Monday, July 30, 2007

Soul Asylum And The Horse They Rode In On

The other day my friend Adam and I were discussing why the indie backlash against Soul Asylum that followed in the wake of their 1992 breakthrough, Gravedancer's Union, was so intense. I think I can explain it pretty simply: Soul Asylum's mainstream breakthrough was the indie-rock equivalent of switching to the popular kids' lunch table. As a group, indie-rock fans are a proprietary lot and they don't always celebrate when one of "their" bands finds a larger audience. It is difficult to think of a single band that made the switch from indie to major label that did not face accusations of "selling-out." This impulse was perhaps strongest with bands like Soul Asylum that had roots in the (often doctrinal) hardcore punk movement.

However, the intensity of the backlash against Soul Asylum cannot be explained by indie-rock provincialism alone. When you consider that in the wake of their success the band unceremoniously sacked long-time drummer Grant Young and replaced him with studio wiz Sterling Campbell, and Dave Pirner dumped his wife for Winona Ryder, it did seem like the band was making an effort to cut itself off from its roots. For a band that had skillfully mocked the rock-star ethos for the better part of a decade (listen to their cover of "Juke Box Hero,") they seemed to be doing an awfully good imitation of rock stars once they had a double platinum album under their belt. This was not necessarily the best thing for a band whose stock-in-trade was sincerity.

Have you forgotten?
They'll spoil you rotten,
Have you forgotten?
Have you forgotten?
You're just another freak,
...a beautiful freak.

On some level it felt like the band was saying, "Thanks for the memories guys, but we don't need you anymore" to their old audience. That's probably not a totally fair assessment. After all, Grant Young himself had replaced Pat Morley after Say What You Will... for much the same reason Campbell replaced Young (Young was a better drummer than Morely, and the band felt he was more likely to help them take their music to the next level). The only difference is that back in 1984 there was a lot less at stake than there was in 1994. As for the whole Winona thing, who knows what was going on in Pirner's marriage before that? It's really nobody else's business.

Anyway, these tracks come from a slightly less complicated time in the band's career--their stint on A&M records. While the band was clearly attempting to take their music in a less ragged, more commercially acceptable direction than on their Twin/Tone albums, they still seemed like the same lovable losers they had been before. ...And the Horse They Rode In On did not end up being a commercial breakthrough for the band, and its relative commercial failure coupled with Pirner's hearing problems nearly ended the band before they got another shot at the big-time.

These three tracks (courtesy of Adam) come from a promo only CD for the album. I'm not sure why they weren't included on the album, as they are generally of pretty high quality. The promo package lists the songs as "Non-LP Bonus Tracks." I suspect these were originally intended to be included as CD-only bonus tracks, but that idea may have been scrapped.


dan said...

I remember being disappointed with this album when it came out. Too tame by their earlier standards, and it just didn't come close to capturing the energy of what may be the best live band I ever saw.

Indeed, at that time, I recall speculating that someone had mistakenly switched album jackets with Neil Young, who reunited with Crazy Horse for the noisy Ragged Glory album that came out about the same time.

Dave Pirner's lyrics were always cliche-ridden, but he had an ability to make it seem heartfelt through his vocal delivery and hard-rockin' accompaniment. By toning down the music to midtempo rock and slow-paced ballads, there was simply too much emphasis on the pedestrian lyrics.

The world didn't need another grade B- Tom Petty.

Scene-Stealers said...

I felt the same way the first time I listened to it. Then I

Pete Bilderback said...


I was definitely disappointed with this album when it came out, especially because I loved Hang Time so much (and While You Were Out and Made To Be Broken before that). This album was a let down for many of the reasons you mention.

I think, the immortal words of Nigel Tufnel apply to Pirner's lyrics: "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever." At his best, Pirner manages to subvert cliches from within, at his worst his lyrics are merely a string of painful cliches themselves.

My opinion of this album has improved somewhat going back and listening to it again. There are some pretty good songs on it, and only "We3" is truly unlistenable.

On balance I thought Gravedancer's Union was a better album, but it became very difficult to listen to them after "Runaway Train" and all the other nonsense.

One of these days I'm going to post "James at 16 (Heavy Medley)" which in 11 minutes encapsulates everything that made Soul Asylum a great live band.

Scene-Stealers said...

I felt the same way for the first couple listens, but then it started to grow on me, and now it i-- hands down-- my favorite Soul Asylum record and one of the most criminally underappreciated rock records of the 90s. Seeing them live was always the best, so maybe its the paper thin drum production and overall lack of bass guitar or anything resembling fat guitar tone that turned you off. That's waht happens when you let a drummer produce your record. (I am one, so its OK to poke fun). The songwriting is really top notch, and I think its my fave cuz it's a transition between the rawk of the Twin/Tone stuff and the new "Tom Petty" direction you mentioned (I see what you mean with that comment, but it doesn't give Pirner enough credit-- it's an unfair dismissal.) The only crap song on the album is "Bitter Pill," which I skip every time.

Thanks for posting these extra WAY-hard-to-find tracks!


dan said...

Pete, in retrospect, I don't think Hang Time is all that great, though I love the pretty much everything they did before that.

The "James at 16" medley is awesome.

Scene-Stealers said...


Looks like we were posting at the same time (and I need to learn to doublecheck what I write for errors).

Anyway, "Gravedancer's" is where I got disillusioned. Talk about mid-tempo drivel. Yuck. That album was a direct result of Pirner writing songs on acoustic guitar becuz of his tinnitis. Also, the demos were made specifically to attract renewed label attention, which is exactly what happened. A Columbia exec heard them and said "This will sell a million records." So he got the band back together and the rest is Winona & groundbreaking at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame...


lil m said...

It's an interesting footnote that this record was recorded on the soundstage at A&M studios in Hollywood...a joint Charlie Chaplin built to make silent flicks. Let's just say Soul Asylum tested the limits of the soundproofing. I mean where did ya think the Tinnitus came from anyway?

By the time the recording was finished, let's just say the boys weren't on best possible terms with everyone at the adjacent corporate office who'd complained about the noise. Yep... the album was a step backwards for these guys, and got them dropped shortly afterwards. There were no clear hits, although a half hearted attempt was made to market Easy Street as a radio emphasis track.

After the A&M stint, Karl ended up back washing dishes at a big MPLS club he used to headline just a year before, Murphy was refinishing antiques. When the opportunity to exploit the Grave Dancer's Union run came along after a 2-3 year hiatus, the band were going through serious changes in pressures & opportunities. They played the White House for godsakes...shifted management as well. They were upset at Grant Young for a lot more than his lack of chops. It was a lack of professionalism, as well as personal dedication, and his underlying bitter attitude. Pirner & Murphy still openly resent having to beg him to play shows, or do encores, and dictate certain songs in the set etc, and eventually they were forced to pay him big bucks, just to GO AWAY.

Young got a nice settlement, bought himself a hunting lodge/B & B resort operation and essentially retired to Northern Minnesota on the band's cash... they continued to tour & work for their money so to speak.

The somewhat boring Sterling Campbell was brought in, but SA got their come uppance when David Bowie stole him away during a tour lull a couple years later. All's Fair in Love & Corporate Rock n Roll...

Still a great band, catch em live if ya get a chance. They are little more humble now that the papparazzi don't follow them. Pirner's happily married with a kid, Dan will tell ya stories about his teenage kid & getting a lil too upset at Vikings games.

thanx for the tracks... I think I have this promo version CD, but never ripped the tracks. Sadly the A&M catalog is mostly out of print, it's not even on I Tunes. Major labels amaze me at their ability to not capitalize on their assets. Then they wonder why they are losing money pumping up teen pandering crap every year and ignoring the LOOOOOONGGG TAIL of tears, toil & traction they have in the vaults.

Pete Bilderback said...

Dan and Eric--

I have to admit it's been a long time since I listened to either Hang Time or Gravedancer's Union.

I threw Hang Time on last night after work--I still think it's great, although the band seems confused about what direction they want to take the music, and some of the more anthemic material doesn't work so well for me. Still, "Standing In The Doorway," "Down On Up To Me," "Sometime To Return" are killer. I think even at the height of my Soul Asylum fandom I was less enthusiastic about tracks like "Endless Farewell."

I don't know if I have the nerve to revisit Gravedancer's Union but I ripped it to my iPod just in case.


Thank you for the detailed, insider account of this period. Hopefully, I communicated in my post that I was attempting to describe how things looked to a fan from the outside, not necessarily how they really were. Very interesting stuff. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

It seems this post has generated quote a bit of interest. I remember wanting to like this album more than I did. Hang Time was a perspective changing album for me and while I always sensed the band's love of Dr Hook I didn't realize how large that love was.

The album has aged better than expected - some songs are actually very touching 15 years on. I still miss the anticipation I felt waiting for another Soul Asylum album

Pete Bilderback said...

I know what you mean about missing the anticipation. Even if I ended up feeling let down by a Soul Asylum album, the release itself was a much anticipated event.

This post did generate a lot of interest, but after a little more investigation I discovered that I was already close to the edge in terms of bandwidth usage when I posted these tracks. Any problems should be fixed now.

Anonymous said...

Please fix the link for Village Idiot, please. I have been looking for these songs for a long time now. Thanks a million.

Pete Bilderback said...

"Village Idiot" seems to be working okay, though it may be running a little slow. Try again.