It’s tough being a Stone Temple Pilots fan. The constant drug arrests of singer Scott Weiland aren’t the problem; every musician has drug problems. It just seems most people don’t give STP their due. The band has zero rock-critic or postpunk/indie-rock respect, and the band’s new No. 4 album, out just a few weeks, is already plummeting down the charts. A lot of suspicion against STP probably results from their image as a “hit grunge band,” when really they’ve been upholding a pretty traditional hard rock sound. And in 1999—when most groups seem intent on being more hip-hop, electronic, and/or oogy-boogy weeeiiird than actually rocking—traditional hard rock is a rare and fine thing.
When STP first hit, with “Plush” off of 1992’s Core, people screamed “Eddie Vedder impersonator” at Weiland. There was a certain mental-patient persona shared in their videos, and a certain mental-patient bellow shared in their voices. “Sex Type Thing” switched things up a bit; some said it was industrial-rocky, others said Alice in Chains. It took a couple of acoustic hits (“Creep,” “Plush” unplugged in MTV’s studio) for cynics to drop some of the “rip-off” claims.
The Pilots’ second record, Purple, changed a few more minds, thanks to the Sabbath-punker “Vasoline” (drummer Eric Kretz’s shining moment), the radio-smashing “Interstate Love Song” (guitarist Dean DeLeo’s biggest hook), and the short and tight “Unglued.” (The line “You’ll eat the lies and you will . . . ” in “Vasoline” reminded me of that old joke: How do you keep an idiot in suspense? I’ll tell you next issue.) Still, for some haters, more STP success just entrenched contempt. The band got a bit stranger on Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop (the liner notes didn’t thank the Pope specifically, although they did thank “everyone”). “Big Bang Baby” was fluffier and poppier than anything anywhere, “Tumble in the Rough” jammed The Fall and Black Flag into Sabbath’s back pocket, and the calypso tinges in “And So I Know” helped make for one of the prettiest songs of the decade. Some of the artier material dragged, though: especially the love songs to Duran Duran (“7 Caged Tigers”) and packaging materials (“Adhesive”).
STP defies most artiness accusations by having concise, user-friendly album lengths in the CD era. No. 4 packs 11 songs into 42 minutes. The bad news is it rehashes old STP like crazy and is their worst album; the good news is it’s very good, regardless. The rehashes are vibrant and unlabored, hybrids of the most enjoyable elements of their back catalog. The best fast songs are the first three; the best mellow songs are those on what, in the vinyl era, would’ve been “Side Two.” “Down” kicks hard, an interpretation of Core‘s “Dead and Bloated” that’s both faster and less grim, since it’s vaguely about a girl whereas the older tune was vaguely about a corpse. “Heaven and Hot Rods” glues “Unglued” smack-bang onto “Big Bang Baby.” In “Down,” Weiland’s “waiting for my Sunday girl”; in “Hot Rods,” “she walked in with an alligator sister/trying to get to heaven on Sunday.” So you can say No. 4 is a real Sabbath album—in the Christian sense.
A couple songs later, we find “Father’s always smoking/and your mom’s at church on Tuesday/and your brother’s always tripping [drinking? tricking?] and dying.” The way Weiland adds “I’ll find a way back to you someday” recalls Bob Dylan’s old feelings of loss and chaos. The next song, “Sour Girl,” is also about losing a lover; a weedy, clipped acoustic guitar riff suggests Neil Young’s “No More,” while the chorus reaches an expansive high: “What’ll you do/What’ll you do if I follow you?” No tributes to stalking here; the protagonist’s conclusion is too resigned, upfront, and confessional: “She was a happy girl the day that she left me.”
In “I Got You,” he leaves her instead. Despite country-rock flourishes, the ’60s-pop lilt owes more to the Stones’ “Down Home Girl” than to “Dead Flowers.” And while Jagger’s girl would put roses on his grave, Weiland’s just paints roses on his headstone. Femmes fatales are getting chintzier.
“Sex & Violence,” the album’s weakest song melodically, nevertheless has a harsh, fast attack, like Joy Division’s “Failures” gone nuts. After several listenings, I still can’t figure out what it’s about, however (and besides, I’m more into sex-type things than sex-&-violence-type things). Likewise, “MC5” isn’t about the MC5. (If people are gonna name songs after random musicians for no reason, I’ll suggest some ideas for prospective songwriters: “David Lee Roth,” “Sib Hasian,” “Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly.” Hope that helps.) At the end of “MC5,” DeLeo breaks a string. How do you know? He says so. Ringo Starr had blisters on his fingers, and Dean broke his string.
“Glide” is soaring and lovestruck, and “Atlanta” is even prettier—so pretty that it’s difficult for me to listen to. By which I mean I always play it three or four times in a row. It’s goddamn beautiful. And it kills me, just a little bit, every time. (Roberta Flack knows what I’m talking about.) It’s a waltz with an acoustic riff, similar to the Allmans’ “Melissa.” But it’s much more than that, with orchestra and vibes adding a powerful conclusion. The effect definitely isn’t over the top; at five minutes, “Atlanta” is a model of brevity. “The laughter’s all gone but the memories are mine/The Mexican princess is out of my life.” Does this refer to Weiland’s estrangement from his part-Guatemalan wife? “She lives by the wall and waits by the door/She walks in the sun to me.” A sad prospect, paralleling his own current situation, surrounded by prison walls. Inside, looking out.