Crate-Digging Archive: Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger/SOMMS

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

Previously published in summer 2009. Presented here with some revision.

(A&M, 1991)

In 1991, did you like grunge? Yeah, I figured. We all did – well, most of us. It’s a funny period to look back on, especially once the Seattle scene and look hit the mainstream media consciousness. Like how the homeless lumberjack look was acceptable attire. (I bit, I’ll admit it.) It’s weird, too, what it turned into – it’s hard for me to objectively look back at a lot of records that came out between 1989 and 1993, because you’ve got the STPs, the Stainds, the Creeds, and all the Other Craploafs that clogged the major label drain in the ensuing years, slowly dispensing their dripping brown aural sludge into our radios and video television stations. You know, that clump of long hair you pull up with your drain snake is probably Scott Stapp’s or Dean DeLeo’s – yeah, those guys loved cramming the grunge sound to overflow capacity.

I’ll stop being gross now. And here’s the kicker about Badmotorfinger, released in 1991, the same year that contemporaries Nirvana (Nevermind, actually their worst album, IMHO) and Pearl Jam (Ten, although the aforementioned ’90s acts positively killed any buzz for me) dropped their groundbreaking albums: I’m actually pretty surprised by how well it’s aged. I think it kind of gets lost in the shuffle a little bit, the third wheel on the charts. And the formula’s kind of lacking a little – you know, the “Black Sabbath + Black Flag = Grunge” blueprint? Well, Soundgarden kind of skimps on the punk part – they love riffing and screaming. Kim Thayil’s a bludgeoning and inventive guitarist, and this record came out before Chris Cornell cut his hair, so you know he means it.

This is Soundgarden’s second major label release, after Louder than Love, also on A&M, and their debut, Ultramega OK, on California-based (and Black Flag-ship – hi-o!) SST Records – but they don’t give an inch to the suits. Everybody knows the brilliant opening blitzkrieg “Rusty Cage” and “Outshined” – fast, powerful, vicious, and the first two singles off the album – played on actual MTV! They’re great tunes, but I can’t help but noticing that Cornell’s not the most astute lyricist – in fact, the entire album is pretty much his shout to the heavens (or somewhere more south) that he just doesn’t feel so good. Something’s not quite right. In fact, lookee here:

[Ed note: This video should be embedded, but we’re experiencing technical difficulties.]

Note the sand and fire, both very uncomfortable things. (Also note Cornell’s black armbands, black shorts, and general shirtlessness. Just ’cause.) He’s “looking California, but feeling Minnesota.” That sums up Badmotorfinger.

But when you look past that, and the other stupid things (like the child’s toy “sample” beginning “Room a Thousand Years Wide” and the “live to live and I die to die” ranting of the Ben Shepherd-penned “Somewhere”), you can really enjoy the utter guitar extravaganza that this album truly is. Like the postapocalyptic air-raid sirens and plodding dread of “Slaves and Bulldozers” or the demonic battle trumpet of “Jesus Christ Pose” – the one at the end of the world where the remainder of humanity is being attacked by flying demon spawn that look like the angel of death in Hellboy II. (I just watched that over the weekend, so it’s fresh in my mind. I love that movie.) I was surprised by how much I loved the panic this song induced. “Mind Riot” and Drawing Flies” are strong late-album cuts that make it imperative that you get to the end of Badmotorfinger.

And, bonus points, I scored the limited SOMMS version! I don’t think it’s quite so hard to find any more. The extra EP, which stands, hilariously, for Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas (wouldn’t Megadeth dig that one!) isn’t essential listening by any means. If I didn’t look at the record and actually read that “Into the Void (Sealth)” was on a Soundgarden release, I would’ve sworn this was a lost Sabbath cut. Cornell channels Ozzy uncannily, and Iommi-isms abound. They also cover Devo’s “Girl U Want,” a weird and benign choice, and the Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues,” which works out pretty well. Rounding it out is another original and a slow, boring, live version of “Slaves and Bulldozers.” And there you go.

So enjoy the last remnant of Soundgarden’s pre-Superunknown, Big Pop Moment output. I think I can easily call this my favorite record of theirs. And even though Chris Cornell’s kind of a tool these days, he’s still OK in my book simply by merit of releasing Badmotorfinger.

RIYL: Black Sabbath, Monster Magnet, Tad

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