Saturday, August 19, 2006

125. Soul Asylum: Silver Lining (2006)

My dad was a pop music obsessive in the '80s and has stacks of Rolling Stone, Spin and Musician magazines to prove it. Every so often he passes on a few of these old chestnuts to me. I always get a kick out of looking at the reviews of "new" albums, at who was a big deal at the time, who was up and coming and who never came. Recently, I found an especially interesting issue of Musician, dated May 1987 and featuring a triumphant U2 on the cover. In the Faces section, which highlighted new musicians, we find profiles of not only Minneapolis pre-Semisonic group Trip Shakespeare, but also of a young new band called Soul Asylum.

The brief article finds the band already on their second full album, While You Were Out, facing comparisons to The Replacements and Husker Du and lead singer Dave Pirner declaring that he has no interest in stardom. The writer makes it clear that Pirner expects their career to burn out any second. In fact, he claims he will not be quitting his job mowing lawns.

Here we are in the present tense and not only does the band still exist, they've had two major labels, a #5 chart hit and the obligitory Winona Ryder involvement. There's also The Silver Lining, a top-notch new album that by all rights probably shouldn't exist. It's been 22 years since their first EP, 9 since their last album and bassist Karl Mueller died of throat cancer in 2005.

And while that latter occurrence might have effectively ended the already dormant band, it actually seems that the new album wouldn't have happened without Mueller. He wanted to have one more go around, and he plays on 5 of the 12 songs. And the band has moved on in his memory. Having picked up Replacement bassist Tommy Stinson and former Prince drummer Michael Bland, as well as producer John "Strawberry" Fields, the band has become somewhat of a Twin Cities supergroup. It's an unlikely resurgence.

But it's also a welcome one. They sound great. Soul Asylum were always hard to categorize. Were they post-punk, grunge or alt-country? On The Silver Lining they are none and all of the above. The trio of songs that open the album all share a similar country rock sensibility. The raggedly-sung Stand Up And Be Strong is an anthem whose message is hard to divorce from the band's tribulations. Lately is an upbeat John Mellencampish study of a soldier and his family's thoughts in the midst of war. Crazy Mixed Up World features the priceless chorus, "It's a crazy mixed up world out there / someone's always got a gun and it's all about money / you live with loneliness or you live with somebody / who's crazy / It's a crazy mixed up world." It sounds depressing, but in practice the song is comfortingly accepting of life's ups and downs.

The album also offers some prime pop rock. All Is Well is one of two songs that finally justify those 19-year-old Replacements comparisons. It shows a sense of humor you don't expect from Soul Asylum: "All is well here in hell / I wish you were here." Bus Named Desire is another one that could have appeared on Pleased To Meet Me. It's the timeless tale of someone who has wised up to a less-than-ideal romance: "I've paid my dues underneath your tires."

After the upbeat barrage of the first five songs, things slow down a bit. Watcha Need, Standing Water and Success Is Not So Sweet are ballady, but still feature strong memorable choruses. Success features the mildly disturbing line "You want a baby/I know you do/Well, I'll be your baby/And I'll take care of you." Somehow I don't think that's going to appease the woman it's directed toward.

The highlight of the album's latter third is Oxygen, which features hushed, haunting verses and a chorus that gets more powerful as the song goes on. It's easily the equal of anything else they've done.

The worst offense committed by The Silver Lining is the presence of a bonus track after the punky Slowly Rising. We only have to wait about 30 seconds for an acoustic ditty about the hypocrisy of Christianity and politics, featuring a chorus that states "heroes will never let you down / just as long as they're dead." It's a worthwhile, if cynical, tune, but should have had its own track number.

This isn't an album that'll save the world or even take it by storm, but the survival, endurance and unpredictable nature of life that it represents definitely makes me smile.

Grade: B+
Fave Song: Bus Named Desire
Fave Line: "I think I'd be good for you / like orange juice / or a walk around the lake" (from Good For You)