Album Review: ‘Singles: OST’

I discussed the reissue of the soundtrack of the grunge era, Singles: OST.

The soundtrack is better than the movie. A quarter century later, this is true of the Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. This is no fault of the movie, which is a fine rom-com; but while the movie may have left little resonance in its wake, its great music lives on, a mix-tape of the early ‘90s that sends you back to another time. Sequencing and song choices complement each other perfectly, and its various artists didn’t just throw leftovers at quick product: there are songs here that rank among the artists’ finest. Singles: OST is also a nearly perfect primer on and microcosm of the grunge/alt-rock scene that was then nearing inescapable cultural phenomenon status (so much so that a rom-com was made around it). Indeed, as artists on its roster were going platinum, so too did the soundtrack. Think of it as Alt Rock for Dummies.

But if you were or are a fan of grunge and/or alternative rock, you knew all of this already. Discussing the solo of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Drown” and how it’s the best and worst of the band’s career, or arguing that Pearl Jam’s “Breath” would’ve made Ten an even better record is stuff for a 25th anniversary column.

We’re talking about Singles today because of the deluxe edition’s bonus disc, more than a third of which is previously unreleased material that’s not just vault-clearing fluff. Much of what’s offered further solidifies the album as the best point of entry into early 90’s rock. Demo and alternate versions of songs from the original release, coupled with the inclusion of obscure and/or defunct bands from the Sub Pop roster (i.e., short-lived grunge acts Truly and Blood Circus), alone makes this a must for fans.

Paul Westerberg’s jangle-grunge gem “Dyslexic Heart,” for example, perhaps the ex-Replacement’s finest solo moment, takes on two different forms. There’s a campfire-like acoustic take and a folky instrumental called “Blue Heart.” The former removes all the “na-na-na-na”’s (except for the bridge), adding greater emphasis to its low-key pop melody and clever, heartfelt lyrics, while the latter demonstrates that Westerberg’s songwriting easily translates between genres.

Elsewhere, the fantastic Alice in Chains live performances from the film (“Would?” and “It Ain’t Like That”) finally get a CD release, as does Soundgarden’s performance of “Birth Ritual”. Having both studio and live versions of these songs available is a joy and proves just how powerful these two bands were in either setting.

If there is inessential material here, it’s Mike McCready’s swampy “Singles Blues 1” and the “score acoustic” version of Westerberg’s “Waiting for Somebody”. While the former is a fun, two-minute instrumental jam, it’s largely a curio that really only warrants a couple listens. The latter, meanwhile, is only worth hearing if you enjoy Westerberg’s other superb track whittled down to the “Some-bod-a-hay” line on loop.

The reissue of Singles: OST arrived one day after Chris Cornell’s death, leaving an unfortunate shadow looming over it. While unintended, the soundtrack does provide an epitaph, if only because he appears across its two discs more than any other artist. This includes the final two songs of the collection, “Ferry Boat #3” and the instrumental “Score Piece #4”. Both are cautiously optimistic, yet in light of the details surrounding Cornell’s death it’s tempting to read into the final words of the collection: “And when you wake to your loss/ To blame your dreams won’t relieve you of the cost/ Help me, I don’t know what I’m doing.” It’s semi-inspirational as Cornell reassures the listener with variations on the ‘not all who wander are lost’ theme. It works both as a farewell to the greatest vocalist of the grunge era and a fitting end to the soundtrack that defined a generation.

100 Best Songs of the ’90s: #93 – Smashing Pumpkins | “Mayonaise”

Spectrum Culture is doing a 100 Best Songs of the ’90s list. Here’s my blurb for Pumpkins’ “Mayonaise”.

That the Pumpkins struggled under the pressure to follow up Gish—addiction, a breakup, writer’s block, suicidal thoughts—is well-documented. That Billy Corgan and company rose to the challenge(s) with Siamese Dream is unquestioned. That Dream contains some of the band’s finest performances and some of Corgan’s best songwriting is canon.

And, of course, this includes “Mayonaise,” of which Rolling Stone declared, “In some ways, it’s the ultimate Smashing Pumpkins song.” Readers agreed by naming it the band’s greatest song in a 2012 poll, beating out “1979,” “Cherub Rock” and “Soma.”

The question, then, regarding its greatness isn’t what or where but why: Why is it so revered by fans and critics alike? Beyond the obvious answer of being a near-perfect composition, it’s rather simple: “Mayonaise” is vague. Its discussion of struggling to understand one’s own identity is clear enough, but exactly why the struggle is happening—that’s the song’s key. In that unexplained space, the listener is free to insert whatever troubles s/he is going through, making Corgan’s lyrics that much more accessible. In other words, less is more. To wit, this is expressed in four words: “Words defy the plans.” As standalone lyrics, “Mayonaise” is brilliant because it’s both precisely opaque and opaquely precise.

Having beautiful music as accompaniment always helps, though. The soothing guitar melody bookending the song and the warm blanket of multi-tracked riffing throughout is premier comfort food. Even the moody, insecure solo—perhaps representing the song’s (and band’s) inner turmoil—is quickly silenced by gentle acoustic strumming as if to say, “It’s gonna be OK,” with a friendly pat on the shoulder.

Besides being the album’s crown jewel, “Mayonaise” is Siamese Dream’s purest distillation: six minutes of naval-gazing with tangents through self-doubt, anxiety and hard-earned confidence. Corgan wrote abstractly about inner conflict, but it’s clear he was talking to himself as much as anyone else. “And I fail/ But when I can, I will,” he assures himself (and us). “Try to understand/ That when I can, I will”. The Smashing Pumpkins may have written better songs, but they never wrote a more relatable one.