05 April 2009

Too Far to Get Home: The “Dirt” on Alice in Chains (Retrospective)

A brief note from Slowdive Music: Bloodybones and I have known each other for over ten years, and I have always been impressed with just how dynamic he is. From stage roadie and tech, to photographer, to film writer and maker, to cook, he is all over the map. When he approached me about the possibility of writing, I was game, because throughout the years we have always had this open dialogue about everything from politics to music. But what I have always enjoyed the most is just how different our tastes are. Even if we like or hate the same thing, it is always for different reasons, but our tastes take us to very different extremes. I think it is in that open dialogue that I have learned a lot not just about music, but life and appreciating the differences in others.

1992: The year John Gotti is sentenced to life in prison, EuroDisney opens in Paris, and Jay Leno succeeds Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. The rock scene was waning away from the flash, the pyro, the spandex, and the hairspray of 80’s glam (say what you will, glam rock is fun) and into the flannel and ripped jeans of the 90’s grunge scene. The most barren and stripped down clubs were the sites of choice for bands of the genre. No fancy light rigs here, just a couple of outlets to plug into.

This year also brought one of grunge’s greatest efforts in the form of the album “Dirt” by Seattle’s Alice in Chains. A sort of concept album, Alice in Chains set out to make the sound of their sophomore follow-up to 1990’s “Facelift” “darker and more brutal.” They did that in spades. Lyrical themes including drug abuse, war, depression, and death: check. Loose riffs and a sound that could cave your head in from its sheer weight: check. So far so good, well on their way to dark and brutal.

The songs “Hate to Feel,” “God Smack,” “Junkhead,” “Sickman,” and “Angry Chair” were penned by front man Layne Staley on his continuing battle with heroin addiction. It’s worth noting that prior to re-joining his band mates in the studio to record their next record, Staley checked himself out of rehab in Portland, OR and returned a faithful devotee to God Smack once again. Not to single out Layne’s addictions, lead guitarist Jerry Cantrell became dependent on Xanax and alcohol to cope with the deaths of his mother and his friend Andrew Wood (about whom the song “Would?” was written). Drummer Sean Kinney and bassist Mike Starr were also struggling with alcohol addiction.

Drama aside, what makes this album so good? What makes this Alice in Chains’ greatest album? Well, you know how they say the greatest blues players have had their hearts broken, that the blues is what the heart feels expressed through music? This is the blues for the junkie. This is pain and suffering through the half-closed, zoned-out eyes of the drug addict. A very telling line from the lyrics of “Junkhead”: “What’s my drug of choice? Well, what have you got?”

Musically, it’s a showcase for Jerry Cantrell. Here he shows the kids how it’s done as he combines his sludgy sound with the howl of his wah pedal in “Rain When I Die,” and also that he can clean up nicely with the simple tones of “Down in a Hole.” Proof that you don’t always need a thick, heavy sound to express feelings like these.

Track Listing:
1. Them Bones
2. Dam That River
3. Rain When I Die
4. Down in a Hole
5. Sickman
6. Rooster
7. Junkhead
8. Dirt
9. God Smack
10. Iron Gland
11. Hate to Feel
12. Angry Chair
13. Would?

Keep up with Alice in Chains on their homepage or MySpace.

Here are some links for their videos from the album from the SongBMG YouTube Channel.

"Them Bones"
"Angry Chair"
"Down in a Hole"