Soul Asylum

In the '80s, Soul Asylum bore the burden of being the third best band in Minneapolis (fourth, if you count one-man wunderkind Prince as a "band"); Paul Westerberg offhandedly referred to them as "B-teamers," and he pretty much hit the mark -- while Husker Du and the Replacements were battling for the crown of Greatest Band in the World, Soul Asylum were merely an above-average Midwestern power-pop band with a good live rep. Dave Pirner showed considerable talent as a songwriter, and the band certainly were tight and rocking, but on record they were inconsistent and rarely attained the heights of their betters. While the Huskers and 'Mats scored home runs, Soul Asylum were stuck in right field, always overshadowed. No one expected them to bust out of the minor leagues, but with 1992's Grave Dancer's Union Soul Asylum did just that, selling out just the teensiest bit with glossier production, and went platinum. Ironically, the perennial bronze medalists became more of a household name than any of their peers, and Dave Pirner was the one who began dating Winona Ryder (quite the odd turn considering Ms. Ryder's well-publicized Paul Westerberg obsession). It was if the Beatles and Stones never made it out off the ferry and the Small Faces were the ones to wow Ed Sullivan. Like their rivals, Soul Asylum were basically a classic rock band who happened to come of age during the punk explosion, and akin to the 'Mats career trajectory, they evolved from Loud Hard Fast Rules (their first band name) hardcore punkers to low-key, mainstream heartland rockers, more likely to call to mind Tom Petty than Johnny Thunders.

Say What You Will (1984)

The band's debut, produced by Bob Mould.

Made To Be Broken (1986) ***1/2

Again produced by Bob Mould (which didn't help the "Husker Jr." tag some slagged on the band at the time), all of the classic elements of the Soul Asylum sound are clearly in place; future albums merely refine the approach, as Soul Asylum are hardly the most innovative of bands. The album mainly consists of a barrage of pop-punkers that part company from standard pop-punk by containing an undeniably Midwestern (as opposed to British or So-Cali) feel. For a change of pace, in the middle of the record Pirner tosses off an Appalachian ballad, "Never Really Been," that has amusing throwaway lines deflating universal distress by admitting that he's just bummed about his last pinball game. Well, Soul Asylum certainly fit the generic Gen-X slacker mold more than the Huskers or 'Mats, and they rely more heavily upon choppy guitar riffage -- and they're just as song-oriented as well, which is a definite plus (even if Pirner is definitely no Mould, Hart, or Westerberg). Lead guitarist Dan Murphy is no Bob Stinson or Mould, either, but he's much more than competent, and gets off some exciting rhythms and leads throughout. Okay, I'll try to not mention the Twin Cities' other major bands again, but you know it's hard to shake the comparisons. Mould's production is too thin, particularly the weak drum sound -- a band like Soul Asylum need a big, dense sound to hammer you with the riffs, not bargain-basement standard indie-rock values. Luckily the hooks (which are stronger than the melodies) are there, and as I said, the band certainly are tight.

While You Were Out (1986)
Time's Incinerator (1988)

The perhaps presumptously released (at this early juncture in the band's career) outtakes collection.

Clam Dip and Other Delights EP

Of note is the cover, which amusingly parodies the famous Herb Alpert album the title puns upon.

Hang Time (1988) ****

By now promoted to a major label with major label production courtesy Ed Stasium, Soul Asylum finally made the one near-great album they had in them and will almost certainly never come close to again -- it's by far their best, and the only one I consistently play with pleasure. For once Soul Asylum deliver a consistent set, focusing on heavy, explosive riff-rock that digs closer into their '70s hard rock roots rather the post-Buzzcocks blur of their earlier days. "Little Too Clean," merges funk and metal (wait, don't run -- this time it's actually good), while "Sometime To Return," is straight-up punky power-pop. The drug-dealer put-down "Beggars and Choosers," makes for the most exciting hard rock anthem on the record, of which there are plenty ("Jack of All Trades," "Ode"). Tuneful tidbits such as the ballad "Endless Farewell," and "Marionette" point the way towards the mainstream direction the band would take in the near future. As with any Soul Asylum album, there are bits of dross -- the opener "Down On Up To Me," merges funk and metal with the results that lame genre usually crunches out, and I've never cared for Dan Murphy's songwriting turn, "Cartoon". Soul Asylum's sole essential album; go here first if you're interested.

And The Horse They Rode In On (1990) **1/2

The band lurches away from their punk roots towards the mainstream considerably here on what can now be seen as a transitional album; I call it transitional because the band sound clumsy and erratic, having not yet mastered the styles they tackle. It's Soul Asylum's most experimental album, and like a great many experimental albums by minor bands, it fails when they don't stick to their tried-and-true formulas. The band goes for bizarrely arranged funky hard rockers, and predictably doesn't rock out too good with the tuneless results; most of side one falters for this reason, redeemed at the end with Murphy's folkish ballad, "Gullible's Travels," easily the best song he's ever written (which isn't saying that much, but "Gullible's Travels," is a very fine effort from the band's John Entwistle figure). The second half is considerably better, as the band feels more comfortable with the folkish mid-tempo tunes such as "Grounded" (though the curiously flat piano ballad, "We 3," is probably the album's weakest song). There's one excitingly tuneful power-pop number, "Easy Street," that updates Cheap Trick's anti-suicide "Oh Candy". Again the production is faulty, with an odd tinny sound that once again does more harm to hapless Grant Young's drumming than the talented chap deserves. The album ends with a strangely oblique political number, "All The King's Friends," that on the surface seems to promote monarchy over democracy. This album sold so poorly that Soul Asylum's contract with A & M was not renewed; fortunately for them, they found a happy home at Columbia...

Grave Dancers Union (1992) ***

Cries of "sell out" accompanied this release simply because it did, indeed, sell out a lot of copies -- but truthfully, aside from slightly glossier production, Soul Asylum's essential formula remains unchanged: a handful of catchy riff-rockers and a handful of sensitive, folkish ballads. The first three tracks are easily the best on the album, and not so coincidentally became in succeeding order the releases as singles: "Somebody to Shove," a loud, catchy rocker got them the attention; technically "Black Gold," is the most well-constructed of the trio, but it packs the least punch emotionally; a charge that can't be directed at the shamelessly sad and feeling sorry for myself, "Runaway Train," which makes me sappily weep in the parking lot with the rest of the burnouts -- and the video was a commendable gesture, showing pictures of missing children that some folks idly clicking on national TV might see (bravo, boys). From there the album, like most Soul Asylum releases, grows inconsistent; far too many of these tracks register only as so much interchangeable candyfloss. The final gem comes near the end, a dirty-sounding (dirty as in the dirt tones of the guitars, not as in smut) hard rocker entitled "99%" that sounds like Sonic Youth trying to rock out and actually doing so for a change (let the cat out of the bag -- SY are an art band pretending to play rock'n'roll; sometimes they succeed, most of the time they don't). Too bad they have to follow that up and end the album on such a bland note, the completely unmemorable "Sun Maid," (which they rhyme with "never gets laid"). But whoever accused this band of being consistent?

Let Your Dim Light Shine (1995)

The less successful followup to the platinum breakthrough; the single "Misery," finds Pirner at his alt.slacker nadir.

Candy From a Stranger (1998)

By the late '90s, the fickle public passed the band's Gen X power-pop by, and this sank like a stone on the charts.

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