Friday, October 31, 2014

Song of the Day: Stone Temple Pilots - Interstate Love Song (1994)

Generally speaking, when kids first start really listening to current music around the middle school years, they don't initially understand qualitative differences. They know if they like something, and they know how popular that something is, but objective judgments of artistry don't come into the picture until much later (or never, for some people). As a middle schooler in the mid-'90s, my friends and I loved current alternative music, and we had a basic understanding of the hierarchy, but that understanding was really only based on duration. There were the bands that we'd only heard one album from, and then there were the bands that had released two or three. Anyone in the latter group was, obviously, awesome. If MTV was playing your second or third album just as much as your first, and the songs sounded just as cool, what else was there to know?

To anyone that was five or more years older and seriously listening to music, it was obvious that Stone Temple Pilots initially existed as a shameless Pearl Jam rip-off. Their big hits off of their first album, 1992's Core, were all just re-writes of "Even Flow." But to middle-schoolers, that didn't enter into the logic lexicon. 

STP's second album, Purple, was one of the first three CDs I ever bought, and I loved it immediately. The first few songs sounded edgy, "Big Empty" was on the soundtrack for The Crow, which was THE cool action movie of the time among my friends and I, and we even loved the hidden lounge-style track at the end. In retrospect, that hidden song was probably one of our first real encounters with irony. And then there was the huge hit, "Interstate Love Song," which was probably the most ubiquitous song on MTV in 1994 (Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" would be the other major contender). It was absolutely inescapable, and we couldn't get enough. 

It's amazing with hindsight to realize how much we didn't know in 1994, and how bad we were at recognizing quality. Sure, we all owned the great albums by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the Smashing Pumpkins, but we also all owned the popular-at-the-time albums by The Toadies, Seven Mary Three (definitely the most egregious of all the Pearl Jam rip-offs), FilterGravity Kills, Sponge, Candlebox, and so many other bands that have been very justifiably forgotten. All we had to go by is what MTV played and whether or not it sounded cool. The fact that it might have sounded EXACTLY like something else never entered the equation. Context is generally not a strong point of the seventh-grade mind. 

As an adult, I think Stone Temple Pilots are one of the most interesting bands of the era to analyze. They no longer fit into my easy 12-year old logic of "sounds cool = absolute greatness", but I'm also smart enough now to realize they didn't remain the Pearl Jam clone that they clearly started as. In hindsight, few bands have ever done a better job of redefining themselves with a second album as STP did in 1994. Though critics didn't recognize it at the time--and to be fair, it's difficult to mentally reframe a band that began so poorly--STP really crafted a follow-up album that acknowledged the criticism initially levied against them. While Scott Weiland couldn't totally alter the timbre of his singing voice, his Vedder-ish inflections are mostly gone now, as are the grunge-by-numbers riffs that drew so much ire the year before. More than anything, Purple just sounds like '90s classic rock, and I mean that as a compliment. 

"Interstate Love Song" remains one of the best songs of the era, a song that absolutely defies anyone to get sick of it. It's acoustic and melancholy intro, punctuated by a bit of twang, set the tone, and the chorus melody soars over the mainstream rock guitar. And that's really why STP wouldn't die despite the concerted attempts the critical community of the time made to kill them: their best songs had really, really good melodies, and after the years distance you from all the unoriginal sounds that got caked over the top, the melodies still sound great. STP's best songs initially made their commercial impact not solely because of who else they sounded like, but also because of how infectious they were, and two decades later, that's the part that still stands out. 

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