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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

REVIEW: Cinderella – Long Cold Winter (1988)

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CINDERELLA  – Long Cold Winter (1988 Polygram Records)

I remember how excited I was upon hearing the first single, “Gypsy Road”, in the summer of ’88.  Cinderella had managed a bluesier, more “authentic” hard rock sound for their critical second LP.  Night Songs was OK, but Long Cold Winter was better in every way.  The cheese factor had been replaced by pedal steel guitars, pianos, and Hammond B3 organs.

Drummer Fred Coury was touring with Guns N’ Roses (Steven Adler had broken his hand punching a wall) during much of the making of Long Cold Winter.  It’s not clear how much of Long Cold Winter he played on, as the band pulled in two incredible session drummers for the project:  Denny Carmassi (of Heart and later Coverdale – Page), and the late great Cozy Powell!

From the bluesy opening of “Bad Seamstress Blues”, it was clear that the AC/DC clone Cinderella that featured Bon Jovi cameos in its videos had evolved.  Two incredible, throat wrenching rockers follow this:  “Fallin’ Apart at the Seams” and “Gypsy Road”.  Both songs easily stand up today as forgotten classics of the “hair metal” era.  But truthfully, Cinderella only made one “hair metal” album.  Long Cold Winter doesn’t really fit in with that scene, and their next album Heartbreak Station would leave it behind completely.

“Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)”, the epic power ballad, is more Aerosmith than Poison, and still features a great guitar solo straight out of the Iommi blues notebook.  I’m not too keen on “The Last Mile”, a straightforward rocker, but it was still chosen as a single from this album.  Much better is the side-closing “Second Wind”, amped up and stuttering.

Side two opened with Cinderella’s “serious” blues, the title track.  It’s a bit too contrived for me, it has a vibe of, “Hey, let’s write our ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You’!”.  Lots of repeated “baby baby baby” Plant-isms.  At the time it was released, this song was seen as a serious departure for the band, but in hindsight it’s really just a first step into a larger world.  It’s somewhat reminiscent of the rare occasions that Black Sabbath has attempted a slow blues (I’m thinking “Feels Good To Me”, also featuring Cozy Powell) mixed with Zeppelin.

“If You Don’t Like It” is another standard rocker, nothing special, but this is followed by no less than three great songs in a row.  First is the single “Coming Home”, not really a ballad, but a hybrid.  This was one of the most immediate songs that I fell for when I picked up the album.  You can tell that Cinderella wrote a lot of this album on the road, by the lyrics.  “Coming Home” is one such road song.

“Fire and Ice” is heavy, sort of a revisited “Second Wind”, another standout!  Then the album closes with the slide-laden “Take Me Back”, which strikes me as another road song.  Just as good as “Coming Home”, but heavier, it was a great album closer.  Personally if this album had spawned a fifth single, “Take Me Back” would have been my pick, hands down.  And I think this album could have justified five singles.

The band evolved further with album #3 (which featured strings by John Paul Jones!), but I think Long Cold Winter strikes the perfect balance between screeching rock and bitter blues.  From the classy album cover on down to the perfect production, I don’t think they’ve ever made a better album.

4.5/5 stars