Soundgarden goes underappreciated

Posted by Eric Shapiro

Soundgarden is more than a footnote in rock history and the handful of widely known Soundgarden songs hardly constitute an accurate representation of the band's sound.

These days, Soundgarden is best known for the hit singles off its 1994 release "Superunknown." "Blackhole Sun," perhaps the band's most famous song, was brought to the attention of post-Generation Xers by Rock Band. "Fell on Black Days," "Outshined" and "Jesus Christ Pose" have also achieved varying degrees of popularity and remain mainstays of rock radio.Front man Chris Cornell went on to form Audioslave with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and even co-wrote the theme song to the 2006 James Bond film "Casino Royale."

However, next to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Soundgarden is considerably less well known. Ironic, considering it was supposed to be the band that catapulted grunge into the mainstream.

Greatest hits album "Telpehantasm" provides some much-needed context. The first two tracks "Hunted Down" and "Hands All Over," taken from debut EP "Screaming Life" and LP "Louder Than Love" respectively, showcase Soundgarden's earlier sound, essentially a heavier, dirtier, Melvinized version of the cock rock that saturated the radio decades before.

On the former track in particular, Cornell is a dead ringer for Robert Plant. Soundgarden and its peers in the Pacific Northwest underground music scene shunned the sexism and over-the-top excesses of classic rock.

However, if you strip away the fuzz from the band's guitars, the band isn't all that different from a musical standpoint, especially early on. "Outshined" and "Rusty Cage," both from "Badmotorfinger," constitute a major leap forward, incorporating a wider range of influences from funk to psychedelia and concentrating more on hooks. Johnny Cash even brought out the unlikely country song buried in "Rusty Cage."

Then there are the requisite tracks off Soundgarden's most commercially successful (and perhaps best) LP, "Superunknown." Lesser-known tracks "My Wave" and "Spoonman" hold up just as well as the aforementioned ballads "Black Hole Sun" and "Fell on Black Days." Hell, the same can be said for nearly every song on "Superunknown."

Still, it is the latter two classics that elevate Soundgarden beyond the reductive label of grunge and into the ranks of truly exceptional rock musicians.

With the exception of Nirvana, none of the bands that comprised the early 90s alternative rock "movement" tackled depression and hopelessness better. That's more than a minor accomplishment in a mainstream rock environment that until recently, even at its most starkly emotional, proved reluctant to delve into the darker side of human nature.

In the shadow of its masterpiece, follow-up LP "Down on the Upside" is easy to dismiss as a lackluster swan song. Nevertheless, songs like "Burden in my Hand," "Pretty Noose" and "Ty Cobb" are hardly indicative of complacency. The deft combination of acoustic and electric guitars weathered by a rougher production than on "Superunknown," achieve a distinctive and memorable character.

Soundgarden will probably always be the least known of the big four grunge bands despite its greater role in pioneering the grunge sound and opening the door for its underground contemporaries to cross over into the mainstream."Telephantasm" serves as a worthy summation of the band's legacy and a reminder that the sub-genre didn't start and end with Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

Eric is a junior who loves rock music in all forms. You may see him around campus in a band T-shirt listening to his iPod and looking unapprochable, but rest assured he is quite friendly and will usually only attack when provoked.

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