SOUNDGARDEN – DOWN ON THE UPSIDE (1996)

BLIND MELON – BLIND MELON (1992)

September 22nd, 1992, Blind Melon released their self-titled debut album on Capitol Records. The double-edged sword of having a smash-hit single as enormous as Blind Melons’ 1993 mega-hit “No Rain” has its pros and cons. Rightly or wrongly, that song influenced people’s perception of the band right from the moment it was released. Picked as the second single from the band’s debut album, “No Rain” captured hearts on its release in 1993 and helped catapult the band to fame. It’s easy to see why; “No Rain” is a beautifully written and performed song with a genuinely heart-warming music video. But as a representation of what Blind Melon had to offer, it barely grazed the surface. 

Even within the context of Blind Melon’s debut album, “No Rain”, is tonally an outlier. Even though its subject matter deals with depression musically, its jaunty, cheerful swing feels slightly at odds with the rest of the album. It acts as a fantastic mood change and palette cleanser within the album’s context. But as a stand-alone song, it may have given the impression Blind Melon were, like the song, light and bouncy and not much more. Those unwilling to dig deeper missed the real soul of the band. The truth is Blind Melon’s debut album is a potent mix of extraordinary musicianship, darkly emotional songs and blistering earthy dynamics. 

West Point, Mississippi, transplants Rogers Stevens and Brad Smith formed Blind Melon in Los Angeles in March 1990. Soon after, they met vocalist Shannon Hoon, a native of Lafayette, Indiana. Guitarist Christopher Thorn, originally from Pennsylvania, was added shortly after that; the four eventually convinced drummer Glen Graham to relocate from Mississippi to complete the group after failing to find a drummer in Los Angeles.

In 1990, the band recorded an EP called The Goodfoot Workshop. On hearing those recordings, Capitol Records A&R executive Tim Devine signed them for a reported $500,000. While in Los Angeles, Shannon Hoon befriended his sister Anna’s high school friend Axl Rose. Rose invited Hoon to join him in the studio where Guns N’ Roses were recording their Use Your Illusion I and II albums. Shannon sang on “Don’t Cry” and “The Garden” and also made a guest appearance in the “Don’t Cry” music video. Later, in 1991, Blind Melon took off on tour opening for Soundgarden. 

Los Angeles was proving to be an eventful place for the band. But they needed to knuckle down and prepare for the recording of their first album. With the distractions of LA almost impossible to ignore, they relocated to Durham, North Carolina, to write, develop and hone their songs. Bassist Brad Smith recalled: “There’s nothing to do in Durham, so we just played music, smoked weed, and everyone was into painting at the time. It was a blast. It was a very strange environment. Shannon tin-foiled the windows, so it was always dark in there, with candles. Rogers didn’t take off his pyjamas for a week.” 

Once the band emerged from their Durham hideaway in early 1992, they headed for Seattle, Washington, a town in the midst of a musical uprising. Setting up shop at London Bridge Studios, Rick Parashar (whose name would soon be a fixture in the US album chart via his work on Pearl Jam’s Ten, Temple Of The Dog’s self-titled album, Alice In Chains’ Sap and others) was hired to produce. 

Recalling the recording sessions, “I remember it being really easy,” Smith said, “Apart from all our dope-smoking and all the disagreements we may have had, we had our shit together musically. We would play two or three takes of a song, and that was it. There was a real sense of musical purity and performance to that record.” 

The band took a break during the recording process, accepting an offer to open for Public Image Ltd, Big Audio Dynamite and Live on MTV’s 120 Minutes Tour that spring. While this might have killed any momentum they may have acquired in the studio, guitarist Christopher Thorn believes it helped them, “That was a really good thing for the band, cos we had the pre-tour recordings, went out and toured for six weeks and played every single night. So we were that much better when we got back. I felt like we were really firing on all pistons by that point.” 

It’s immediately apparent from the opening track “Soak The Sin” that, as a band, Blind Melon know how to play. They sound earthy, vital and natural, owing more to a classic rock feel than anything the previous decade had to offer. The rhythm section of Glen Graham and Brad Smith is as supple and robust as any plying their trade at that time. The interplay between guitarists Rogers Stevens and Christopher Thorn is something to behold, weaving a mosaic of intricate guitar lines; the guitarists expertly compliment each other while rarely playing the same parts and never stepping on each other’s toes. 

Shannon Hoon’s distinctive voice soars and croons above the nimble arrangements. Blind Melon’s debut is imbued with an incredible groove. The late ’80s and early ’90s saw a litany of rock bands shoehorn gaudy funk rock elements into their sound. Blind Melon’s approach is subtle, musical and fitting. “Soak The Sin” is a driving opener. Its middle eight glides into a thrilling halftime stagger, full of raked double stops and impassioned vocals before exploding into a rootsy rock jam. 

The album’s first single, “Tones Of Home”, is an infectious rocker. Again, the interplay between the rhythm section and guitarists is dizzying in its dexterity. Shannon sings of his move to LA from rural America, “And I always thought this would be, The land of milk and honey, Oh but I came to find out, That it’s all hate and money, And there’s a canopy of greed holding me down.” 

The album’s third single, “I Wonder,” opens with a cryptic acoustic intro, Shannon singing “All alone, the broadening skies, Under thee, every night, I will lie, Scratch and claw and grip the rails, Every day, my living hell, Oh God, you know I tried, I know how hard I try, You know I try.” As the acoustic guitar and Shannon’s voice trail off, A lone electric guitar launches a catchy single-note riff. The band hammers its downbeats before locking into a mid-tempo groove. “I Wonder” is a stunning rock song; its gliding cadence is deftly played behind the beat, adding weight and purpose to the song’s rhythm. 

It cannot be overstated enough how well Blind Melons’ brand of funk-laced rock has aged. “Paper Scratcher” is a prime example. Their approach was far more musical and subtle than their contemporaries. Their swing never felt exaggerated or forced. The band’s natural, rootsy approach anchored their groove in a far more authentic place. “Paper Scratcher” freewheels through strident verses, floating, uplifting chorus’, emotive space jams and balls-out rock. 

The quality of deep cuts on this album is stellar; “Dear Ol’ Dad” is one such masterpiece. Shannon is in right from the top, singing, “Come now and listen, babe, I gotta reason why I behave, Like a child with a light in eyes, Running naked on a cold winter night.” Brad Smith’s bass playing is particularly noteworthy here; his performances are incendiary, inventive and crucial to the band’s sound throughout the album.

“Change” is a song Shannon played for band members the first night they met. It became the album’s fourth single. Its acoustic folk feel is laid back, reflective and filled with hope. The lyrics, “I know we can’t all stay here forever, so I want to write my words on the face of today, and they’ll paint it”, are written on Hoon’s gravestone. 

“No Rain” became the juggernaut hit that dragged this album and Blind Melon to fame—written by bassist Brad Smith, who found inspiration from his then-girlfriend who was suffering from depression (she would sleep through sunny days and complain when it did not rain). For a while, he told himself he was writing the song from her perspective, though Smith later realized that he was also writing it about himself, “The song is about not being able to get out of bed and find excuses to face the day when you have, in a way, nothing.”

A watery, phaser-affected guitar introduces “Deserted,” Shannon sings”, Grab my knee and look at me, And try to tell me I’ll be home soon, Asleep in my bed and unstoned, I’m tired of me this way.” The band kick in with a devastating drive punctuated by Shannon’s impassioned pleas, “I don’t know what I’ve gotten into, But I’m glad it’s now instead of sooner; this desert heat has crowded me strong. With a wish I had for winter.” Continuing the album’s incredible run of essential deep cuts, “Deserted” is a highwater mark. 

“Sleepyhouse” is the nickname the band gave to their Durham, North Carolina, hideaway while writing the album. The song is infused with a lush, carefree tone, befitting its title. While living there, the band would lose track of time, play music, paint and create. “No time frame for what I need to do today, Here at the yellow house. I think I’m gonna play, With some free livin’ lads down the street aways, away.” 

“Holyman” opens with a laconic intro of guitar and mandolin. “I was born on the banks of a hot, muddy river, The child of one stupid, steamy night.” A more strident electric guitar ushers in a captivating song about setting your own path in life and beware of forces leading you astray. The heavy Led Zeppelin/ZZ Top groove of “Seed To A Tree” points to where the band would travel on parts of their follow-up album Soup, albeit with less willful experimentation. 

“Drive” is a rolling, mid-tempo trip through a hazy landscape of vivid imagery and rich soundscapes. The album closer, “Time”, is a stunning, hard-hitting track with incredible musical interplay—one of the more daring songs on the album, like “Seed To A Tree”, “Drive” points to where the band would go with their next album. It’s a fitting end to a stunning collection of songs.

On its release in 1992, Blind Melon’s debut felt like a breath of fresh air. While the band’s sound and aesthetic differed significantly from the nihilistic energy pouring out of the Pacific Northwest, they felt no less vital. The band’s sound was as authentic and genuine as anything the Seattle sound had to offer, just presented with a different perspective. 

Because of this, Blind Melon was embraced by the more open-minded sections of the ’90s alternative rock fan base. Those who looked past “No Rain’s” pop charm found a band with dark energy, sharp wit, stunning musicianship and profound songs. After its debut, Blind Melon pushed the boundaries further than any of its contemporaries dared with the breathtakingly ambitious follow-up “Soup.” Showing the world they were not interested in coasting on the success of “No Rain.” 

Shannon Hoon’s untimely passing in 1995 ended the run of one of the most talented and exciting bands of the early ’90s. On reflection, their debut album sounds like the work of veterans, confident and fully formed but laced with the vibrant energy of youth. 

Essential…!