SONIC YOUTH – DIRTY (1992)

SINGLES: ORIGINAL MOTION PICTURE SOUNDTRACK (1992)

June 30th, 1992, Epic Records released the Singles: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Primarily focusing on the ascendant Seattle music scene of the early 1990s with songs by Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees, and Mother Love Bone. It also features contributions from Seattlites Jimi Hendrix and The Lovemongers, the latter being a side project of Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart. It reaches further afield with Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins, who sit alongside the first solo material from Minneapolis’ legend Paul Westerberg after the breakup of The Replacements.

How do you catch lightning in a bottle? Ask Singles director Cameron Crowe. He began his career as a staff writer for Rolling Stone; music was his passion. Having written screenplays for movies like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982) and “The Wild Life” (1984), he struck out as writer/director with the hit movie “Say Anything…” in 1989. A confluence of events most likely led to Crowe championing the music scene of the Pacific Northwest; chief among them would be him marrying Nancy Wilson of Seattle rock pioneers Heart in 1986. Crowe moved to the Emerald City and quickly became enamoured with the local scene.

For his 1989 directorial debut “Say Anything…” starring John Cusack, he compiled a soundtrack of artists that deftly looked back through the annals of rock history while hinting that he may have had some prior knowledge regarding the new alternative rock revolution, which would explode in 1991 with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind.

The “Say Anything..” soundtrack featured’ 70s/80s rock icons Nancy Wilson and Peter Gabriel alongside future ’90s lollapalooza alumni Fishbone and The Red Hot Chili Peppers (remember both bands were relatively unknown in 1989, and still considered oddities on the landscape of ’80s rock). Crowe also chose to add flannel-wearing Minneapolis firebrands The Replacements, one of the great American rock bands. With a vibrant talent for wrecking their career; The Mats, as they were affectionately known, influenced a generation of alternative rock and punk bands.

Interestingly, Crowe included two bands on the “Say Anything..” soundtrack that didn’t make the official album release but whose songs featured in scenes in the movie itself. Mother Love Bone with Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns sat side by side with Soundgarden’s Toy Box. In 1989, both bands were mere blips on the musical radar. Their additions gave credence to the idea that Crowe wasn’t blind to his new surroundings in Seattle.

His love of seeking out new music and the influence of his wife Nancy Wilson and her sister Ann (who, despite Heart’s worldwide mega-stardom, never lost sight of the local Seattle music scene) led Cameron Crowe to be in a prime position when it came to choosing cutting edge music for his next film, Singles.

Filming for Singles took place in various Seattle locations between March 11th, 1991 and May 24th, 1991. At that time, Alice In Chains had released their debut album, Facelift, that previous summer (August 1990). Pearl Jam had formed mere months before, in late 1990, their debut album Ten would hit shelves in August of 1991. Soundgarden’s opus Badmotorfinger would be released in October of 1991, and Nirvana was in LA recording Nevermind while filming took place. Within one year, these bands would become household names and flip the music world on its head.

However, in early 1991, as filming progressed, the earth-shattering success of these bands still seemed unlikely despite the groundswell of interest. It took Nirvana’s Nevermind and the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” single in September 1991 to crack the lid and shoot the whole scene into the stratosphere.

Crowe assembled the cast for Singles. But rather than feature the songs wafting through various scenes in the background during some dialogue, he featured the bands themselves throughout the movie. Alice In Chains and Soundgarden played live, and due to the awkward acting skills of various band members, the film has many hilarious cameos. Singles felt like a love letter to the Seattle music scene just before it exploded worldwide.

The soundtrack captured the zeitgeist of the time, quite unlike anything that came before it. It’s packed to the brim with incredible songs and performances. On display is the sheer diversity of this close-knit community of musicians. It looks back at the forefathers who influenced its development, and it stretches beyond the borders of the Pacific Northwest to include like-minded artists from other zip codes.

The album opens with “Would?” by Alice In Chains. The song was a first glimpse of new Alice In Chains material from their forthcoming album Dirt, and it didn’t disappoint. Mike Starr’s simple yet memorable bass riff opens proceedings, followed by Sean Kinney’s rolling, tribal drums and Jerry Cantrell’s atmospheric guitar. Jerry takes the lead vocal on the verse before Layne takes command of the chorus. “Would?” was written as a tribute to Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood, who passed away in March 1990.

Pearl Jam’s “Breath” follows, the first of two songs from them to feature on the soundtrack. Rarely has a band found its “sound” with the rapid ease of Pearl Jam. Almost immediately after Eddie Vedder arrived in Seattle from San Diego in 1990, the band pumped out a succession of breathtaking, classic songs, and “Breath” is no exception. Later, the band offered up “State Of Love And Trust,” both songs are a galvanising statement of intent from a band in its infancy but in complete control of its destiny.

Chris Cornell’s “Seasons” is a highwater mark. It’s easy to run out of superlatives to describe the sheer beauty of this song. Infused with a cinematic scale that belies its acoustic instrumentation, “Seasons” continues a streak of more intimate, earthy songs Cornell produced around this time, outside the Soundgarden fold. Similar to the Temple Of The Dog material released in April 1991, it’s one of Cornell’s finest moments and is more convincing evidence that he was one of his generation’s greatest musicians and songwriters.

The addition of Paul Westerberg makes a lot of sense. The Replacements were trailblazers. Rising from the fertile Minneapolis punk scene, these snot-nosed savants left a trail of destruction and a glut of stunning albums and songs in their wake. Highly regarded and massively influential, The Mats embodied the spirit of savage, catchy Rock ‘N Roll and Punk.

Frontman Paul Westerberg’s two songs were the world’s first glimpse at solo material after The Mats disbandment. Largely acoustic, Dyslexic Heart is an infectious pop masterpiece with clever wordplay. “Waiting For Somebody” is equally catchy, vibrant and melodically sophisticated.

The Lovemongers tackle Led Zeppelin’s “Battle Of Evermore” with astonishing results. Ann and Nancy Wilson’s powerhouse vocal performance stands shoulder to shoulder with Robert Plants’. Staying true to the original’s sound and arrangement, they pull off that difficult feat of adding to the song’s legacy with a pitch-perfect, fiery performance of real emotional depth and deep understanding and respect for the source material.

Mother Love Bone’s “Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns” follows. A song of two halves, its unhurried piano intro (Chloe Dancer) accompanies the epic rock masterpiece (Crown Of Thorns). The song’s grandiose scale is matched only by its awe-inspiring ambition. Its blissfully melancholic trancelike build is soaringly uplifting and could easily be regarded as “Stairway To Heaven” for the Gen-X alumni. It’s a fitting epitaph to the late great Andrew Wood.

Soundgarden’s “Birth Ritual” is a juggernaut. Kim Thayil’s behemoth riffs are propelled by Matt Cameron and Ben Shepherd’s savage rhythm section. Chris Cornell’s banshee wail shoots spectre-like across the crushing din; it’s the stuff legends are made of. Mudhoney’s “Overblown” is a trashy romp, filled with edge-of-your-seat abandon and lashings of attitude. It’s everything we love about the band condensed into three glorious minutes.

Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love” is a tip of the hat to one of Seattle’s most famous sons. It is a gorgeous track from 1967’s Are You Experienced album; the song’s inclusion is fitting and doesn’t feel out of place. Screaming Trees “Nearly Lost You” is a thunderous track filled with ecstatic energy, immense hooks and Mark Lanegan’s gritty baritone. The song’s runtime perfectly captures the organic beauty of the Screaming Trees sound. Despite the band being one of the forefathers of the Pacific Northwest scene that rose in the 1980s, the inclusion of “Nearly Lost You” on Singles was the first introduction to the band for many.

Smashing Pumpkin’s “Drown” closes out the album in immaculate fashion. It’s a dreamy, blissed-out trip through a gorgeous soundscape that builds beautifully toward a crescendo of swirling feedback. There’s a stunning emotional arc to the song; Billy Corgan sings, “No matter where you are / I can still hear you when you dream,” in a serene vocal cadence before insisting, “Is it something someone said? / Was it something someone said?” in a more urgent timbre. The intensity lifts, allowing Corgan’s breathtaking guitar solo to soar. It’s a fitting end to an impeccably curated album of songs.

Singles helped crystallise the idea of the ‘Seattle scene’ in the mainstream public’s mind. It did so, featuring essentially new work from contemporary artists. It was a huge commercial hit and acted as a catalyst for the breakthrough of alternative rock into popular culture. It’s still a thrilling listen. And all these years later, it retains the power to return the listener to a time when all possibilities seemed endless.

Essential…!