Songbook, by Chris Cornell

The first time I heard Chris Cornell’s voice was on an Audioslave CD my dad gave me in 2006.

I might have heard “Black Hole Sun” on the radio before that, actually. But when I was a kid, the radio didn’t play songs from specific artists – it was just a magic box that spit out music constantly. I couldn’t absorb very much from it back then, only that I loved everything I heard. So, when I have my true musical awakening – which I discussed in the Minutes to Midnight post – that signaled a shift in how I perceived music, and for the first time I could truly attach myself to individual bands and artists and declare myself a fan. And, as I said in that post, Audioslave was in the top five from the start.

The wacky guitar gimmicks. The consistency and impressive melding of the bass and drums. And that voice – wailing, screeching, threatening to tear itself apart over everything. Chris Cornell was in a bad state during the recording of Audioslave, but even in a bad state, ravaged by drinking, smoking, and whatever the fuck else Chris did in the time between Soundgarden and Audioslave, he was ethereal. Unique. A truly absurd vocal range and a sharp ear for interesting music, no amount of substance abuse could fully suppress Chris’s creativity and natural talent. And he continued to demonstrate his multi-faceted musical talent that first began to emerge at the end of Soundgarden’s first life, moving from psychadelic grunge to adapting Rage Against the Machine’s rap-rock instrumentals – without the rap, of course – to the more alternative, nuanced style of Out of Exile and Revelations, until the tensions between himself and the former components of Rage simply could not continue together.

And then it was back to an on-again, off-again solo career. 1999’s Euphoria Morning was an interesting departure for Chris, with a heavy acoustic lean that still indulged in Chris’s favorite lyrical subjects. Grunge softened, morphed and merged with a more classic kind of hard, adult rock. But his solo career, which Chris was ready and primed for, was put back on the shelf when Audioslave came calling. In 2007, with Carry On, came another kind of shift, the feeling that it was a natural evolution of Chris’s solo style, now incorporating the alternative sound he’d learned from Audioslave. And who could forget the Bond theme, probably one of the best of the modern Bond run. Another big swing at making it as a solo artist, now that two bands were in the books behind him.

I try not to think about Scream most of the time, but what it demonstrated to me was that Chris had no fear, musically. The idea of a grunge god producing an entire album with a hip-hop producer, even one as well known as Timbaland, was laughable. And the album that resulted is, kindly, a mistake. It’s a good lesson in understanding that you probably shouldn’t pursue every idea that comes into your head, particularly when it has as big a chance to fail as Scream did. But by god, he did it anyway. That’s impressive to me. And the songs, when freed of their awful, uncharacteristic production, can work quite well – listen to the “rock version” of “Long Gone,” or the acoustic version of “Ground Zero” from this very album, Songbook, and you’ll hear the strength of the lyrics and song structures. They’re just not electronic pop tracks.

It’s interesting to me that Chris couldn’t stay solo for very long at any point in his career. You’d think that a musician as independent and creative as he was – his solo albums are really strong – would be able to do just fine on his own. But maybe the shadow of Soundgarden stood too tall over him. It never seemed like people ever talked about Chris Cornell as a solo act, only in the context of being a compelling, vital frontman. Maybe he rushed too quickly into Audioslave, rendering Euphoria Morning a curiosity in his discography rather than the starting point it was intended to be. In any case, his second foray into solo work lasted about as long as the first, when Soundgarden came calling for a successful resurrection.

But even with Soundgarden back to pay the bills – or perhaps because Soundgarden was back, and, aside from a revitalized musical output for the four of them, provided steady income – Chris was allured by solo work. He did a set of solo acoustic tours, usually under the “Songbook” header, and the first tour in 2011 is where this live album came from. And I promise I’m going to get to the album. But I’ve got some stuff to say before that.

There’s no good way to shoehorn it in, but Higher Truth is where Chris should have gone directly after Carry On. It’s a quieter album than Carry On, kind of a cross between that album and Euphoria Morning, but it’s just as strong, maybe even stronger, than any solo work he’d done before. It made sense to me that he would pursue it, even with Soundgarden attempting to put together another album – Chris needed the outlet and it was worth it to put Soundgarden on hold while he finished the album.

But now, that Soundgarden album may never be finished. Chris Cornell is gone, reportedly by his own hand. The sun is dimmer today.

I don’t want to talk about any motivation, not this soon, not this early, when the report was just released a few hours ago, as of posting time. It makes me uncomfortable. I spent the entire day asking why, and I have no answers. You could look at his subject matter – Chris was fond of writing about death, dying, passing on. But I would hesitate to call that indicative of his mindset, when it’s been his bread and butter for so long. Celebrities like Chris have a different face in public, and it shouldn’t be used as a barometer of his true feelings, but he seemed so content in recent years. Soundgarden was rolling, a successful reunion that actually produced new, good music. He had the freedom to do whatever he wanted even with Soundgarden being more or less constantly active since their reunion, and he used that freedom liberally, remaining active on his own the entire time. He released a new charity single just two months ago.

When you look at it that way, it’s difficult to understand. I think we will understand, in time. But it’s unimaginably sad to me. I want to know why, now. I want to understand, now.

You look at the big four of the Seattle grunge movement – Soundgarden, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam – and you see that three of the four frontmen are now dead. How lonely Eddie Vedder must feel today.

Temple of the Dog reformed, a one-off tribute band brought back into the public eye, for the 25th anniversary of their only album last year. Temple of the Dog was formed by Chris to memorialize Andrew Wood, frontman of Mother Love Bone, who died of a heroin overdose. Perhaps Vedder, who only contributed a little bit to Temple of the Dog, will memorialize Chris the same way.

I only saw Chris Cornell live one time, probably at the nadir of his musical relevance (and I do mean that kindly, but sincerely), in 2008, on the Projekt Revolution tour, the co-headliner next to Linkin Park. I’ll admit that I barely remember anything about the concert – I was 15, I was there for Linkin Park, the openers were just bonuses – but it sticks with me that that was the only chance I took to see him, now more than ever. I had my other opportunities – in 2012 during the first Songbook tour, and in 2014 when Soundgarden was touring with Nine Inch Nails – and I passed on both of them. “He’ll be around again,” I said, both times. I really wanted to see a Songbook show, but I willingly said “not this time.” And now there won’t be another time.

I’m going to think about that a lot.

As much as I enjoy Chris’s solo albums, and of course his work with Soundgarden and Audioslave, there’s no album of his that I love more than the live Songbook album. It’s the greatest hits retrospective he never did – not commercially, anyway – that strips away everything and puts Chris’s voice at the forefront, his greatest creation. It reveals him as the powerful singer and deft songwriter that he always has been. You look at the track list and it’s hit after hit after hit – “Call Me a Dog,” “Can’t Change Me,” “Fell on Black Days,” “Like a Stone,” and of course “Black Hole Sun.” The deeper cuts – “I Am the Highway,” “Scar on the Sky,” “All Night Thing,” the never-professionally-recorded “Cleaning My Gun.” The two smartly-chosen covers of “Thank You” and “Imagine.” And even the new track, “The Keeper,” to close out the album. Songbook is the retrospective to listen to today, and next week, and whenever you think of Chris Cornell and you just want to hear the man belt out some tunes. I don’t think there’s a bad song on here – even the opener, curious Scream hidden track “As Hope and Promise Fade,” is still a compelling listen here.

Chris gives a bit of insight into a couple of the songs, and his mindset when writing them. “Ground Zero” is preceded by the message that anger and hatred will not fix the horrors of September 11, while Chris explains on “Can’t Change Me” that it was the last song written for the album, which to me seems like a common theme for successful lead singles. You even get a bit of humor – “Imagine” is preceded by Chris noting that it’s a “good Easter song,” playing it the day before Easter that year. Of course, the Christian-friendly line “Nothing to kill or die for / and no religion too.”

There will never be another Chris Cornell. A one of a kind figure, an amazing songwriter with a generational voice. Soundgarden was the first grunge band to break into the mainstream, and though Pearl Jam is the most successful and revered of them – and they, alongside Nirvana, will likely be the only two of the big four enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – Soundgarden’s place in history can never be forgotten. And though Chris’s second and third acts, with Audioslave and with his solo career, will certainly not be as fondly remembered as his work in Soundgarden, when taken as a whole, Chris has had a career stronger and more important than most in rock history, securing him in the upper echelon of rock musicians for all time.

It will take time for us to know the full extent of what happened in that hotel room in Detroit. We may never know or understand why Chris did what he did, what he was feeling that night, and in the time leading up to it. If it was depression – and Chris had talked about suffering from depression in the 1990s – then the disease has claimed another life it never deserved to take. If it was something else, perhaps we will know in time. Perhaps we will have the knowledge to understand Chris in a way that we didn’t understand him in life. Regardless, it is a massive loss, for the music community, for the world, and for the pantheon of heroes I had, as a child and as an adult.

Say hello to heaven, Chris. Blow the doors down.

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Released November 21, 2011

1 hr, 13 min

Vinyl Special – Stomping the Phantom Brake Pedal, by Angels & Airwaves

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Released December 18, 2012

34 min, 58 sec

Angels & Airwaves’s intertwining history with blink-182 had an adverse effect of their albums after I-Empire. With Tom DeLonge now having to juggle his passion project with the band that made him famous enough to even have passion project at all, Angels & Airwaves began to experience delays that knocked its schedule entirely out of whack. LOVE, originally meant to be released on Christmas Day 2009, instead was pushed back to Valentine’s Day, 2010; LOVE Part Two was pushed back well over a year from its late 2010 release date, with the accompanying film (whose production began in 2008) finally being released alongside it in a multi-part package. DeLonge also mentioned the release of the film’s soundtrack, which contained bits and pieces of original music that did not appear on either parts of LOVE, which did not materialize for over a year, and when it did, ended up being a wholly disappointing album for fans.

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Stomping the Phantom Brake Pedal is a two-part EP. The first disc contains the three tracks originally purported to be the missing parts of the LOVE soundtrack; instead, they are three instrumentals that, while interesting, aren’t really connected to the film at all. The second half of the EP contains five remixes of tracks from both LOVE albums. Good remixes, but nothing ground-breaking.

The problem that arose was the restructuring of Angels & Airwaves after the conclusion of the LOVE project. Atom Willard, the band’s drummer since its formation, left the band a month prior to the album’s release; this was known in advance for months prior to his departure, as the album specifically notes his contributions to be separate from the band as a whole. Willard was replaced upon the album’s release by Ilan Rubin, and DeLonge seemed to be engrossed by Rubin’s raw musical talent, to the extent that Stomping the Phantom Brake Pedal is an EP comprised entirely of the duo of DeLonge and Rubin.

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It’s not as if Rubin was some out-of-nowhere, undiscovered talent; he’d made his name drumming for Lostprophets, and came into the forefront as a musician when he was recruited as the drummer for Nine Inch Nails during their 2009 Wave Goodbye tour, before he could even legally drink. A hard-hitting drummer with a significant amount of technical prowess and a jack-of-all-trades knowledge of other instruments, both traditional and electronic, Rubin essentially redefined Angels & Airwaves, and DeLonge refocused the band to practically center around Rubin. This is something that we’ll get into more when The Dream Walker, the first full album since the LOVE project, comes up, but Stomping the Phantom Brake Pedal is notable in its feeling that it was the prototype for something bigger. The instrumentals are a showcase for Rubin’s electronic prowess, featuring very little of either David Kennedy or Matt Wachter; Wachter would later leave the band, though his departure was so that he could focus on his family, as opposed to any concerns about not being utilized as a musician. The remixes, on the other hand, seem like something DeLonge asked Rubin to do to fill out the EP.

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Adding to the problems with Stomping the Phantom Brake Pedal was, of course, blink-182. LOVE Part Two went nearly head-to-head with blink’s Neighborhoods the year prior, and, as blink began working on new music towards the end of 2012, Phantom had the incredibly inconvenient problem of being released on the same day as blink’s Dogs Eating Dogs EP, which obviously outclasses Phantom in every way imaginable, though the comparison isn’t really that fair. DeLonge likely had very little time to work on anything for Angels, but didn’t want the band to fall by the wayside after adding a new member, and Phantom was scraped together as filler.

That’s not even mentioning the fact that the band’s primary engineer, Jeff “Critter” Newell, a treasured friend of DeLonge, died at the very end of 2011. With that weighing on him, DeLonge likely didn’t want to devote much time to Angels & Airwaves, and instead turned to blink for much of 2012, even though the band was already on the path to self-destruction once more by this point.

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Phantom isn’t completely pointless, however. It did help Rubin acclimate himself to the new band, and the addition of Rubin gave DeLonge a new point of focus for future album The Dream Walker, which took Angels in a completely new, exciting direction musically. As a stopgap project, it’s perfectly serviceable, if non-essential, and that’s fine. Not every release from a given band has to be a knockout; there are going to be missteps along the way. And when those missteps lead to an album like The Dream Walker, well, they’re usually pretty forgivable.

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Vinyl Special – Sonic Highways, by Foo Fighters

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Released November 10, 2014

42 min, 3 sec

When a band has been around as long as the Foo Fighters, they reach a point where it’s no longer enough to just write songs and put out albums. In recent years, starting with the recording of Wasting Light, the band has taken on an identity of protectors, so to speak, of classic rock and roll. Wasting Light was recorded entirely on analog tapes, with very little of the album’s production done digitally. The album even shipped with each copy holding a piece of the master tapes used to record the album. Promotion centered around the album’s “old-school” approach to its music, and Dave Grohl started a subtle anti-digital campaign, both through his interviews extolling the virtues of analog recording and his love letter to Sound City Studios with the 2013 documentary Sound City. Grohl was on a mission to ensure the Foo Fighters would be remembered for more than being the kings of radio rock, and that mission continued with Sonic Highways.

Sonic Highways is the band’s eighth studio album, and second with its current five-piece lineup. Rather than record at Grohl’s home, in his garage, as Wasting Light had been, Grohl chose eight iconic American cities, and took the band on tour through them. Eight cities, eight weeks, eight songs. Each song was written and recorded in that city, within the span of the single week they spent there, with no touch-ups until the project was over and in the mixing and mastering stage. Grohl himself did not write and record his lyrics until the very last day when he could, taking inspiration from each city and the people he met, the places he went, the memories he gained. The entire project was documented as part of the HBO series Sonic Highways, serving a dual purpose of making-of documentary and look at the legendary music communities all over America.

The eight songs (recorded in Chicago, IL, Arlington, VA [represented by Washington, D.C.], Nashville, TN, Austin, TX, Joshua Tree, CA [represented by Los Angeles], New Orleans, LA, Seattle, WA, and New York City, NY) each feature a guest from that city (Rick Nielsen, Pete Stahl & Skeeter Thompson, Zac Brown, Gary Clark, Jr., Joe Walsh, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Ben Gibbard, and Tony Visconti & Kristeen Young, respectively). The guest contributions are more apparent in the documentary episodes for each song, as the contributions are either instrumental or as backing vocals – none as prevalent as Bob Mould’s guest vocals on Wasting Light’s “Dear Rosemary,” for instance. As such, it can be hard to tell what each one’s contributions are, with the exception of “In the Clear” and its incredibly prevalent horn riffs all throughout the song, courtesy of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

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It’s a hell of a gimmick and a selling point. The promotion from the HBO series certainly helped, as well. But one thing the Foo Fighters have never been about is overshadowing their own music, and Sonic Highways is, like Wasting Light, a powerful, straightforward rock album that stays true to everything that Dave Gorhl likes to shout from the rooftops about, while demonstrating that straight-ahead, alternative rock is still alive with the Foo Fighters. Their guests’ contributions never stand in the way of the core quintet, and each song is recognizably a Foo Fighters song, guitars all the way, powerful drums, and heartfelt lyrics all throughout that, while not really making it obvious which song was recorded in which city, clearly show that Grohl was influenced by his travels across the country, to bathe in the history of American music.

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The album’s packaging, however, is still pretty gimmicky. Sonic Highways, on vinyl, comes with one of nine different covers that combine to form one large mural. The outer eight covers each focus on a different city; my cover is for “The Feast and the Famine,” recorded in Arlington, very close to Washington, D.C., hence the Washington Monument. The center cover instead features the logo the band uses for the release, that of a large building in the shape of an 8, doubling as an infinity symbol. When ordering from the official Foo Fighters website, one could choose a cover; any other retailer ships them out at random. The full mural is a great work of art, and really conveys the feeling of connectivity that the album was meant to foster.

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A pre-order bonus from the official Foo Fighters store was the “Two-Headed Dog” flexi-disc. Originally written by Roky Erickson, the song was performed by the band in Austin, TX, as they worked on “What Did I Do?/God as My Witness,” in the original Austin City Limits studio, and has yet to be released digitally, making the studio version exclusive to this flexi-disc.

I love these things. This particular one furthers the band’s dedication to keeping the virtues of vinyl and old-school music alive, and it’s just such a silly bonus thing to include. Flexi-discs are ridiculous. This one sounds awful, with a loud, persistent hiss throughout the entire song, but that’s what happens when you press a record on a piece of cardboard. The song itself is nice and clear, at least.

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Sonic Highways is a great album, continuing the Foo Fighters’ late-era upswing, as they settle into their new role as musical historians, albeit in an aggressive, occasionally obnoxious, grandstanding manner. But that’s fine with me – Dave Grohl can say whatever he wants about how music is made today, so long as he continues to put his money where his mouth is with albums like this that show that he really hasn’t lost his touch.

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Artist Special – Child Rebel Soldier

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US Placers released May 27, 2007

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Everyone Nose (All the Girls Standing in the Line for the Bathroom) released June 6, 2008

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Don’t Stop! released October 8, 2010

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I decided to do something a little different here, because Child Rebel Soldier is a group whose history is generally more interesting than their extremely small catalogue, so we’ll be covering them as a whole here, instead of doing overly short write-ups for each of their three tracks.

Supergroups are a common fixture in the music world, as big artists that know and are familiar with each other are bound to work together at some point. The hip-hop genre is no exception to this.

In 2007, Lupe Fiasco was working on a mixtape and produced “Us Placers,” initially intending for Kanye West and Mike Skinner of The Streets to appear on the track alongside him. However, Skinner never responded to Fiasco’s inquiries, while West showed the track to Pharrell Williams and got a verse from him instead. When the track appeared on West’s 2007 mixtape Can’t Tell Me Nothing, the track was credited to the three of them under the name “Child Rebel Soldier,” serving as the group’s first release.

“Us Placers” is a strong hip-hop track, with a fuzzy, repetitive piano beat serving as the backdrop for Fiasco, West, and Pharrell, as well as sampling Thom Yorke’s “The Eraser,” in the chorus, giving the track an interesting dream-like quality as the three artists describe opulent lifestyles and the price of fame, with Pharrell in particular musing about the motivations behind the Virginia Tech Massacre. The song did so well that the three artists began working out a way to put out an album together, with talk of the album coming up sporadically over the next three years.

Child Rebel Soldier resurfaced in 2008, with Fiasco and West appearing alongside Pusha T on a remix of N.E.R.D.’s “Everyone Nose,” credited as Child Rebel Soldier. The remix opens with West, followed up with Pharrell’s usual verse, closing out with Pusha T and then Fiasco, all four of them rapping about snorting cocaine at a club, with the song’s full title in itself a reference to that. The track adds a beat specifically designed for the song to get airplay at clubs, matching it subject matter.

And that’s it. The song did alright, but it’s a remix, and not much was made of the fact that Child Rebel Soldier reunited on the track. It did get its own music video, though, so at least there’s that.

The fabled debut album continued to not exist before and after this track’s release, the only mention of it being when Kanye West alluded to it being a project he was looking at around the time of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy‘s release. The Graduation tour did feature both Pharrell (with N.E.R.D.) and Fiasco as opening acts, but nothing came of this during the tour.

The last act of Child Rebel Soldier came in 2010, as part of West’s “G.O.O.D. Fridays” initiative, where he essentially assembled a hype mixtape by releasing a track every Friday in anticipation of the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Child Rebel Soldier’s track, entitled “Don’t Stop,” is faster-paced and more aggressive than the previous two tracks, with all three members self-aggrandizing throughout their respective verses and not doing much else beyond metaphorically flexing their rap game muscles. Fiasco’s verse in particular is quite impressive, as he’s rapping very quickly without tripping over his words or slowing down even a bit throughout his entire verse.

The track’s release fueled speculation that Child Rebel Soldier had been working on new material and that an album would finally see release. However, West shot down those expectations when he revealed that the song dated back to their only recording session in 2008, and that it was only released because it worked well for the G.O.O.D. Fridays initiative.

The group fell silent once again immediately after this, and no news came to light until 2013, where Fiasco responded to a tweet about the group, announcing that they had dissolved and would not be working together again, dashing hopes of a Child Rebel Soldier album ever coming to fruition. The group disbanded as it came together – spontaneously, without any real hype or reasoning.

I would have liked to see an album come to light. West, Fiasco, and Pharrell are all talented rappers, and they complemented each other well on the three tracks they put out together. But West has transcended Fiasco and Pharrell as a rapper, and Pharrell has moved more towards production than making his own music, while Fiasco’s lyrics and themes no longer mesh with West and Pharrell.

Like many supergroups that come together, Child Rebel Soldier was a victim of its members’ solo careers. Nothing, after all, can withstand the might of West and Fiasco’s combined egos – not even Pharrell and his terrible fashion sense.

Seriously what the fuck is this.

Seriously what the fuck is that.

Vinyl Special – Strange Cacti, by Angel Olsen

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Released April 11, 2011

21 min, 42 sec

I may have spoken about my habit of impulse buying records without having heard them before. Several of the records we’ll be getting to in the coming weeks have been these sort of impulse buys – when I go to the record store (Mojo Books & Records), search the racks, find a name I recognize, and buy it essentially on the spot. Most times, I go home, listen to it, and conclude that I made a good decision in buying that record.

To be honest, these impulse buys have usually been what I’d call “calculated” impulse buys. I bought She & Him’s Volume 3 because I knew the She & Him sound and I knew that it didn’t change from album to album. I bought Amanda Palmer & the Grand Theft Orchestra’s Theatre is Evil because I had actually listened to it once before, but it had been months since that listen. I bought Best Coast’s Fade Away because I think I might have heard, like, one song.

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I bought Angel Olsen’s Strange Cacti on the basis of her fantastic NPR Tiny Desk Concert. Her voice is mesmerizing, with an undefinable quality to it. She can often feel like she’s straight out of 50s radio, with a distinct throwback folk sound. I saw Strange Cacti on the rack, remembered that video, and decided to give it a try.

In retrospect, Strange Cacti is the only impulse buy that I honestly regret.

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That’s because I think I put too much stock in my initial opinion of Angel Olsen when I listened to her Tiny Desk Concert set. This doesn’t mean she’s bad; as I mentioned above, her voice is phenomenal and unique, and the record itself has an incredibly low-fi sound, invoking the 50s imagery (audio imagery?) that I mentioned above. Strange Cacti is a straight folk record, with nothing but Olsen’s voice and her guitar.

And that, I believe, is where I went wrong. As you may have been able to gather from my library so far, folk is not a genre that I delve into all that often. Folk songs tell stories, and they exist, in many cases, solely for that purpose. Because of that, the music itself can often suffer from not being very compelling, which is a category that Strange Cacti falls into for me. As I said, I don’t believe that this is a bad record in the least bit; rather, it’s a record for a very specific audience, an audience that I don’t really believe includes me.

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If you like folk music, then give Olsen’s Tiny Desk Concert a try before you go looking for her albums. I’ll still spin this record for myself from time to time, when I need something to provide an atmosphere to work in, but I don’t think I’ll be buying another Angel Olsen record any time soon. And that’s entirely on me. That’s why the calculated impulse buy exists. Just have to tighten the criteria up a little bit more.

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CD Special – And All That Could Have Been / Still, by Nine Inch Nails

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As I mentioned yesterday, And All That Could Have Been was released as a CD set and a DVD set. The CD set itself, however, was released in two different configurations – the Live CD sold as a standalone unit, which served as the “default” configuration for the audio half, and a Deluxe version that combined the Live CD with an album of new and reinterpreted material titled Still. For people who had not bought the Deluxe 2CD set, Still was made available through mail order for much of the 2000s, and was later added to nin.com’s online store, before selling out in 2013. Currently, it is primarily available through the echoingthesound.org user heavenly_bearded, for $5 + shipping charges per CD. The only other option is secondhand resale, which spikes the price up significantly, and is absolutely not worth it.

Now then.

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The Deluxe packaging is unusual – the CDs are packaged in a standard six-panel digipak with an included booklet, but the digipak itself slides into a cloth-covered, cardboard slipcase, with the album title pressed onto it, and a cardboard tracklist sheet glued to the back. The cloth gives the outer casing a strange feel in the hand, emphasizing the deluxe nature of the packaging.

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The individual albums are packaged less extravagantly, both receiving standard digipak cases. Interestingly, the booklet included with Live has no pocket to sit in – it simply is held in the case by the loose pressure of the case’s folds. Still‘s case is even more minimal, a four-panel digipak with a sleeve for the tiny booklet. Every version of And All That Could Have Been uses a unified color scheme of brown, grey, and greenish-blue, with the different packages emphasizing different primary colors.

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Yesterday, we talked about Live as an album. Today, we’ll be talking about Still. And let me tell you, Still is a god damn work of art.

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A nine-song album consisting of four reinterpreted tracks from the Nine Inch Nails back catalogue mixed in with five original compositions, Still is a huge departure from the loud, aggressive music that came before it. For many of the songs, the primary instrument is a piano, accompanied by a variety of instruments, including a muted acoustic guitar, low-mixed wind instruments, electronic noise, and, of course, Trent’s own voice.

The reinterpretations mostly strip away the aggression of the original songs, instead emphasizing the elements of desperation and sadness common in NIN songs of this era. For “Something I Can Never Have,” the crushing depression the protagonist conveys in his pained vocals are even more evident when not hidden by the strange mechanical noises of the original. “The Fragile” becomes a desperate cry, an attempt for the protagonist to convince himself that he can truly help the woman he loves, as opposed to the original’s loud, brash declarations. “The Day the World Went Away” is given an even longer outro, conveying more than ever the sheer amount of hopelessness that Reznor felt in the wake of his grandmother’s death.

The album’s real selling point, however, are the five original tracks included. Of the five, four are instrumentals, commonly said to be mostly sourced from a rejected soundtrack for the Robin Williams-starring One Hour Photo. All five are quiet, gorgeous compositions, carrying a mostly unified sound that is separate from Reznor’s work on The Fragile three years earlier.

“Adrift and At Peace” adopts some of the melodies from The Fragile‘s “La Mer”; Reznor has noted in interviews that “Adrift and At Peace” is an “emotional conclusion” to the latter song. “Gone, Still” is built on a menacing, repeated piano line that morphs into a new line halfway through the song without losing any of the tension built up to that point.

The closing trilogy of songs, however, is absolutely the high point of Still, and one of the best trio of songs Reznor has ever put together. “And All That Could Have Been” is a masterpiece, easily one of the greatest songs to come out of the era of The Fragile. In many ways, it represents the opposite sentiment of songs like “The Fragile” and “We’re in This Together”; where those two featured a protagonist determined to stay with his love as long as he possibly could, the protagonist for “And All That Could Have Been” knows that he cannot stay, that it is not safe or healthy for either of them, and implores his love to run as far away as she can. Reznor’s voice grows in strength and volume as the song goes on, his pain and sadness reaching its peak as the music swells to meet him. And, just like that, the song is over, giving way to the quiet drone of a piano in “The Persistence of Loss.”

“The Persistence of Loss” sits between two tracks that tend to outshine it, mainly because the song’s own instrumentation is incredibly subtle and quiet. Based around a set of low drones from a piano and what sounds like a cello, the song builds its layers as it goes, adding the plinking of higher piano notes, eventually throwing in a collection of sad, soft wind instruments that provide a counter-melody to the piano. Following the story that “And All That Could Have Been” begins, this song really does its best to drive home the previous song’s conclusion. “The Persistence of Loss” is the sound of solitude.

The album, and the era of The Fragile as a whole, closes with “Leaving Hope.” Opening with a quick piano line in the higher register, another, slower line takes over, as the crackling of electronic noises swell and fade in the background. This line becomes the song’s primary melody, as the backing music shifts with the electronic drone fading in and out. The melody shifts as it goes along, conveying the sound of acceptance of one’s fate, bringing to a close the protagonist’s struggle throughout the final third of Still. Despite the song’s title, it leaves one with just the slightest glimmer of hope as the album concludes, with the song’s primary melody returning to the forefront as the song’s electronic noise swishes along in the background, providing waves and waves of sound under the slow, plucky piano line. Still ends with over a minute of electronic droning, fading away until nothing is left but silence.

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Still is an album that doesn’t receive much attention outside of the more dedicated, fanatical NIN fanbase. The difficulty of actually obtaining the album combined with a lack of promotion and relegation to being a pack of bonus material made Still a hidden gem in the Nine Inch Nails catalogue, as essential to the Nine Inch Nails canon as any other studio album.

If only it came out on vinyl. Get to it, Trent.

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Tomorrow: And All That Could Have Been, the double-DVD.