In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking some of our favorite songs from 1996.
Stone Temple Pilots got a little overdue critical reevaluation at the end of last year, when singer Scott Weiland’s death pushed people to actually dig up those old copies of Purple and Tiny Music… in an effort to say something about the band’s contribution to popular culture and alternative music in the ’90s, as well as its lasting influence. The A.V. Club has been in the pro-STP camp for a while, having argued the band was actually one of the better mainstream acts of the grunge era, with the catchiest combination of grunge, glam, and pop hooks. That’s true, but the group’s fluid musical evolution actually made nailing down the sound a little hard to do, depending on which year of its existence you were focused upon.
The year it all came together was 1996, when Tiny Music… Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop was released. The album was an almost shocking leap forward in creative ambition. Whereas sophomore record Purple was all about perfecting the chunky guitars and minor-key riffing that characterized the majority of the early-’90s mainstream rock sound, Tiny Music… represented a conscious effort to incorporate the wide-ranging and multifarious influences each member brought to the endeavor. While guitarist Dean DeLeo and bassist Robert DeLeo displayed respective affinities for ’60s pop and Latin rhythms, Scott Weiland’s vocals became definitively opposed to the grunge growl he had displayed on debut Core and large sections of Purple. In its place was a glam-rock yelp aided by his rumbly baritone, that sweetened the melodies and contributed a distinctly sandpaper-with-velvet tone to the songs. This hit its peak in the album’s first single, “Big Bang Baby.”
To begin with, the music feels like it’s been lost in time. The T. Rex-like beat and melody sound like the verse to some lost 45 from 1978, and almost nothing like the music that dominated the airwaves at the time. Add to that the above video, which plays like some long-forgotten drug-trip take-off of late Beatles flower-child simplicity. Best of all, there’s a sense of goofy enthusiasm suffusing the track, like the band can’t believe they’ve stumbled onto such a perfect riff, and just want to revel in it for a few minutes.
Keep in mind, at this point Stone Temple Pilots were literally one of the biggest rock acts on the planet. It wasn’t unusual to hear them mentioned in the same breath with Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden. But they were always the dorky odd man out to the holier-than-thou attitude suffusing so much rock music of the era. Which makes their musical gear shift all the more impressive. Nobody was listening to Down On The Upside and thinking, “God, Soundgarden really messed with their sound.” But that was the exact response to Tiny Music… Hopefully, the passage of time will further burnish the group’s bona fides. Lord knows they deserve it, the lovable weirdos.