Surviving the ’90s
Get Out Alive with Audioslave and Mike Doughty

I’m a little late this week, I know. I’ve been covering sports, of all things, for the local paper all week, and it’s taken a bit more research time than I thought. I’ve never covered a baseball game before in my life, but I did my level best, using as much subterfuge as possible, to convince the sports editor that I’m a stone pro. Of course, that was before I wrote my stories – he’s probably figured it out by now.

I’m contemplating whether to take next week off, too, for my impending 31st, since I’ll be celebrating all weekend with my good friends Gary and Lee, but the new Oasis and Levellers albums are out Tuesday, so… probably not. If I keep this up, I’ll have banked enough columns to take all of December off, though. Wouldn’t that be something?

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I suppose I’m a child of the ‘80s, but musically, I came of age in the ‘90s.

I started buying my own music at 15, in 1989. In high school, I rediscovered the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Queen, and built up a decent base of knowledge to build from. I bought records from bands who were big in the ‘80s, like R.E.M. and the Cure, but I didn’t start obsessively purchasing new music until I was 17 or so. Most of the things I bought in those first few tentative years were new releases by tried and true bands, like Metallica and Megadeth. (Really. At that time, they were tried and true bands, I swear.)

I can clearly remember one of the first new, ‘90s bands that I fell in love with, and it’ll probably surprise some of you. It was Soundgarden. I bought Badmotorfinger in 1991, fully expecting a metal album, but what I got was a slow, sludgy, Zeppelin-esque display of musical strength. The circular riff at the end of “Rusty Cage” blew my little teenage mind, and “Outshined” knocked me out with its building melodies. Plus, it rocked really hard, which was kind of a prerequisite for angry young me. (This was, I should note, a year before Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes, which rewrote my whole musical world.)

I got into Nirvana (somewhat) and Alice in Chains and Mudhoney and Pearl Jam later – the first Seattle band that sparked my interest was Soundgarden, and I still think they were the best of the lot. They were the most ambitious, with their dissonance and head-spinning time signatures, and very little seemed out of their reach. The riff for “Spoonman” is one of the classic rock bludgeons of all time, and the melodies were never left by the wayside. Even their Beatles moment, “Black Hole Sun,” was excellent. And that voice… Chris Cornell could sing anything and I’d listen.

It took a while longer for me to appreciate Rage Against the Machine. I’ve never been a rap fan – I’m too much of a melody addict – and Rage’s thudding, simple riffs and screaming vitriol just got old pretty quickly over the course of an album. But I stuck with them, and soon caught on to the secret – they weren’t a rock band rapping, they were a rap band with guitars. Tom Morello remains one of the most underrated sonic architects in rock, able to twist his tone into a seemingly endless array of unrecognizable shapes. All that got a little lost when Zach de la Rocha was shouting over it, but after a while, the percussive beauty of the whole thing hit me.

Rage will eventually be considered one of the most important bands of the ‘90s, and not just for perfecting the rap-rock thing. They were politically motivated, socially conscious and explosive. We really need a band like Rage these days, in the age of Darth Bush and his Evil Empire, but alas, they broke up shortly after the turn of the century. Ditto Soundgarden, who will never be revered the way Rage will, but who rode the first wave of Seattle mania to its fullest artistic potential. They didn’t even survive the ‘90s, fading when grunge did.

But you can’t keep a good musician down for long, and Cornell, Morello, Brad Wilk and Tom Commerford are very good musicians. With de la Rocha off making his solo record, the three Ragers hooked up with Cornell in 2002, and subsequently picked the worst band name in recent memory, Audioslave. And all four, um, Audioslaves swore that it wasn’t a side project, that it was a full-fledged band.

They were right, of course. The problem is, Audioslave is not nearly as interesting a band as either of the participants’ previous groups. The self-titled debut was good, but somewhat awkward, as Cornell and the Rage boys tried to figure out how to fit around each other. On paper, it shouldn’t have worked at all – Cornell is relentlessly melodic, and Rage was entirely percussive. Audioslave was a feeling-out process, scaling back the core elements of both sides of their sound.

On their just-released second album, Out of Exile, the band has tried to build from that foundation. They definitely sound more confident and comfortable this time out, locking into grooves instead of forcing their way in. The album starts strong, and Morello comes up with another powerhouse riff for the title track, one that lodges itself in your brain. Cornell’s voice is excellent, too, as usual, hitting those high notes with aplomb, and Morello’s unconventional guitar work is on display – check out the faux synthesizer arpeggios in “Your Time Has Come.”

The problem, though, remains that the sum of these parts isn’t as great as it could be. Where Soundgarden’s Superunknown was a rock record with prog-like time signatures and Sonic Youth-style dissonant arrangements, and Rage’s The Battle of Los Angeles was a rock record with rap grooves, fascinating sounds and social relevance, Out of Exile is just a rock record. Occasionally, they hit on something powerful, as they do on the second half of “#1 Zero,” but mostly the album is bland and frustratingly average.

It may not be fair to compare Audioslave with its members’ prior endeavors, but the problem here is that these guys aren’t playing to their strengths. Morello, Commerford and Wilk specialize in punishing, 4/4 bulldozer riffs, delivered with enough power to level mountains. Cornell writes tricky, atmospheric melodies that float and dive, and he’s never met a simple riff he couldn’t complicate. Audioslave finds the foursome compromising left and right – the Ragers have softened up to meet Cornell’s melodies, and Cornell has dumbed down his writing to fit the band’s lock-step assault. I’m sure they were hoping that the result would be worth it, but it’s not.

The best moments, musically, on Out of Exile come when the Rage trio sounds most like Rage, which they do only sparingly. Morello’s textures are always interesting, but the songs they grace are often middling affairs, like “Doesn’t Remind Me” and “Man or Animal.” Final track “The Curse” is so slow and simple that it’s almost immediately forgettable, and there’s very little I can say about first single “Be Yourself” that would be constructive.

Neither side of Audioslave is able to shine under this arrangement – Cornell can’t write his melodic wonders, and the Rage boys can’t kick as much ass as they’re able to. I’ve heard that live, they’re amazing, but I’ve also heard that they fill the set with old Rage and Soundgarden songs. They’d have to – the songs under the Audioslave banner so far have been surprisingly weak. I was forgiving of the first record, since the quartet was just getting its feet wet. But now I’m inclined to give Audioslave one more album before declaring it a failed experiment.

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Soul Coughing was another percussive ‘90s band, albeit one that never got as much attention as they should have.

Here was a band in which every element contributed to the groove, from the jazz bass to the odd samples. But the most potent weapon in their arsenal was always singer Mike (M.) Doughty. His voice is indescribable – kind of if John McCrea from Cake decided to become a full-time beat poet. Doughty has the ability to make hooks out of just repeated consonants – his “take the elevator to the mezzanine” from “Super Bon Bon” is a perfect example. It’s just spoken words, but it captures the ear.

Soul Coughing also didn’t survive the ‘90s, but Doughty has launched an under-the-radar solo career that couldn’t be farther from his old band. He’s just released Haughty Melodic, his first solo full-length, on Dave Matthews’ label ATO, and really – who knew the Allan Ginsberg of the alt-rock set had an album of sweet, wonderful songs like these in him? Doughty has abandoned the grooves of Soul Coughing and expanded on the acoustic melodicism of his debut EP, Skittish, and the result is one of the most rewarding surprises of the year so far.

It’s on ATO, and it’s mostly acoustic, but it would be a mistake to lump Haughty Melodic in with the Matthews style. This is a classic pop album, and Doughty has come up with at least half a dozen remarkable melodies to go with his usual grooves. “Unsingable Name,” especially, is one of the best songs of Doughty’s career, all twists and turns. It was produced by Dan Wilson, of Semisonic fame, and he brings his eclectic pop sensibility to the record, especially the five songs he co-wrote. The production is fantastic, with Doughty’s voice front and center the whole time.

And what a voice. Amazingly, I think I like him better as a singer than as a beat poet. His gift for consonant-happy lyrics that make no sense, but sound neat, is in evidence, especially on “Madeline and Nine” and “Looking at the World From the Bottom of a Well.” On that song, he repeats the line, “The only way to beat it is to bat it down,” and it sounds so… cool in his snap-tongue voice. Elsewhere, Doughty gets soft and ballad-like, most notably on “White Lexus,” and his vocals really work – they’re simultaneously raspy and smooth.

But the upbeat, funky ones fare best here. “Busting Up a Starbucks” is a smash-and-grab of lyrical dexterity – at one point he references the “sisters from Sister Sister,” and he spits out the line “the force that’s forcing you to feel” before crashing into the title phrase. Great, great stuff, and the backing groove is huge and chunky. It’s not all cultural wordplay, though – Doughty gets sentimental on “Your Misfortune” (“I can be the right reminder in the meantime, throwing out the lifeline”) and turns in a straight-ahead gospel number on “His Truth is Marching On.” (Well, one that includes the line “I’m fucking starved for love,” so it may not get a lot of play in churches…)

All in all, Haughty Melodic is pretty terrific. Doughty can sell even the simplest material – check out the spherical “I Hear the Bells” for an example – so it’s gratifying that he’s decided to push himself, and write some great pop songs. Doughty isn’t hiding his strengths here, he’s building on them, reshaping them into something new. I hope this is just the first in a long line of solo records from him, and that they only get better from here. He deserves to get out of the ‘90s alive.

See you in line Tuesday morning.