grunge rock

REVIEW: Alice In Chains – Jar of Flies / Sap (Double EP)

Click if you missed my review of the new Alice in Chains album, The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here!

ALICE IN CHAINS – Jar of Flies / Sap (1994 double Columbia EP edition, originally 1992 and 1994)

For a little while, Alice In Chains were in the habit of releasing an EP before each studio album (We Die Young preceded the Facelift album albeit it was a promo). This ended after Layne’s death, but these two EPs — 1992’s Sap and 1994’s Jar of Flies — represent some of the best work of this pioneering band. Acoustic in nature, these two recordings are crucial to rock fans who need to know more about one of the most interesting bands of the 1990’s.

I snagged a European import of this set many years ago, for less than the price of either of the two EP’s separately.  Great score, and it was in great condition.  It even contains all the artwork from the original releases.  Although Jar of Flies is the first disc in the set, I will review Sap first since that’s how they came out.

JAR OF SAP_0004Sap is very low key. I remember reading an interview in RIP Magazine with drummer Sean Kinney.  He stated that they were writing songs for the next album (Dirt), but all this acoustic music started pouring out instead.  He had a dream about it one night, and told the band, “Guys, we have to release these songs as an EP, and we have to call it Sap.”

The opening track, “Brother” is sung by Jerry Cantrell with Ann Wilson of Heart on the choruses. Very powerful understated song. Both “Brother” and the next song, “Got Me Wrong” (another standout) were released live on the band’s Unplugged CD. These songs are followed by “Right Turn” by Alice Mudgarden: essentially Alice In Chains with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Mark Arm of Mudhoney on guest vocals! It is a great contrast: Cornell screaming at the top of his lungs, and Arm down low. Great song.  I remember Jerry Cantrell once said that Mark Arm’s vocal on it “scares the shit” out of him every time he hears it.

Layne Staley’s “Am I Inside” follows, another understated and mellow slow-burner. Everything goes to hell though with the final track, the unlisted “Love Song”. The band switched instruments for this chaotic joke song, with Sean Kinney on megaphone/vocals. Hilarious track, but it must have taken people by surprise.  “Rae Dawn Chong…Rae Dawn Chong…”

JAR OF SAP_0003Jar of Flies was written and recorded rather spontaneously in just a week. When I first heard it, I felt like some of these songs were under-written, that they could have used more work. As you listen to it more, that feeling disappears.  It feels more complete. Just about every song on Flies is a total winner, but the best thing about it is that it grows on you. As a result, it has a longevity that similar EPs sometimes lack. Here I am, still playing it 19 years later and loving it just as much.

“Rotten Apple”, which is one of the best tunes anyway, kicks off the CD.  It’s hypnotic, even though the lyrics really feel unfinished.  Who knows what Layne was trying to express at the time, perhaps it’s with intent. It just feels like the fragment of a lyric. Perhaps that’s what makes it so hypnotic to me.  None of this changes the fact that this slow one is both warm and forboding at the same time; a cool thing.

The opener is followed by “Nutshell”, which I like even better.  It’s my personal favourite tune on Jar of Flies. It always takes me right back to summer 1994.  The single “I Stay Away” features strings to emphasize the powerful chorus.  It’s a cool tune because it has sections that sound like they don’t go together, yet they make it work.  Alice seem to ignore songwriting convention most on songs like “I Stay Away”.

“No Excuses” was another single (the first one, actually).  It’s an almost-happy sounding song with some sweet rolling basslines from Mike Inez. The instrumental “Whale and Wasp” is up next, so named because Jerry felt it sounded like whales and wasps talking to each other. That should put you in the ballpark.  Jerry wrote it when he was in highschool, finally recording it on Jar of Flies.

“Don’t Follow” is probably the least experimental of the songs. It is a straight acoustic ballad with some nice harmonica.  After five tracks  of music that doesn’t always follow the beaten path, “Don’t Follow” feels like a reprieve.  The final song is the pretty wild “Swing On This”.  It’s the only song that tends to lose me, but some people I knew held it as their favourite. From the most conventional song to the least conventional; such is a journey on planet Alice.

Commenting specifically on the version I own, the dual EP, I bought this at my own store used several years after initially owning both releases.  My logic at the time was that T-Rev and I were usually always trying to own the “coolest” or “most complete” or “rarest” version of things.  When I traded up the two separate EPs, I broke even, plus I made space for one for more disc on my shelves!!  Space is always a rare commodity to a collector.

Together, these two EPs together create a fantastic listening experience. The cool thing is that although both are acoustic, they are really nothing alike. Listen and you will see.

5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Def Leppard “Work It Out” (2 part CD single)

Part 2 in my series of Def Leppard Slang reviews!  If you missed the first part, click here for “Slang”.

DEF LEPPARD – “Work It Out” (1996 2 part CD single, Mercury Records)

The second single from Def Leppard’s ill-fated but cult-favourite album, Slang, was the modern, powerful “Work It Out”.  This immediate winner had drony 90’s qualities and organic, acoustic drums in addition to Rick’s electronics.  It sounded like a breath of fresh air for this band, a clever reinvention that kept them fresh, melodic, guitar-oriented and layered, without resorting to stigmatized 80’s sounds such as squealing solos and shout-along choruses.

The cool thing is that the song was originally very different!  This was Vivian’s first serious contribution to the band, and he brought it in completely demo’ed with him singing.  It’s a much brighter, poppier version, some have compared it to Crowded House!  It’s very 90’s pop-rock.  That version is included on the CD 2 of this set!

“Move With Me Slowly” is a non-album track, maybe you’d call it a ballad, I dunno.  It’s soulful, and there’s some really elegant guitar work going on here.  I don’t know what’s Viv and what’s Phil, but all the playing here is soulful, bluesy and perfect.  It’s songs like this — a B-side! — that prove what awesome songs this band can write.  If this song had come out in, say 1990 instead of 1996, it would have been hallowed Def Leppard, another hit for the record books.  According to the liner notes, this would have been the Japanese bonus track on their edition of Slang.

“Two Steps Behind” is the typical acoustic arrangement, live at the BBC Radio One Studios, in 1995 while the band were out promoting Vault. “Truth?” is a very different version from the album.  Initially it starts the same, but goes into a completely different, much heavier set of verses.  It’s bass heavy, less exotic, and more thunderous than the album version.  All told, the album version is superior, but it’s basically a different (but related) song.  It has some riffs and melodies in common but otherwise it may as well have a different name.  This is a good example of how Def Leppard’s work ethic can turn a good song into a great one.  This early version was not quite there.

The second CD came with a really cool set of post cards, of the first four album covers.  The next four covers came with the next single, which was “All I Want Is Everything”.  Coincidentally, that will be the next review in this series.  Stay tuned.

4/5 stars