An Album on My Mind: Soundgarden – Down on the Upside

This is a thing I haven’t done in a long time. I last did this in 2014 for Cloud Nothing’s then newly released album Here and Nowhere Else. You can read that. I did another for Mac DeMarco’s Salad Days too. I was planning to do this for another album earlier this year, though for whatever reason just didn’t get to it. For the past few weeks though, the album that’s been on my mind is Soundgarden’s 1996 effort Down on the Upside.

The album’s been in my music library for quite some time now, but it’s only very recently that I listened to the whole thing again and realised just how brilliant it is. It was maybe around 2015 that I watched the video for ‘Pretty Noose’ one day – for what reason I can’t really remember now – and the track immediately became one that I would sing in the shower or hum out loud during idle moments. That song is the first on Down on the Upside, starting the proceedings off with its slimy riff from Kim Thayil and setting the tone for the rest of what’s to follow.

I downloaded the album soon after. I listened to it through all 16 tracks though nothing really stuck. Some months after ‘Rhinosaur‘ suddenly jumped out at me. That’s the second track on the album. With its music written by drummer Matt Cameron, ‘Rhinosaur’ features these ascending and descending riffs and licks that culminate into a stampede of a breakdown two thirds of the way through. It’s a really groovy track, almost funky in some ways, but a thrilling one overall. Takes you in different directions before throwing you all over the room. That was an instant add to the phone too.

And it stayed that way for a while. ‘Pretty Noose’ and ‘Rhinosaur’ were the golden two. I never paid much attention to the other fourteen songs that the album offered. Chris Cornell died in May last year and the first thing to do, like many others, was listen to the man’s music. Down on the Upside was still there in my library so why not listen to it once more? Surely there would be another track that I had been missing out on for all that time. There were riffs here and that were definitely pleasing… though that was it. I could recognise that there was something good about it all though it never really stuck.

That has all changed. I’m actually convinced that the album may be Soundgarden’s greatest. Now I know that the consensus is that Superunknown is the band’s opus, though there are some tracks on there that I can’t vibe to that well. Down on the Upside however provides almost every side of Soundgarden – the heavy side, the lighter side, the surreal side, the realist aspect. They are all combined to provide Soundgarden at their essence, which is probably what made it so suitable as their final album for all those years.

What was always so great about Soundgarden was that all four band members brought something to the table. It wasn’t a function where the lead singer held everyone to his beck and call; if any member has a piece of music or a lyric that could be worked on, the four of them would work together to create great compositions.

Matt Cameron who as aforementioned wrote the music for ‘Rhinosaur’ did the same for the ninth track ‘Applebite’, a stirring almost psychedelic song that becomes more intense as time goes on, aided by Cornell’s heavily masked ghostly vocals. Kim Thayil had less songwriting credits here than on previous albums, though the one track he completely wrote (‘Never the Machine Forever’) is a monstrous behemoth, complete with cinematic guitar riffs in odd time signatures and another captivating vocal performance from Cornell. Ben Shepherd, the band’s bassist, worked on six out of the 16 tracks on the album and it’s those songs (‘Zero Chance’, ‘Dusty’, ‘Ty Cobb’, ‘Never Named’, ‘Switch Opens’, ‘An Unkind’) that are highlights for me. Particularly ‘Switch Opens’ which, with lyrics written by Cornell, seems to signify a time of change, rising up and taking action.

The album is not as heavy as Superunknown. When I listen to each track I’m heavily reminded of the desert and sand, there’s just something about the music that gives me that imagery. It’s not just because those two things are mentioned in ‘Burden in My Hand’ either. There are some songs which make me feel like I’m in the same blacked out/spark lit room that the four members are in on the album cover. It’s a lot more acoustic but still grimey in its delivery. Much more groovier and less thrashy. Technically complex in terms of guitar tunings and time signatures but very melodically accessible. Every song has it for you.

I don’t want to say it in risk of possibly offending, but there’s something almost country about some parts of the album. I can already sense the ‘what’ reactions coming from anyone reading this. I know. I’m not referring to country music like…. Florida Georgia Line or…. Billy Ray Cyrus or something. (Those are my best examples). But surely you could listen to ‘Dusty’and its main riff that chugs along during the verses, or that little lick that occurs in ‘Zero Chance’….. even ‘Blow Up the Outside World’ in some ways, and consider that there’s something there? It’s my interpretation anyway. Though I think it’s the lighter direction the band seemed to be heading in that built some creative differences between bandmembers and resulted in their initial split in 1997.

It’s a real shame that Chris Cornell died. Soundgarden were in the middle of a tour when he did, and there was talk that they were working on a new album at the time. As for now Soundgarden are still a band albeit not doing anything at the moment understandably. I do hope that when it comes to 2021 that Cameron, Thayil, and Shepherd could get together to work on a 25th anniversary remaster of Down on the Upside. It definitely deserves one.


#587: The Replacements – I Will Dare

‘I Will Dare’ is the first track on The Replacements’ third album Let It Be, released in 1984. The album itself was a departure from the straight-up two-minute three-chords punk the band had been making up to that point since forming in ’79, and featured significantly more ambitious musical arrangements and lyrical themes explored by main lyricist and guitar man Paul Westerberg. First time I heard Let It Be I will say I was 18 (may have been 17) and  looking for new albums to hear. Not new as as in what was recent, but new things to stop me listening to the same old same old. It was okay. Five years have passed and I still hold this opinion. It’s cool, though a lot of the songs never really stuck with me.

‘I Will Dare’ though is one of the best album openers ever. Got slick melodies from the get-go and throughout, starting with Westerberg’s jangly two-chord rhythm guitar pattern that leads into the track’s main riff provided by lead guitarist Bob Stinson. Chris Mars’ drums pound throughout, particularly on the verses, and Tommy Stinson does his thing on the bass with that little climbing and falling line he does in the choruses. It’s a strong band performance throughout this whole thing, everyone is on point. Even R.E.M.’s Peter Buck provides a frilly guitar solo which caps it all off. A perfect start, man.

I also think that the music is the perfect backdrop to the song’s lyrics – a older man has a hush-hush relationship with a younger woman and is ready to take on anything if she’s willing to do the same. I can always visualize some sort of music video set in nighttime 80s New York with two people acting as the couple and the band singing somewhere unrelated. The lyrics aren’t even that descriptive, kind of repetitive too, but conjures up a lot of imagery.

Even Let It Be as an album didn’t do so much for me, I still went through a small ‘Replacements’ phase….. It was around the time that the band was to play live on American television in the same studio where they had been banned from playing since 1986, after that ‘infamous’ appearance on Saturday Night Live. Came to realise that in their prime, they were a force to be reckoned with. I prefer a lot of their live performances to their studio cuts though. Below are some of my favourites, including the aforementioned SNL show if you’ve never seen it. Take care.

#586: The Beatles – I Will

Out of all the love songs The Beatles ever did – and they wrote a lot of those – there’s something about ‘I Will’ that strikes home more than any other. No loud electric guitars are present, nor can any drums by Ringo Starr be heard in the sub-two minutes the tack lasts for. Instead, it’s an acoustic jam with bongos and cymbals and Paul performing the song’s ‘bass’ with his mouth.

It’s all very cutesy, But it comes from a pure place. John and Paul could always write a good song about love out the wazoo during the Beatle years – at least when they properly wrote songs together – though here it seems that Paul has really found the one, assuming that the song is about a lady, and that’s cool.

Initially I don’t think I really cared for this track that much when I first heard it. Must have been about seven/getting to eight years ago now. It comes near the end of the first CD of The Beatles and there are so many memorable tracks that precede it…. it just didn’t make too much of an impression. Couldn’t tell you when/where/how it happened, though I must have heard it one day and it all clicked. It’s a good melody, you can’t deny it.

#585: The Beatles – I Want to Tell You

The fifth Beatles entry so far in the “I”‘s. Told you yesterday, there’s more to come still. Though in comparison to yesterday, with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ being one of those diamond compositions written by the iconic pairing of Lennon/McCartney, ‘I Want to Tell You’ was written by the band’s lead guitarist George Harrison. The upload above has very poor audio quality, clearly to avoid copyright infringment, so please… try and listen to it on a streaming service or something. Damn Apple Corps.

Revolver, the album on which the track can be found, is my favourite Beatles album. It’s a ten out of ten. Every song on there is great. Well, ‘Yellow Submarine’ is okay. And it also saw the three main songwriters have somewhat of an equal share of the tracklisting with Harrison having three songs allowed on there, one of them being ‘Taxman’ which starts the whole thing off – that’s for another time.

For about two years straight ‘I Want to Tell You’ was always on in my head. Upon hearing Revolver for the first time it was the song that I always kept on repeating endlessly. So much so that it was my most played song in my iTunes library for about two years. It’s not the one on the album that you would find many people talk about, compared to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, though for me it always had that quality that gave it that edge.

The excitement is all set up in those opening fifteen seconds or so. The fade-in with the hanging guitar line reels you in, the first striking piano chord along with Ringo’s snare hits keeps you still, the shaking of maracas somehow build up this sense of anticipation for what’s to follow…. and what does follow is a bouncy joint about confusion and errors in communication when in a relationship.

Harrison along with Lennon and McCartney sound like they’re having a good time in the studio just because of their vocal performances, when the latter two come in for their harmonies they sound on form, especially during the ending when Paul goes all crazy on the higher notes. It’s very upbeat, I sang along from ages 14-16… it’s good to put on every now and then.

#584: The Beatles – I Want to Hold Your Hand

Been almost a month since I was last here…. I’m sorry. Can’t say I’ve tried to keep to my earlier statement of doing a blog at least every Sunday. The posts will arrive in due time. Just been suffering from a lack of motivation. Not in a bad way, it’s just work. Weekends have really been reserved for laying down and sleeping.

Recently I decided to listen to all the songs on my phone in alphabetical order during my morning/evening commutes. Only because the shuffle system on iPhones is very poor. In doing so I’ve only properly realised how many songs by The Beatles (that I personally enjoy) begin with the letter ‘I’. There’s a lot of them to come in this ‘I’ series. ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ was the hit that made the four lads huge in the USA, and pretty much everywhere else.

There are some days when I listen to this thing and think it’s just too sappy. The lyrics are too simple and on the nose…. A song like this would never be taken seriously in today’s musical climate. Though the majority it’s just like….. fuck that. This song’s great for all of those reasons. John Lennon and Paul McCartney sing their chests out on this one, singing in unison and in perfect harmony…. The musicality between the four of them is just wild and thrilling but tight and controlled. It rocks without trying too hard. It’s just a good pop song, it can’t be denied.

Again, when it comes to The Beatles and YouTube – it’s very hard to find their official stuff because their record label always takes their music down when you try and upload it. There is an actual video for it; it’s not up just yet. Still, below’s the performance taken from the Ed Sullivan show when John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on American television for the first time and owned it.

#583: Bloc Party – I Still Remember

‘I Still Remember’ is the ninth track on Bloc Party’s second album A Weekend in the City, released in 2007, and was the LP’s second single. The album was the first one of theirs I ever got, for Christmas 2007 or my 13th birthday either one of the two, and was the special edition that included ‘Flux‘ in the tracklisting. I liked the song upon seeing its video on MTV2 UK for the first time, and my opinion on it hasn’t really changed – still sounds good now as it did back then. Crazy that it’s been eleven years, really.

Listening to this track now takes me back to about ten years ago when I was just about getting into first year of secondary school. Or at least nearing the end of it. Mainly because it was during those times that the music video for it was shown on TV quite frequently. Back then YouTube was still a baby in terms of being a company, and if a band released the video for their new song – you would actually have to wait and see it instead of having it ready at your fingertips.

The track has lead singer Kele Okereke reminiscing about good times and missed opportunities from his school days. Anyone who is a big fan of the guy and has looked on his Wikipedia page can find that he went to Ilford County High School. No lies, that’s the same secondary school I went to. Of course it was at different times, although I’ve always had the feeling that the person he’s singing about would have been someone he was friends with when he went there. Not just because it’s an all boys school, but because, if you watch the video closely you’ll notice that the train number all the action takes place in is ‘247’. A bus route with the same number runs through Barkingside High Street, which is pretty much right next to the school.

Though that’s just my theory. It’s probably a bit of a personal song for him so we’ll let it lie.

#582: The Beatles – I Should Have Known Better

Back again after a while. So sorry to anyone who usually reads these. I’m always feeling tired on the weekends now…. Work is fun. My ear that’s been clogged for the past two months cleared up and I can hear again which is great. That’s just a bit of catch up material for those who are wondering what’s going on. This has always been at the back of my mind, and I’ve been thinking about possible different features I could put on here to change things up a bit. Though sticking with what I’ve got going now still doesn’t seem too bad an option for the moment.

With the personal stuff out the way, I can talk about today’s song. Another one by The Beatles, ‘I Should Have Known Better’ is the second track on the band’s third album A Hard Day’s Night. Because YouTube won’t allow Beatles songs on its site, I’ve had to embed the whole Hard Day’s Night film (which is a good watch and very funny) above, though it conveniently starts at the point where the track begins.

Great tune. Not much I really feel about it. Like most of their early Beatlemania stuff it’s about love and girls and getting girls to love you and thinking about the future when you and the girl are still together. I think what draws me in is John Lennon’s voice. Paul McCartney doesn’t come in and harmonise at any point during the whole thing; it’s all a double tracked Lennon belting out the lines with gusto. In what is a mostly acoustic affair with a bit of harmonica and George Harrison’s guitar solo in the middle, John’s raspy voice carries the whole thing – especially when he breaks into that falsetto in the ‘ask you to be miiii-hi-hi-hiiiiiiine’ part’. Very glorious. A very innocent track with good intentions, I think.