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The Essential Alice In Chains

By Jeff Kerby, Contributor
Thursday, September 14, 2006 @ 5:31 AM

When everyone goes home, you’r

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Never have truer words been spoken. It’s during those dark, small hours when the demons come out, that no one can save you but yourself…and sometimes, you just come up short. When Layne Staley finally succumbed to his addictions for the last time and passed on in his despair-filled condominium, possibly the most talented vocalist/lyricist to come out of the early nineties Seattle scene left us forever. No glamorous death here---just drugs, depression, dysfunction and a legacy of music that somehow manages to shine resplendent amongst the type of shadowy sadness that can only come through intense suffering. Listening to this collection makes one suspect that although these songs initially gave us so much, the promise seemed destined for so much more. Despite this realization, experiencing The Essential Alice In Chains brings all of the group’s bittersweet resonance home again, resulting in an experience that is truly as emotional and powerful as it was fifteen years ago.

The fact is that most of what has come to be considered “grunge” over the years has aged about as well as parachute pants. Although millions listened to Nirvana with a manic fervor back in the day, I suspect there aren’t too many people tossing “Come As You Are” into the stereo during the regular Friday night drunk fest at the neighbor’s house. Of course, there are a million reasons for this not the least of which includes over exposure, and Nirvana wasn‘t the only victim of this malady by any means. Think about it--who the fuck wants to hear “Plush” or “Interstate Love Song” by STP again? Or anything by Bush? Besides that, grunge rock just wasn’t party music to begin with and for the most part the sound of the majority of these groups has become horribly dated and unfavorably tied to a specific era. For whatever reason, the one exception to this rule that I had sort of allowed myself to push to the side or forget about was Alice In Chains. Granted, Layne and company weren’t exactly grunge, and instead of nodding primarily to indie label punk, the band instead owed more of a debt to metal than nearly anyone else labeled as part of that genre with the possible exception of Soundgarden. Since industry labels and the buzz of the press tends to overshadow the content of the music at times, AIC is bound to be forever lumped with the other bands of that time even though their songs were vastly different and oddly more compelling than that of their peers.

The first disc of The Essential Alice In Chains kicks off with “We Die Young”, and when I heard it for the first time in years, I was immediately struck with the idea that I can’t remember when something I heard sounded this good. Not to be gayer than Matthew MacConaughey frolicking shirtless with Lance Armstrong in a field of clover or anything, but…well, it was like it was new all over again. Every time I hear “Man In The Box”, which is the follow up here, I can’t help but think about the video and remember back to the day where anyone with even one good eye could see that Alice In Chains was about to blow up in a huge way and do something amazing during their prime. Which, of course, they went on to do. Another tune the band did so impressively here was “Sea of Sorrow”---a rolling, thundering track representing all that rock should be. When Layne sings “you opened fire, and your mark was true” the result is one of the coolest emotive vocals of the period. The entire disc is comprised of sixteen tracks. Many of the most obvious are all included here-- “Them Bones”, “The Rooster”, “Dam That River” and “Rain When I Die”. This would have almost made a respectable compilation by itself, but here the first disc merely represents just over half the total offering.

By the time a listener gets into the first few songs of the second disc, it becomes evident just how much good material this band came out with….I mean, even many established, respected bands only warrant one disc when it comes time to release a Best Of collection. That’s true regardless of the genre. Think about it, who is crying for a two-disc retrospective from Poison? No one. Nope, nobody--in fact, can ya please take “Unskinny Bop” off the disc? I’d rather have some empty space left in the collection to contemplate my sins than hear that shit again. Uh, yeah and while you’re at it, a couple of the other songs suck too, so you may want to nix those as well---maybe you can cover “We‘re An American Band“ or “The Stroke.” Thankfully, a lack of quality material isn’t a problem here though as “No Excuses” and “I Stay Away” begin the second portion of the festivities with acoustic versions of “Over Now” and “Nutshell” sandwiched between other Alice In Chains classics before finally concluding with band masterpiece “Would?” By the time the second disc concludes, it really does seem as if the heart and soul of a band whose time was simply too short has passed hauntingly through your speakers.

Even though it’s true that there have been two previous AIC retrospectives, this one is the most complete for the money with the only glaring song omission being “Down In a Hole.” Otherwise, there just isn’t much to complain about here. Yes, there will always be some who wish that there was more of a representation from Jar of Flies or their Live album, but overall, this is a more than respectable encapsulation of what this band was about---rock with stellar musicianship that was so charged with emotion that it simply demanded an audience. What Layne Staley, Jerry Cantrell, Mike Starr and Sean Kinney accomplished is still as amazing ten to twenty years after the fact as it was the day it was recorded. Although Kurt Cobain will always go down in history because of his cultural significance, Layne Staley and Alice In Chains should be recognized because of their musical significance—that’s an important distinction to make. This collection certainly serves to help emphasize that point.

R.I.P. Layne


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