Most of the folks who carry the torch of the so-called "Seattle Sound" have probably never been to Seattle (at least not before their first U.S. tour). By the same token, bands like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden eventually became parodies of themselves, while Pearl Jam went off in an entirely different direction. This year will see the debut of solo albums by members of two of these three bands: the long-awaited album by Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, and Boggy Depot, the first solo work by Alice in Chains' guitarist and chief songwriter, Jerry Cantrell.
Cantrell, who has written or co-written most of Alice in Chains' hits -- "No Excuses," "Would?," "Rooster" -- has little to prove by making a solo album. Nevertheless, it's nice to see the man shine in his own realm, where he has complete control over the outcome of his songs. The 12 tracks on this album are more than Alice in Chains without frontman Layne Staley (even despite the fact that Alice drummer Sean Kinney plays on most of Depot). At first glance, it might sound a lot like Alice in Chains material. But these songs are more mature, more informed by classic rock 'n' roll (Skynyrd, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and Kansas, among others), with less of the punk leanings of Cantrell's ensemble work.
For starters, Cantrell's music is much less extreme -- there's no "Love Hate Love" here. What might surprise listeners most is the amount of tenderness in these tunes, from the sultry piano balladry of "Settling Down" to the vulnerability in "Hurt a Long Time." In a few cases, Cantrell even has a bit of fun, as with "Between," which sounds like Boston by way of the Meat Puppets in its countrified charm. Cantrell's twang adds a playful touch to the lyrics: "Up to New York City/Good to see some friends/Scratched my nose upon a barrette on her head." Appropriately, Primus' Les Claypool adds distinctive -- but understated -- bass to "Between," as well as to the final song, "Cold Piece."
Cantrell goes underseas for "Breaks My Back," a psychedelic dream of a tune with distorted vocals and a complex arrangement that switches from hypnotic to anthemic and back again. His lyrics are self-punishing and sorry, revealing the inspiration for Cantrell's vocal effects: "I tortured you/I tried to down my hate/Underneath an ocean I still wait/Remembering you." So much of Depot seems to be about lost or doomed love that it's almost reminiscent of Pretty Hate Machine in its singular thematic vision.
"My Song" is one of the lovelier tunes here, and is most reminiscent of the pure Alice in Chains sound. Cantrell's harmonized chorus is an irresistible sing-along, even in its devastating refrain: "Every time you let it show/I didn't want to know/By the time I had lost my soul/You had to go." The track begins as a ballad but brews into a real rocker midway through, building on Cantrell's layers of edgy and chiming guitars.
"Hurt a Long Time" offers a glimpse at the wreckage left behind by Kurt Cobain's suicide. Cantrell's folky, wistful guitar riff and wavery tenor set the scene: "He got a gun and gave up the fight." Few of those close to Cobain have dared be so direct in their recollection of the event
and its aftermath, and Cantrell's version of the story is touching and human. "When I found out/I couldn't even cry/Well I am now/And I'm tryin' to figure out why ... Oh it's a bad dream/I've got only time." The song is a must-hear for anyone who loved Cobain and a good example of why Cantrell needed to make a record of his own: no way would Staley have been able to pull off something so plain and true.
Cantrell is not a fabulous vocalist, but he holds his own here. And while he's not the greatest guitarist either, his playing is more than adequate to evoke the necessary emotions -- and that's what counts. His honesty comes through on this album, more directly than ever before. Boggy Depot is a must for any Alice in Chains fan who wants a glimpse into the man's head, but it can easily appeal to those who never dug the grunge thing. Cantrell's album is a tasty slice of rock.