For some listeners, Soul Asylum may be best known as the group that had a worldwide hit in 1993 with "Runaway Train." The band's major label breakthrough on Columbia Records, it was a Top 10 hit in 14 countries that went Gold in the U.S. and four other territories, brought their album Grave Dancers Union to multi-Platinum status, and garnered a Grammy for Best Rock Song in 1994. But there's more to the band than that. Their journey to that global acclaim, starting as rowdy punk band -- although one that was always a cut above the rest -- that cut their teeth in basement shows, honing their style, graduating to A&M Records and finally onto Columbia... it's a story that's filled with amazing music that is well worth documenting.
Now, Omnivore Recordings has taken to reissuing Soul Asylum's early works. The label has built a longstanding reputation for impressively curated compilations that serve as something of a one-stop shop for longtime fans and new initiates alike. And when it comes to telling Soul Asylum's story, the label does so with no hold barred. Their recent reissues of Say What You Will... Anything Can Happen (otherwise known as Say What You Will...), Made To Be Broken, and While You Were Out (which is paired with Clam Dip & Other Delights) boast new remastering, detailed liner notes, and a wealth of bonus tracks (42 in all!) that give listeners the full picture of this once-overlooked material. That's the Omnivore way, after all.
Say What You Will ... Everything Can Happen (abbreviated Say What You Will...) was Soul Asylum's first major release, pressed in 1984 by Twin/Tone. It marks the first chapter in the "aesthetic odyssey" of the Minneapolis band - to borrow a phrase from Robert Vodicka's liner notes. It's a collection of visceral, unwashed punk, the sort of music that has always been at the band's core. But to simply sort Soul Asylum into that ever-growing heap of teenage punk groups would be more than a little inaccurate. Even as they were starting out, the band was distinct from the other fans-turned-basement-dwelling-musicians.
The band formed in 1981 with Karl Mueller on bass, Dan Murphy on guitar and vocals, and Dave Pirner on drums. They called themselves Loud Fast Rules and gained a following by playing punk covers at house parties. Soon after, Pat Morley joined as drummer and Pirner moved over to guitar and vocals. The latter would eventually become the principal songwriter for the group. Around the same time, the band found that the name Loud Fast Rules didn't fit the musical direction they were moving toward. To quote Mueller, they weren't "a hardcore band." No, their blend was something more, blending their diverse music tastes into something that, as Vodicka writes, combines "the physicality of hard rock" with a "punk rock ethos," as well as lyrics that were more fully formed than their contemporaries. Pirner's songwriting didn't revolve around high school woes or failed romantic conquests; rather, he wrote thoughtfully of alienation, social critique, and rejection of norms.
Say What You Will... was produced by Hüsker Dü's Bob Mould and features nine songs that not only show a growth in songwriting, but also find the band melding musical influences and developing their style with clear purpose. One of the highlights of the album is "Stranger," an introspective rock ballad driven by layers of guitars and a perfectly placed sax refrain. With illustrative lyrics that synthesize how it feels to be "another face in a faceless crowd," "another king in a headless crown" in a city that "just ain't nobody's home," its subject matter wouldn't be out of place on some of the heartland rock of the era. But even the 52-second "Sick of That Song," which may be their most punk-infused song on the album, demonstrates a certain clarity of vision, with Pirner denouncing the mundane topics that most punk bands choose to write about and, more broadly, serving up a credo for the band's shifting philosophy toward music. Meanwhile, "Religiavision" is a nearly five-minute social critique on the church, the institution of marriage, and materialism set against chugging bass, driving drums, and chiming guitar. While religion has always been a popular topic for songwriters to tackle, it's the musical backdrop that makes this so compelling. There's no over-long fills, no look-how-fast-I-can-play-this-pentatonic-scale solos, or any of those other basement band cliches. Even at this early stage, the musical ideas were fully formed and the objective was seemingly for everyone to serve the song, not themselves.
Another compelling part of the set is the wealth of additional tracks that compilation producers Cheryl Pawelski and Peter Jeperson (co-founder of Twin/Tone) included in this new edition. The 14 bonus cuts include five session outtakes that were eventually included on the rare 1986 compilation Time's Incinerator. The tracks later found their way onto the 1988 CD reissue of Say What You Will... , entitled Say What You Will, Clarence... Karl Sold the Truck). There are also six demos recorded when the band still went by Loud Fast Rules (including one called "Cocktails" that's never been issued before), plus a handful of tracks vintage 1982, recorded under the name Proud Class Fools (including a cover of CCR's "Bad Moon Rising").
One of the highlights is "Spacehead," a Say What You Will... outtake culled from Time's Incinerator. Its lyrics comment on mental disorder and perceived aloofness with frantic vocals and screeching guitars against a driving rhythm. But the song doesn't remain in that one station. In the second verse, they teeter back and forth into a '50s rock shuffle, and in the last chorus they seem to shift into a slow-motion chorus before abruptly closing the book on the song with a healthy does of disjointed drumming. "Nowhere To Go" takes a page from teen love ballads of the pre-Beatles days. It's got the classic descending chord progression, backing harmonies, and a talk-sung opening, before launching into a rowdy rock workout with lyrics about isolation and the passage of time. Together, the carefully sequenced bonus tracks provide an enjoyable listening experience, and they also help contextualize Soul Asylum's debut. They show the band at a pivotal point: exploring and melding their disparate influences, honing their lyrical talents, and performing with a ferocity that's as impressive as their collective vision for what they'd become.
In 1986, two years after Say What You Will, Soul Asylum released Made To Be Broken. The production for the LP was helmed once again by Bob Mould. The sound of it remains pretty raw in what was an attempt to capture their full-throttle live sound, but the stunning musicianship and even more expressive and illustrative lyrics that exist underneath the rough exterior show a seismic shift in the band. Musically, the album mixes styles from the power-pop of "Tied To the Tracks" and the country-leaning '60s-esque title track, to the bashed-out, rocking "New Feelings." Along the way, the band demonstrates a lock-step precision with mixed rhythms galore ("Growing Pain," "Don't It"), shifting tonalities ("Ship of Fools") , and an embrace of far-reaching sounds ("Another World, Another Day.")
The latter is driven by a 6/8 drum groove (played by their newest member, Grant Young), plus layered harmonies and a modal guitar motif, all supporting a lyric that's more abstract than any of the writing on the debut. The song is unlike anything that was reaching mainstream ears at the time, as well. As Gina Arnold put it in the liner notes, it was "radically different from the echoey, click-track-ish, groomed vocal records we were used to hearing on major labels... To the unaccustomed, this sounded loud and fast and slightly unintelligible." And yet, there's something about the songwriting on Made To Be Broken that reaches for something more. "Ship of Fools," with its piano-based introduction, gliding riffs, and ear-catching rhythmic turnarounds show a marked musical development to something that, with just a tiny bit of polish, wouldn't be out of place on the radio waves. Meanwhile, the acoustic guitar-based "Never Really Been" places the attention on the earnest vocal delivery and reflective lyrics that aren't too far removed from their biggest hit. But then there's also "Woah!" an all-out, in-your-face rocker with heavy guitars, howling vocals and fluid rhythm changes that exudes punk energy.
It's a talented group that can combine all these styles, perform them with ease and conviction, and bring it all together with excellent lyrics. Whereas the debut shows the band attempting to balance their disparate musical influences and piece together a new sound, Made To Be Broken shows those strands melded and and shaped into a fully-formed musical statement.
But Omnivore brings more to the table than just the album proper. Once again, there's another album's worth of bonus tracks, including "Long Way Home," an outtake that eventually appeared on the first CD version of the album that's steeped in chiming riff-rock and filled with blended harmony vocals. Five tracks from Time's Incinerator also feature, having been recorded during the Made To Be Broken sessions. Among them are "Freeway," a rollicking bluesy number; "Fearless," a deluge of guitars and wild abandon; and a cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis song "(Love Is Like A) Ramblin' Rose," that's even faster and more raucous than the MC5 version they're using as reference. There's also an unreleased alternate take of "Another Day, Another World" that's less polished and features Dave Pirner's sax handling the main melodic motif. Altogether, they're a fascinating glimpse into the growing talents of Soul Asylum which would develop even more on their next long player.
While You Were Out was the third album released by Soul Asylum in 1986, following the Time's Incinerator EP. It shows their work ethic and talents undiminished in what many consider to be their best work. Soul Asylum paired up with producer Chris Osgood for what Jon Wurster, drummmer of Superchunk, calls in the liner notes "a roller coaster ride of depression, elation, anger, joy, and exhaustion." Indeed, the music runs the gamut of emotion and style.
The album kicks off with "Freaks," an energetic opener that features Pirner and Murphy totally interlocked as guitarists. Supporting the layers of six-strings is the reliably steady Grant Young on drums and Karl Mueller on bass. They navigate the changing rhythms and turnarounds with ease on this track that feels like a step closer to the major-label success that was to come. Perfectly balanced between jangly pop sensibility and hard-edged rock, "No Man's Land" comments on the forces of industrialism and the magnetic pull of Small Town, USA. "The Judge," meanwhile, is all-out energy, propelled by a catchy riff that would be right at home with southern rock or heavy metal alike. It's the perfect backdrop for Pirner's lyrics that address power, misunderstanding, prejudice.
Throughout the album, the band demonstrate the full range of their talents - incorporating rhythmic twists and turns (looking at you, "Never Too Late"), taking inspiration from all sorts of genres (like the country-inspired waltzing of "Passing Sad Daydream"), and, of course, often performing with a nearly-off-the-rails intensity. While many bands struggle to fit all these elements onto one album, Soul Asylum somehow makes it look easy, packing all those tricks into one song. Take, for instance, "Closer To The Stars." It begins with a frantic introduction only to shift tempos and tonalities to straight-ahead rock with chiming accompaniment and an ever-growing number of new musical motifs. It's a track you can't listen to just once on an album that rewards repeated listens.
For the new reissue, Omnivore has expanded the album to the tune of 13 bonus tracks. There's the Jam Mix of "Take It To The Root," which appeared on Time's Incinerator, plus three unissued outtakes and an unreleased demo recording. But the majority of the extras come from Clam Dip & Other Delights. Clam Dip was something of a contractual obligation record. The band was all set to head to A&M Records and needed to deliver one last collection of "wild, anything goes" material for Twin/Tone. But this wasn't a phone-it-in recording; it was a joyous experience that brought the band to Paisley Park and other studios to record and left one band member covered in special effects. In an homage to Herb Alpert (the "A" of A&M), Karl Mueller channeled model Delores Erickson for the front cover spoof of that classic Whipped Cream & Other Delights album. The music, says former manager Dave Ayers in his liner notes was "raw and all over the place" but as lively as anything else they'd recorded. The album was released with slightly different track listings in the U.K. and the U.S. Here, all the songs are presented together to give a complete view of the sessions.
Among the highlights are "Chains," a catchy power-pop track with a guitar part that at times recalls "One Way Or Another." Speaking of recalling classics, Soul Asylum take a stab at covering Janis Joplin's "Move Over" and even Foreigner's "Jukebox Hero." But the highlight of the set may be "Artificial Heart." The eerie horror story is supported by a wild instrumental backing that incorporates samples, grooving bass, freakish backing vocals, tape effects, and a healthy amount of distortion. Interestingly, a demo of the track closes out the set, showing the body of the song pretty well-formed, eerie vibe and all.
All the tracks in the series - whether the DIY basement feel of the debut, the fully realized Made To Be Broken material, or the gems dug from the vault - sound better than ever thanks to the new mastering by Michael Graves at Osiris. But, as with all of Omnivore's reissues, there's more to the story than just the music. Each of their three new Soul Asylum reissues comes with a booklet that includes new liner notes, full discographical information and personnel, unseen photos, handwritten lyric sheets, proposed album covers, and other memorabilia.
In this way, each title serves as a time capsule of those early chapters of Soul Asylum's career that saw them melding their influences and talents into a distinct style that packs as much punch as ever, even over thirty years on. Whether you're a longtime fan or new initiate to the band's vast talents, you'll be well served to pick up all three of Omnivore's new reissues.
Say What You Will..., Made To Be Broken, and While You Were Out/Clam Dip & Other Delights are available now on Omnivore Recordings and can be purchased with the links below.