it come off as the hollow attempt of a band entering their third decade to rekindle affection among aging fans. Dave Grohl, whose timetested sixth sense for the hits should probably be packaged up and sold as a music biz ouija board, was right about more than Soundgarden being destined for enormous hugeness. They’re genre-melding wizards whose major role in carrying innovative, often beautiful rock into the 2000s is spotlighted by this rewarding compilation.
Also don’t miss Bleed Together, the all-female Soundgarden cover band. ;)
Echo of Miles was released via A&M on November 24 2014.