2010 / Music

Review: Stone Temple Pilots’ Disc Is Attempt At Second Takeoff

Grunge-Era Stars Release First Post-Breakup Album

Simply put, we exist in a world of cliques. Our experiences are framed and fragmented by the lines that divide all aspects of daily life — who are our family, friends, countrymen, ethnicity, etc. To skew a quote from modern-day philosopher Heidi Klum, there’s always someone in and someone who’s out.

Photo: Atlantic Records

Photo: Atlantic Records

While many might view music itself as a redemptive force that could bridge gaps, heal hurts and basically unite people separated by choice or circumstances. However, that’s not always the case. Take ’90s alternative-rock superstars the Stone Temple Pilots for example. This is the kind of band that really divides people.

It’s been that way since the San Diego-bred band’s start. After all, STP’s meteoric rise in 1993 came during the pinnacle of alternative rock’s fleeting takeover of the musical mindshare. Amid the uproar, the band quickly eclipsed many acts who had more extensive underground pedigrees and whose music owed less to the kind of radio-sanctioned ’70s hard rock the Pilots specialized in. Although the Butthole Surfers, Liz Phairs and Sonic Youths never graduated from the clubs, STP quickly vaulted into the arena circuit and never left despite a career jolted by drugs, disunion and monster hits.

Now, after a seven-year sabbatical, the quartet returned to the studio to track a new, self-titled album intended to defend their status and end the polarization. They want a second chance to take off.

Such commercial-savvy and determination is a defining trait of the band. While these guys first supposedly met at a Black Flag show, they obviously wanted to play the big rooms from the very beginning. And it’s difficult not to gaze at the group’s five-album discography, as well as all the problems that have hounded them, and not suspect these guys made a Robert Johnson-like deal with the devil when they were still playing local dives. Such a pact could explain how these supposed Johnny-come-latelys to college rock could rapid fire a surprisingly salvo of monstrous ear candy. Their songs became hallmarks of the grunge years and beyond. Indie-rock purists hated them while frat boys loved them, but damn it if everyone didn’t turn up the volume when “Big Empty,” “Vaseline,” “Sour Girl” or “Interstate Love Song” didn’t come on the radio. Few bedroom guitar slingers might admit to having a poster of guitarist Dean DeLeo on their wall, but everyone surely knows his crunching, melodic riffs. STP’s albums are modern rock’s great guilty pleasures.

But for this success, STP would pay heavily — and not just at the hands of alternative-rock’s elite and the critics. The Pilots’ course has always been a rocky one. Goateed singer Scott Weiland’s transformation into a full-fledged rock star rattled his bandmates and his persona, his posturing and his interviews sometimes fanned the antipathy towards the group. Worse still was his prodigious drug habit, which he’s never been able to keep from derailing the group at key junctures.

As a result, STP has remained a bit of a wild card. Mainstream hard-rock hits kept coming as people moved their flannel shirts to the back of their closets, but the group was frequently divided over Weiland’s ego and the damage his using was doing to this well-oiled rock machine. Arrests, jail time, probation and rehab took their toll on the quartet’s tour itinerary and eventually, their relationships. The group broke up twice — at least — because of Weiland’s drug busts. During their longest period of dissolution from 2003 to 2008, Weiland cleaned up his act enough to start fronting another group, Velvet Revolver. That band, consisting of Slash and the other ex-members of Gun ‘N Roses, produced two albums of music that seemed to personify rock-star excess. The group’s music was cliché rock grandiosity unworthy of the title and ambition without the kind of hooks that could justify the hubbub. Ego battles soon brought that band to an end.

Without Weiland, the other three Pilots — DeLeo, bassist Robert DeLeo and drummer Eric Kretz — crashed repeatedly. During one of the singer’s drug-induced solo endeavors in the mid-’90s, they tried to pull an Audioslave (same band but different vocalist) with the short-lived Talk Show. It quickly crumbled amid rock radio indifference. Later, the DeLeo brother tried again with Army of Anyone after STP went on permanent hiatus in 2003. This time, the brothers got a name singer, Filter leader Richard Patrick, to don the frontman’s goatee and guttural vocals, but this project too swiftly fell apart. It seemed Weiland wasn’t the only one addicted to dysfunction.

Eventually, longing for the old days and those lucrative reunion tour dollars brought an end to the group’s breakup. STP mounted a couple of reunion tours before they thought it time to reenter the studio and see if the old magic still have the same potency. Not quite and somewhere, the devil is laughing.

Rolling Stone critic David Fricke once attempted to rehabilitate STP’s image by comparing their legacy of muscle-rock smashes and critical sniping with Led Zeppelin (another band supposedly engaged in a diabolical compact). This wasn’t an accurate comparison. STP never had a run of truly spectacular albums like Zeppelin did, nor were STP’s albums track-by-track all that consistently brilliant. (Their best record, “Purple,” came closest to Zeppelin’s benchmark.) Rather, STP is really more of a singles-type of act and they have acknowledged this fact on “Stone Temple Pilots.” Each song has little linkage to the track preceding it. Instead, each cut seems tailored for a particular demographic of their audience: heavy rockers, power-pop fluff, ’70s sleaze and a power ballad.

The primary problem with these songs is that although the musicians are still cobbling together and layering together pleasant-enough melodies, the lyrical and instrumental hooks just aren’t as sharp as they used to be. If we’re to continue the Zeppelin comparisons, think of how that group sounded on “In Through The Out Door.” The riffs are good, but elements of schmaltz have begun to creep into the proceedings. It all seems a bit canned, a ’70s rock mishmash. At one time, an STP song might stay with a listener for days. The same can’t be said for these cuts. No one is going to hum “Bagman” or “Peacoat.”

We can lay most of the blame on the band’s instrumental core. The DeLeo brothers just aren’t on their game, their pop-music altimeter readings are clearly off. “Take A Load Off” and “Hazy Daze” features plenty of nasty Jimmy Page string acrobatics that swiftly loses all charms. Sun-shiny choruses are overdone and instrumental passages don’t have the same killer instinct. At times, the band members don’t seem to know how to inhabit their own identity anymore.

They are comfortable playing others though. At times, Weiland lets his love of David Bowie go a step too far. On “First Kiss On Mars,” he is gratingly cutesy as he imitates Bowie’s “Heroes” period. During “Hickory Dichotomy,” he does a half-decent reproduction of Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” cocksure mannerisms. This does establish that Weiland is no longer a grunge-era relic. Instead, he’s at the ready to audition for the next Broadway musical devoted to the music of the ’70s.

The worst critter is “Cinnamon,” which comes across as an over-sweetened ditty likely swiped from Snow Patrol and mussed up with an extra gruff guitarwork. Its central melody is bland, but that’s almost forgivable as compared to Weiland’s voice, which has him sounding at his most cherubic. His uber-confident persona makes such a characterization difficult to take. After all, this is a guy whose rap sheet makes pretend to be an angel kind of rich. When he sings, “Come on! Come on!” you know you’re not going to Candyland.

If there’s hope for STP’s enduring, it comes with the album’s opening track, “Between The Lines.” Here, the riffs hit with power and Weiland’s lyrical nonsense coalesce into a pretty good rock jam. His references to his drug antics hint at autobiography that makes this a much more interesting listen. The same can’t be said for the rest of the record.

“Stone Temple Pilots” takes the idea of guilty pleasures, jettisons the pleasure and just leaves the guilt. The music is a heavy-handed confession of their ambition to big stars with overcooked, wannabe singles, but executed by blending the musical elements of their junior-high rock icons. When STP next hits the road, these songs will have a hard time nudging out the other greatest hits dominating their set unless they want to send the audience to the bathrooms.

This album won’t allow STP to transcend the cliques that still divide the music world. STP is still out and this time, deservedly so.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2010 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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