Music

Stone Temple Pilots’ Brief Window Of Genius

The grunge band debuted 20 years ago this week, but it took a while for them to find their voice.

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Stone Temple Pilots were pegged as phonies from the start, and in retrospect, critics and fans were right to be skeptical of them, albeit for the wrong reasons. When the band’s first album Core came out 20 years ago this week, they were widely dismissed as grunge bandwagon-jumpers, mainly because frontman Scott Weiland bellowed his way through hits like “Plush” and “Sex Type Thing” like a dude who was still workshopping his impression of Eddie Vedder’s hyper-masculine baritone. I was 13-years-old when “Plush” became a huge hit, and even then it was obvious to me that this wasn’t the guy’s natural singing voice.

Weiland dropped the Eddie voice on STP’s second album, Purple, and that’s when things start to get interesting. It’s the first time we really get a sense of his character as a vocalist, or, weirdly, lack thereof. As Weiland’s career progressed, he became a lot more comfortable with his talent as a vocal chameleon – his most recent releases are a covers album featuring incredibly reverent versions of songs by Radiohead, Nirvana and David Bowie and a a Christmas album in which he channels his inner Bing Crosby.

The truth is, Weiland is glam to the core. He’s a Bowie super fan, and the closest he ever comes to sounding “natural” is when he puts on a Bowie-like croon. On “Silvergun Superman,” a terrific deep cut from Purple, he merges the grunge voice with the Bowie voice, and ends up sounding quite seductive, like a devil in a three piece suit. It’s worth noting that in the grunge era, it wasn’t cool for male rockers to project sexuality. The genre was a rebellion against the casual sexism of Eighties metal, and the singers in these bands generally overcompensated by coming off as stoic or too absorbed in their own self-loathing to bother coming off a bit flirty. In retrospect, Weiland was chafing against this convention; from the beginning he’s barely suppressing his instinct to be this traditionally sexy rock bad boy.

Stone Temple Pilots found their voice on their third album, Tiny Music…Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop. It’s their most playful and relaxed record by far, and the first album in their catalog where they seem totally at peace with their talent for pastiche. The elements of glam that had been suggested on the first two records were on the surface now, most especially in the first single, “Big Bang Baby.”

Tiny Music is goofy and eclectic, but also a record that explores the darkest aspects of Weiland’s experience with fame and his struggle with addiction. Weiland’s approach to addressing this situation is very different from his peers in Alice In Chains and Nirvana, who mined similar experiences to create relentlessly miserable albums like Dirt and In Utero. Weiland can’t bring himself to be so grim, so his darkest moments are laced with self-deprecating humor. Other grunge records offered first-person accounts of desperation and sorrow, but on Tiny Music, Weiland was chastising himself from a distance, snarking on himself for becoming a cliché.

One of the best tracks on Tiny Music is “Pop’s Love Suicide,” a song in which Weiland deals with the cultural fallout of Kurt Cobain’s death by emulating the songwriter’s distinctive voice and lyrical style. Other songs written about Cobain’s suicide, like R.E.M.’s “Let Me In,” Neil Young’s “Sleeps With Angels” and Pearl Jam’s “Immortality,” are solemn and reverent, but Weiland is ultra-cynical, portraying the rocker as the victim of a poisonous culture. You’d think that Weiland is just being an asshole, but the subtext is pretty obvious: He’s convinced that he’s next, and this is his stab at gallows humor.

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