Perfect Sound Forever

STONE TEMPLE PILOTS


Is Core A Dud or Classic?
by Jeff Thiessen


By the time Stone Temple Pilot’s debut Core rolled around towards the end of 1992, America was in a cultural climate not too dissimilar from where the country is now — although, probably not quite as openly toxic. Still, tensions long bubbling beneath the surface erupted with the Rodney King verdict, and Nevermind was a musical sea change in the rock 'n' roll community, which didn't come without a price.

Instead of operating under the assumption that perhaps Cobain and Co. did open a door to acts like Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, etc. — a door that had sort of already been nudged ajar when Mudhoney laid waste to the Sunset Strip's last remaining survivors — the mob mentality was reduced to a contagion that openly relegated so many of these acts to lecherous parasites (Rolling Stone astonishingly named Stone Temple Pilots worst new band following the release of Core). If it sounds like I'm a little jaded, it's cause I certainly am.

Every time I write about this era, or recently with the Cornell write-up after his death, I grow a little irritated thinking back to this beautiful shift in the musical zeitgeist, and actively having to relive so much reductionist crap that existed during this time. I lived through this — myself and a million others were galvanized through the entirety of movement, not a singular band, and I could never understand why there had to be this resentful undercurrent affecting any band that didn't have a swimming baby on the front of one of their records.

The irrationally negative response didn't come close to overtaking all the positives these bands were bringing into people's lives, but it did create a weird, vague authenticity yardstick nobody could accurately define And there was a discernible mark left, first on the people buying these records, constantly feeling the need to exhaust those albums for something they're told is missing. But obviously, the body shot resonated much more strongly with the bands themselves. If you don't believe me, just check the paper trail.

Soundgarden put out Superunknown in 1994, diving headfirst into a tarpit of psychedelic/sludge metal weirdness. Hell, they even channeled George Harrison and his Hare Krishna leanings with some sitar on "Half." Pearl Jam released a pissed off record in 1993 called Vs.. Vs. who? Answer: Everybody. They then released Vitalogy, complete with an accordion (!), a couple years later and decided to wage war on Ticketmaster. Speaking of random arty stuff, Smashing Pumpkins also decided to put out an art-rock double album with an actual song entitled "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans" in 1996. And it really wasn't that bad of a track. And of course, Stone Temple Pilots put out "Purple," featuring very strong pop leanings noticeably absent from the dick-rock crescendos of Core. All of these efforts had seismic stylistic shifts from their previous efforts, and guess what else they have in common: they all happened to be the band's best albums.

Now, it's possible they organically grew to these more advanced, interesting approaches, but one really can't disregard the extremely workable theory that there is a pattern present. It's not a leap to presume these were all a product of being pushed into a corner they didn't feel like they belonged in, and decided to punch back. I know, correlation isn't causation, but it sure seems like there was a collective kickback of approaches distantly removed from the initial grunge movement that launched their careers, an almost "we never were that similar and now we will prove it" retaliation.

But even after kicking against the pricks with "Purple," and the Kinks/Bowie fascination being kicked into high gear that left fans openly reeling on "Tiny Music," Core remains. Core is not one of those debuts or early albums like Pablo Honey where their fans desperately yearn to forget. STP fans really do adore this thing. This is probably why the band (minus Weiland, obviously) decided to release a deluxe 25th anniversary edition of the album two years ago.

Listening to Core again, one thought leaps to mind pretty much as soon as the epic "Burn, burn, burn" DeLeo brothers background vocals kick in with the "Wicked Garden" hook — these are really well-crafted and hard-hitting songs. The DeLeos really knew how pack a measured wallop. "Sex Type Thing" is the track that stands out strongly in one's memory from Core. The guitar lick was supposedly (sub?) consciously written to fall in between the gaps of Zeppelin's "In the Light" rhythmic holes. But it's the lyrics still being debated over a quarter century later, even if they're written from a far more satirical, misogynistic vantage point than something like Nine Inch Nails' "Big Man With a Gun," released two years later.

I always think of Steve Albini's quote when it comes to "Sex Type Thing": "They make the argument that if you have something like that as part of the subject matter of your song, you're an evil person glorifying violence or the domination of women. If I wrote a song about a macho idiot, that doesn't mean I'm a macho idiot. The fact that I'm not a macho idiot makes it possible for me to make those observations." Quoting Albini can always run the risk of distracting from the main focus of any write-up, but that statement of his seems completely applicable to the inane backlash Weiland received after this song was released.

Once you get past the first three opening tracks, which also serve as perma live-staples of the band until they disbanded, a lovely and surprisingly crucial interlude ("No Memory") slides in and serves its purpose without overstaying its welcome. The epic "Sin" is next and brings us to the guts of the album. In retrospect, this one sounds a bit like an arena-rock version of the "Big Empty" single found on Purple (and The Crow soundtrack). STP hadn't quite embraced or perhaps allowed themselves to figure out their primary strength as a band, which was a twisted marriage of Weiland's haunted surrealism, allowing it to be gorgeously intertwined with an open surrender to so many of their psychedelic and kaleidoscopic influences. As a result, Core's material is anthemic and powerful, but does lack the multi-dimensional journey the band effortlessly takes us through on their next two releases.

The next two tracks, and two of their most famous, "Creep" and "Plush," gained them a lifetime membership into grunge-Valhalla. How big a space they've carved in a fan's heart is linked directly to how easy it is to latch onto the most accessible and distilled elements of that early '90’s scene. Those two songs efficiently shipped that scene to the masses. And the cool thing about that is those two singles in particular did it without compromising compositional integrity. They were very faithful representations of the scene at that particular time. There was a beautiful accessibility in "Creep" and "Plush" within the loosely defined framework critics loved to abstractly point towards as part of their Checkpoint Charlie purity test lamely applied to seemingly all but Nirvana.

Unfortunately, once you objectively revisit the last three tracks on Core, whether you're an objective listener or a serious STP fanatic, they have to rank as some of their weakest efforts, especially problematic for such an important release. I won't really get into them, as their shortcomings are immediately apparent to even the most obtuse listener. However, it's probably a little irresponsible to ignore the fact those did lead the listener into a conflicted place if they were intent on pushing through all 12 tracks in one sitting.

What I will say: the closing cuts can be enjoyed on certain simplistic levels (not to sound like a jerk), but also, they do definitely reek of a band running out of gas. Perhaps it was the result of trying to figure out their place and sound in a relatively new, untapped market. It's foolish to hold that against them; this is a debut album from a San Diego band, after all. But the final three tracks don't do much to prove those nasty critics wrong (at least MTV copped to this), and not even nostalgia can give us much to smile about when we're trying to wade through the monolithic sludge of album closer "Where the River Goes." Perfection isn't really the issue when it comes to Core. It's the nature of the album's impact that's debated, and I'm firmly in the corner that Core was, and still is, a very impactful album if it's allowed to exist as the bludgeoning sledgehammer it represents.

As I write this and sort of contemplate this album's legacy on a compartmentalized basis, my growing fear is STP's fans will unfairly assign Core to placeholder status. A nice little debut that just holds the band's place until they release their real magnum opus, Purple. Even if it's a definitive step-down from their follow up, Core is like the bastard son of the grunge movement, often chasing its own tail.

(At the halfway point of the album, the listener ventures head-first into existential solipsistic distress that is "Sin" and then the very next track is a Glastonbury-size acoustic angst radio staple "Creep." With swings like this, it's fair to be confused if this is a capacious revolution or if they just invited too many people in.)

Perhaps the band was assuming the audience wasn't fanatical enough to realize this was probably, albeit in surprisingly effective form, the sound of Stone Temple Pilots finding their footing. These 12 songs were some amazing blurts, no doubt. Twenty-seven years later, Core is spectacular noise — shotgun blasts, derby mashups. Eventually, a pattern does take hold and we are left with a taut inflow, a Sunday morning but without the cathartic walk home that lets everything make sense. It didn't really know what it was yet, but neither do most of us. Perhaps that's why so many of us knew those Core tunes were the ones that absolutely had to be played live when we saw STP. They were the easiest to sing along to.

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