March 26th 1996, STONE TEMPLE PILOTS released their third album, Tiny Music…Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop, on Atlantic Records. For the first three years of the band’s career, most critics viewed STP as a band grasping at the hem of grunge. 1992’s Core was an undeniable, hook-laden juggernaut and a maligned masterpiece, dismissed by critics but embraced by legions of fans. With the band’s following releases, they stretched out and showed what they were made of.

1994’s Purple was an album of breathtaking depth, immaculate songwriting, and massive hooks. More importantly, it gave two fingers to the poe-faced music press and their lemming-like readers who took their glib dismissals of STP’s abilities as gospel. Those who preferred to make up their own mind about STP were duly rewarded. Here was a band on a stunning (already storied) journey. They wrote killer rock songs and had a frontman to rival any rock God, past or present. Their instrumentation was more sophisticated and subtle, while their delivery was goosebump-inducing, eclectic and memorable. And that was all the masses needed.

Come 1996, “Tiny Music…” saw Stone Temple Pilots move away from the sound presented on their first two records and incorporate a wide variety of different influences. They used alternative rock merely as a springboard to stretch their musical palette. Playing hard and fast with the boundaries and preconceived notions of what was acceptable for a rock band in the ’90s.

The album is a glammy glitterbomb. To STP’s credit, every experimentation and wild left turn always results in pop gold. The songs themselves are emotionally direct, conjuring T. Rex, Bowie, and Exile-era Rolling Stones; like those totems of exhaustion and bravado, nearly every song sounds like it was recorded at four in the morning.

The opening instrumental jam, “Press Play,” immediately indicates that STP might have much more to offer than most were aware. Of course, their ardent fans always knew this band’s talents and depths. “It took a while to get a vibe of what we had grown into,” late frontman Scott Weiland told MTV as the band was nearing completion of Tiny Music. The question was: “‘Do we turn into a butterfly or do we turn from a maggot into a fly?’” he added. “It could’ve gone either way.”

Tiny Music revels in a widescreen approach to psychedelia with hazy shoegaze, jangle pop, gilt-edged riffs, and sunlit alternative guitar hooks, which is impressive in itself, but when married to the band’s natural flair and musical insight, the results are potent. Throughout the album, the arrangements are creative and inviting. The effortless exploration of new ground expands the band’s musical repertoire and accentuates their pop tendencies. The riffs and melodies become raging hook-laden firecrackers with an irresistible swagger.

“When we recorded Core in 91/92, we were basically homeless,” said drummer Eric Kretz. It was only five years later, but we were in a different place in 1996, with different struggles. In the beginning, we were young, dedicated, green musicians travelling the world. We were doing great and performing great, so when ‘Tiny Music’ came around, we asked how we could challenge ourselves from what we’ve done previously.”

“Friends and fans liked STP’s first two albums,” says Kretz, “but loved the band after Tiny Music. That’s because we made this record more for ourselves, to challenge ourselves and what we’ve done previously. In a way, it was acknowledging what we’ve already done and saying, ‘fuck that, we’re going in a different direction.’”

After the seductive interstellar funk jam of instrumental opener “Press Play,” we get “Pop’s Love Suicide,” its punctuated intro sashays in with a cocksure stride. Instantly, it’s noticeable how Dean DeLeo’s guitar tones have developed and changed; out go the layers of thick searing distortion, humbuckers and walls of 4×12 amps and cabs in favour of a dryer, gritter sound achieved using single coil pickups and small combo amplifiers.

Miraculously, the sound is no less heavy as a result. The new approach only clarifies the incredibly complex chord voicings the band had always employed. Scott Weiland sounds riveting as he coils his vocal cords around a slippery verse melody before declaring, “Oh, it’s a love pop suicide/Oh, I’m in love pop suicide/Oh, I really don’t know.”

The irresistible strut of “Tumble In The Rough” follows. The band, locked into a confident swing, sound utterly vibrant as they egg Weiland on during the verse, holding a repetitive downbeat on a single chord as he sings, “I can’t eat, I can’t sleep/I can’t live, I can’t cry/I can’t die, I can’t walk/I can’t talk, I can’t booze/I can’t booze, steal your shoes so I can move/Tumble In The Rough.” They eventually relent, exploding into a stabbing groove of chords beneath Scott’s wails of “So What!”

“Big Bang Baby” was the album’s first single, “We wanted to make a statement,” recalled Weiland, “We wanted to deconstruct, go low-tech, get to the dark heart of the matter. I was happy to write Bowie-esque stream-of-consciousness lyrics that didn’t need to make sense. Example: ‘Big Bang Baby.’” Weiland’s use of Bowie’s “cut-up technique” of lyric writing is constantly engaging. Lines like “There’s a hole in your head/Where the birds can’t sing along” may be somewhat non-sensical, but how they tie into the song’s battleship groove and roll from the tongue only adds to the overall feel.

Bass player Robert DeLeo wrote the music for this track; Weiland wrote the lyrics. DeLeo said: “I was thinking of those old Little Richard records, trying to get the ’50s beat going with the tom and the hand claps. I had that riff roaming around in my head for a long time. It was one of those things where I was like, ‘Damn it. I’ve got to find a way to make a song out of that!’”

“Lady Picture Show” is a beautiful, at times Beatles-esque song that hides a deeply sorrowful story. Weiland was in the throes of heroin addiction when he wrote the lyrics to this song, which may go some way to explaining his tackling of such dark subject matter. Who is Lady Picture Show, and why is she hiding behind her bedroom door? Weiland explained in his memoir Not Dead & Not For Sale: “The song is about the horrific gang rape of a dancer who winds up falling in love but can’t let go of the pain.”

The languid feel of “And So I Know” is dreamlike. It’s a soundtrack for drifting through a balmy dusk sunset—Dean DeLeo’s jazzy guitar solo, Eric Kretz’s shuffling percussion, and Robert DeLeo’s sophisticated walking bass enhance Weiland’s stunning, elastic, unhurried but engaging vocal melodies.

“Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart” follows with savage conviction. It’s an STP classic, the song’s thrusting start-stop verse chords open to an emphatic rock chorus. Robert DeLeo’s bass playing is magnificent throughout, as is Eric Kretz’s layered percussion. Weiland sounds ragged but exhilarating as he sings, “I am, I am, I said I’m not myself/But I’m not dead, and I’m not for sale.”

“Art School Girl” opens with Dean DeLeo’s lone guitar playing a catchy riff. Joined by bass and percussion, Weiland sings of a girl who “left her home from sweet Alabama/Rose Alabama for the city, New York City, yeah.” It isn’t long before this sweet, low-key pop song explodes into shards of grossly fuzzed-out bass and guitars, caveman drums and Weiland’s larynx-shredding howls of “I told you five or four times” before settling back into the laid-back verse. The startling velocity of the band’s switch from gossamer-light delivery to a ferocious assault is thrilling.

The gorgeous atmospheric haze of “Adhesive” is beautifully immersive. The verses shimmer with the notes of a Fender Rhodes piano gliding like shooting stars across the scene. Played by Eric Kretz, it adds an extra layer of beauty to the song’s otherworldliness. Dean DeLeo’s strident, massive chords punctuate the soundscape, adding weight and dimension.

The riff of “Ride The Cliche” is utter genius and one Jimmy Page would have begged for during Led Zeppelin’s heyday. To offset the infectious, busy nature of the guitars, Weiland takes a beautifully ethereal approach with his vocal melodies, soaring wistfully over the band with a succession of elongated notes. Dean DeLeo’s guitar solo is instantly memorable, hook-laden and maybe a tip of the hat to the brilliant playing of Aerosmith’s Joe Perry.

“Daisy,” with its jazzy acoustic and slide guitar, is a sunkissed instrumental interlude before the album’s closing track, “Seven Caged Tigers.” With the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard not to notice a striking resemblance to Elliott Smith’s later solo work. Of course, this was before Smith added electric elements to his recordings and before he was even known much outside of the coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest (Miss Misery, Good Will Hunting and the Oscars came in 1997).

However, the potent fragility of Weiland’s delivery and the sophisticated chord structures and arrangements inadvertently point to the beauty of Smith’s later work. Even if they were blissfully unaware of each other (and all indicators suggest that to be the case), the parallels musically are striking and heart-wrenchingly beautiful.

Stone Temple Pilots threw everything at the wall with Tiny Music. It’s a gloriously creative mixing pot of sounds and an enriching journey. “There are songs on there like ‘Adhesive’ that we were drawn to because they’re so dreamlike,” says Kretz, “Then you have a song like ‘Art School Girl’ and a few others that are just punk, and we laughed when we recorded them. We weren’t sure everything had to be on the record, but we just recorded it and had a great time.”

For a band that was harshly written off and mercilessly ridiculed, they showed depth, creativity, and ability that outshone many of their more one-dimensional contemporaries. It also showed a resilience of character and a dogged determination to follow their hearts despite the shit storm being flung at them. Tiny Music..Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop is a unique, vibrant album and a triumph of ’90s rock eclecticism.