I grew up in the ‘80s, but came of age in the ‘90s.
I was at the right age to respond to the grunge movement with all my love. I was 17 when Nevermind came out, and while it’s never been a favorite, it did open up the doors for bands that ended up soundtracking my life. I watch Singles, Cameron Crowe’s film about the burgeoning Seattle scene, and I see friends of mine. I see how we dressed in college. And I hear songs that have stayed with me for more than 20 years.
I’m the target demographic for ‘90s nostalgia, and yet I remain surprised at how much of it there is. In a lot of ways, the ‘90s never went away. Pearl Jam is still the best touring rock band in the world. I have a friend with a teenage daughter who dresses exactly like Angela Chase in My So-Called Life. We mourned the loss of Chris Cornell last year in a way befitting his status as one of the greats. I have a tendency to think of the ‘90s as a cultural aberration, a little pocket unto itself, but it truly has seeped into our zeitgeist. There’s a ‘90s resurgence happening now, but the decade and its art have been with us the whole time.
I can think of no more obvious example than the continued existence of Alice in Chains. In the ‘90s AiC was one of the architects of the Seattle sound – it has its roots in metal, but played more slowly, with a greater emphasis on melody. Alice in Chains added a lovely sense of harmony, with Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell singing together more often than not, like a sludge-rock Everly Brothers. That is, if the Everly Brothers sang about drug addiction, self-harm, depression and pain. Alice in Chains’ masterpiece is their 1992 album Dirt, and its mathematically complex grooves and overall musical assault disguise what a pitch-dark album it is.
I think in the ‘90s we tended to dismiss depressing and dark lyrics as par for the course, but when Staley died from a massive drug overdose in 2002, it was a wake-up call. I fully expected it to be the end for Alice in Chains as well, but the band has soldiered on, hiring William DuVall to step up to the microphone. They’ve now made as many albums with DuVall as they did with Staley. Half of the original band is now dead – bassist Mike Starr also died of a drug overdose in 2011. It’s fair to say the Alice in Chains we know today are survivors, still committed to a style of music that meant something to a lot of people.
Rainier Fog is the sixth AiC album, and it’s exactly like the last two. Its title and cover art were inspired by Mount Rainier, which looms above Seattle, but we didn’t need the direct reference to know that the city and its scene remain at the core of this band. Cantrell is clearly steering this ship, and his thick guitar sound remains a constant. DuVall sounds a lot like Staley, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this album is vintage 1991. Like everything Cantrell has done without Staley, this is based more on mood and sound than on crisp songwriting. Nothing here is going to eclipse “Would” or “Man in the Box.” But it’s solid.
Weirdly, my favorite song here is the one DuVall wrote on his own. “So Far Under” has a more traditional metal feel than a lot of the swampier things on here, and a chorus guitar part that just kills. It sounds like someone holding the edge of a vinyl record to make it slow down, and the song feels like it’s tumbling into a hole again and again. It’s also the most depressing: “This whole house of cards is crumbling slow, if I disappeared would you even know?” The band also goes for a “Stairway to Heaven” moment with the closer, the seven-minute “All I Am,” and it’s a convincing, slowly building piece.
The rest of Rainier Fog is pretty average Alice in Chains, unwinding slowly with a particular forceful hopelessness that they helped pioneer. It isn’t any fun, but it is committed to a style that virtually no one else is playing anymore. When they started, Alice in Chains were alone, trying to sell the world on their very different sound, and now that they’re entering their fourth decade, they’re alone again, still championing that sound. I’m still listening, and there certainly seem to be enough people still on board with me.
Third Eye Blind began only six years after Alice in Chains, but in a lot of ways their continued presence is even more surprising. When Stephan Jenkins and his crew knocked on the door of pop culture in 1997 with their self-titled record, they sounded like the end point of the ‘90s thing for me, the utter commercialization of a sound that dove from Soundgarden to Stone Temple Pilots to Everclear in a depressing arc. The idea that Third Eye Blind now has five albums and is gearing up to make a sixth seems kind of improbable.
And yet here we are. We’re at the point where 3EB is making a covers album as a stopgap between albums, like they’re that convinced that they will keep on plugging. The whole idea of a Third Eye Blind covers record has been a joke in my circles for weeks, but now that Thanks for Everything is here, I have to say it makes a strong argument for itself. In fact, as much as I am loath to admit it, I kind of love it. The key to its success, besides a strong commitment from the band itself, is the song selection. Hands up if you expected some well-known tunes given the ‘90s alt-rock treatment. You won’t find that here.
Instead, Jenkins has delivered some genuine surprises. I like this version of Babyshambles’ “Fuck Forever” quite a bit more than the original, for instance – the surging guitars and strong, wide-awake vocals serve to turn this into an anthem. I’m stunned at this version of Santigold’s “This Isn’t Our Parade,” which would not have been anywhere near my list of possible cover songs for Third Eye Blind. But they own it. I can’t even fault their serious-minded run through Tim Buckley’s “Song of the Siren,” which Jenkins says is more inspired by the This Mortal Coil version. So, to recap, Third Eye Blind has revealed Tim Buckley and This Moral Coil are on their list of influences. Wow.
I’ve never even heard of Chastity Belt, but 3EB convincingly rocks through their “Joke.” I have heard Queens of the Stone Age and Bon Iver, and I remain surprised at how much I like these versions of both “In the Fade” and “Blood Bank.” They’re both bizarre choices, not well-known tunes, and I’m impressed with the selections and with the straight-ahead, strong readings here. It’s almost like they forgot that they’re supposed to be Third Eye Blind, and they just went for it, and it works. I know, I’m as gobsmacked as you are.
So, to recap. Alice in Chains has made a solid third album with their new singer, and they remain as committed to their sound as ever. And Third Eye Blind is not only still around, but has delivered a pretty wonderful new covers record. The ‘90s are not only back, they never went away, and long may they live. Every single bit of that paragraph stuns me, but it’s all true.
Next week, some people named Paul. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.