Graded on a Curve: Soundgarden,
Louder Than Love

Sure, the best and most badass song on Soundgarden’s 1989 LP Louder Than Love (“Hands All Over”) sounds like it was borrowed from The Cult who in turn borrowed it from Led Zeppelin, but who hasn’t fallen in love with a copy of a copy at least once in their life? When these Seattle longhairs appeared on the scene I was convinced they had to signify SOMETHING besides what goes around comes around again, and they do—none of their grunge compatriots did half as good a job at melding Led Zep with pure battering ram noise to create a din that sacrifices such niceties as melody and catchy riffs in favor of sheer sonic bluster.

When push comes to shove Louder Than Love is more than happy to push and shove your ears around, and if it’s a good old-fashioned eardrum pummeling you’re looking for you could certainly do worse. Q magazine named it one of the 50 Heaviest Albums of All Time for good reason. Barbaric riffs of the Jimmy Page variety abound, which is great, but Jimmy Page hooks don’t, which isn’t a good thing at all. Most of these songs just don’t stick with you the way Led Zeppelin songs do, with the remarkable “Hands All Over”—which is perhaps the best Zeppelin rip ever—being the exception. Okay, so the riff that propels “Uncovered” is sticking with me, but that’s because it might as well be a Led Zeppelin riff—put it under the microscope and you’re bound to discover Jimmy Page’s DNA.

Soundgarden’s classic rock influences extend beyond Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and Company. “Gun” is Black Sabbath heavy, while “Power Trip” reminds me—if nobody else—of the molten psychedelic sludge that Robin Trower was dishing out in the mid-seventies. As for “Loud Love” it sounds like a band whose name is on the tip of my tongue—Mississippi? Lesbian Boy? The Bee Gees? What is obvious from listening to Louder Than Love is that Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron, and Hiro Yamamoto spent their formative years sitting around smoking pot and listening to songs that should have been on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack.

There is no doubt whatsoever that Soundgarden is one talented band. Just check out the mighty plaid tonsils on Chris Cornell! Man can he scream! And boy can Kim Thayil do things with his guitar! Turn on almost any song and you will find yourself crying, “Man, that is some HEAVY SHIT, man!” As for Cameron and Yamamoto, they sure know how to dig a groove deep enough to drive an 18-wheeler through. And it all comes together on “Big Dumb Sex,” a really dumb song that is intentionally dumb but not particularly clever, and if it isn’t clever I don’t care how intentionally dumb it is. “Hey I know what I’m gonna do/I’m gonna/Fuck!/Fuck!/Fuck!/You!” is the sort of thing Def Leppard wrote all their songs about, but at least they had the common decency to be euphemistic about it. And they didn’t sound pissed about it either.

I like the closing track “Full On” at least in part because it doesn’t sound like anything else on the album—it’s a groovy sing-along over which Thayil plays some whacked-out guitar, and kinda reminds me of Grand Funk Railroad. “Full On Kevin’s Mom” boasts some cool panting, a galloping beat, and lots of screaming, and I like it just fine, even if too wears its influences (Zep again) on its sleeve. “Get On the Snake” also gallops but it’s a bigger horse, and I wouldn’t be caught dead betting money on it, at least in part because it boasts some really dumb lyrics, and these aren’t intentional.

I like noise, and I have a soft spot for its purveyors, but I never really fell in love with Soundgarden for the simple reason—and I recognize this is a quirk of mine—that they seemed to take themselves very seriously. The American noise bands of the time I did love—I’m talking about Cows, Killdozer, and the like—were funny, or in the case of Cows scary funny, which was even better. Wait, let me correct that—they weren’t just funny they were smart, and they made noise with smarts. Soundgarden—and I don’t mean this as a sign of disrespect, especially for the late, great Chris Cornell—simply never interested or amused me. I like a noise band with an agenda, and big dumb sex ain’t much of an agenda.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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