Thursday, December 3, 2009

December 3: Soul Asylum, "Grave Dancers Union"

Artist: Soul Asylum
Album: Grave Dancers Union
Year: 1992
Label: Columbia

In our modern times, there are countless tales of bands that, while quite talented, give up on their dream after not finding success after a few years. Similarly, there are bands that play and play for decades, yet find no greater success than their counterparts who called it quits early in their career. Then of course, there is the age-old story of the band that works and works for years, honing their sound and ignoring all the critics that don't understand their music. Then, by some strange stroke of luck, the band finds success and takes over the music world. One of the clearest and most stunning representations of this story comes in the form of a band that was a cornerstone of the "alternative music" explosion of the early 1990's, and created some of the most enduring songs of the decade, Soul Asylum. In many ways defining the non-punk based form of what was called "grunge," the group had been playing for nearly a decade before finding even the most remote success, yet once they began to gain notoriety, it quickly snowballed and within months, they were one of the biggest groups on the planet. While early records from Soul Asylum are absolutely fantastic, as one can truly follow the progression of the bands' sound, it is the groups' 1992 release, the monumental Grave Dancers Union that not only stands as their finest recording, but one of the greatest and most important albums of their generation.

Grave Dancers Union represents Soul Asylum's debut with Columbia Records, and it would turn out to be their most successful album, yielding four top ten hits, as well as winning the Grammy Award for "Best Rock Song." The success of the album would also garner an invitation to the group to play one of the most honored and exclusive gigs possible, as they were chosen to play at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. A majority of these honors and accolades were due to the success of the album's most well known single and it's accompanying video, the iconic song, "Runaway Train." The song was in fact, the third single off of Grave Dancers Union, and spawning one of the most memorable music videos ever created. The video, which features photos of missing children spliced in with a trio of rather disturbing vignettes, found its way into regular rotation on EmpTV, yet the same channel edited the end of the video, where the band gave the phone number for the national "missing persons" hotline. The song itself topped the charts in a number of countries, and this would be the song that gave the band their rather unlikely Grammy win, placing them on the "winners" list between Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen. The song also helped to introduce the band to much of the world, and it did not take long for the true musical talent of the band to shine through.

Though the recording of Grave Dancers Union was a rather difficult affair on many levels, each band member performs brilliantly on every song, and there is not a bad note anywhere on the record. Blending together elements of hard rock, acoustic rock, and even folk, Soul Asylum bear some resemblance to fellow Minneapolis bands like Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, yet their sound is unquestionably unique. Led by the dual guitars of Dan Murphy and Dave Pirner, the group has a sound like no other band in music history. Mixing acoustic rhythm and electric leads, the base of the bands' music is like that of no other, and the music of every song is never anything short of beautiful. It is this ability to write wonderfully melodic songs, while keeping them in the rock format that makes the bands' music so unique. The bass playing of Karl Mueller is equally fantastic, as he manages to keep a strong edge on the music without being overpowering or resulting to heavy distortion. Rounding out the bands' music on Grave Dancers Union was a pair of drummers, as the band had issues with the drummer that began the sessions, Grant Young. Having played with the band for the past six years, during the Grave Dancers Union sessions, the band became increasingly unhappy with Young's performance, and their next drummer, Sterling Campell ended up playing on about half of the songs on the record, though he did not receive credit in the liner notes. Regardless of who is on drums, the music on every song found on Grave Dancers Union is fantastic, and it remains as enjoyable and fresh today as it was nearly twenty years ago.

While the music on the album is unquestionably superb, in many ways, Soul Asylum boils down to one thing: the voice of Dave Pirner. By far one of the most iconic performers of his generation, it was Pirner's look and style that inspired much of the "grunge fashion" as well as setting the performance standard with his voice and stage presence. With a seemingly boundless vocal range, and a straightforward, yet absolutely unique delivery style, the voice of Dave Pirner is easily one of the most recognizable of his generation. Often overflowing with emotion, Pirner also comes off as one of the most honest and unguarded singers of the era, making the songs sound even more raw and authentic. Along with being a truly fantastic vocalist, Dave Pirner proves to be one of the most talented writers in music history. From more typical angst-ridden rockers to some of the most heartfelt and truly brilliant lyrics ever penned, the words are often as important as the music over which they are performed. One of the most fantastic lyrics, as well as one that is loaded with various meanings are found on Grave Dancers Union's third single, "Black Gold." Often seen as a statement on the military action in the Persian Gulf at the time, Pirner loads the song with metaphors and allusions like the fantastic lines, "...moving backwards through time, never learn, never mind...that side's yours, this side's mine, brother you ain't my kind..." With amazing lyrics like these, combined with the stunning voice and delivery of Dave Pirner, the music of Soul Asylum was a sound that simply could not be ignored.

There is something to be said for perseverance, as time has proven that in almost every case, truly great bands get their recognition, though it is often after decades of hard work and honing their particular sound. Having put in these years of dedication, Minneapolis based rockers, Soul Asylum, exploded onto the music scene in 1992 and went on to define an entire generation, from their musical sound to their fashion to the way in which they carried themselves. Though the spread of the "grunge" style is often attributed to the likes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, if one carefully inspects the timeline of music breakthroughs, it was in fact Soul Asylum that made the initial impact. Soul Asylum's combination of both electric and acoustic sounds gives their music a sound and mood like no other, and it is one of the reasons why many feel that if they are labeled as "alternative music," then no other band can be given such a title, as no other band has quite the same sound. Led by the truly brilliant writing and singing of Dave Pirner, the songs of Soul Asylum reach a power and beauty unlike that of any other band, and it is one of the key reaons why their songs still find steady radio rotation to this day. Though their later albums would bring a handful of hits, Soul Asylum has never sounded as good or released as amazing a batch of songs on one record as one finds on their landmark 1992 release, Grave Dancers Union.

Standout tracks: "Somebody To Shove," "Black Gold," and "Runaway Train."

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