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Of the eighties Big 3 of Minneapolis college rock, Soul Asylum was considered the junior partner (after Hüsker Dü and the Replacements). So it’s ironic that the scrappy young quartet became far and away the most successful. Of course, that may have simply been by virtue of sticking around – by the time Nirvana ushered in the alt.rock wave, the ‘Mats and the Dü had split and Dave Pirner’s crew was on Columbia and boasted an honest-to-top 40 hit single in the folk rocking “Runaway Train.” In a way, though, it’s not so surprising – Soul Asylum always seemed to have the most commercial instincts, if for no other reason than they had the biggest penchant for the classic rock punk hadn’t yet muscled aside. Plus they could become a (highly irreverent) top 40 cover band at the drop of a hat, so they understood what it took to gain the attention of listeners outside of the college rock circuit.
Listening to the new reissue of Say What You Will…Everything Can Happen (produced, as would be its successor, by Dü’s Bob Mould), that commercial clout is hard to hear. Not because Soul Asylum, though young and unseasoned, was a bad band. Far from it, in fact – the explosive recordings on this 1984 album show off a fledgling group already displaying signs of greatness. Like a lot of emerging rockers in the eighties, Pirner, guitarist Dan Murphy, bassist Karl Mueller and drummer Pat Torpey (replaced after these sessions by Grant Young) came out of the hardcore scene, and it shows in the band’s blazing attack and Pirner’s unhinged snarl. “Long Day,” “Happy” and “Voodoo Doll” rush to the finish line, nearly barrelling over the nascent melodies and postpunk dynamics hidden under the roar. But the band’s desire to be their own thing becomes quickly apparent. Though in rough form, “Walking” introduces the warped C&W into which Soul Asylum occasionally dipped its toes, while “Black and Blue” blends country, hardcore and postpunk into a unique blast that must have been a bitch to play. “Religiavision” pits an ambitious and wideranging set of lyrics against a knotty hard rock anthem, while “Stranger” forms the first glimpse of Pirner’s distinctive blend of sensitivity and swagger. Though possibly the purest hardcore move musically, “Sick of That Song” is the clearest signal that the band won’t be satisfied with clichés, as Pirner rages against the typical subject matter of both classic rock and punk at the time. Though hardly a classic in the Soul Asylum catalog, _Say What You Will# is a coarse but compelling guide to what the band would later become.
Omnivore’s edition offers up a slew of bonus tracks. The five outtakes from the album sessions (eventually released on the 1988 CD version) include the rampaging but catchy “Do You Know” and “Spacehead,” the almost self-consciously varied “Masquerade” and the furiously rocking “Broken Glass,” Murphy’s first significant contribution to the band’s repertoire. The other nine tracks constitute the group’s first demo, back when it was still known as Loud Fast Rules, and a pair of recordings, including a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” under the name Proud Class Fools. Though crude, these tracks also show off the combo’s range, alternating between punk rocking crunches like “Job For Me” and “Your Clock” with brittle oddities like “Out of Style” and a rougher version of “Black and Blue.” Though there aren’t any track-by-track notes, writer Robert Vodicka’s essay sheds light on Soul Asylum’s early work.
By the time Soul Asylum released its second LP Made to Be Broken, it barely sounded like the same band. The punk fury had been replaced by old-fashioned rock & roll energy, and Pirner had developed into a dynamic, thoughtful songwriter that valued melody as much as punch. In an opening one-two-three attack,“Tied to the Tracks,” “Ship of Fools” and “Can’t Go Back” (penned by Murphy, proving himself his bandleader’s equal in the craft department, though not in prolificacy) set a standard for SA rockers thereafter: tuneful, tough, smarter than revealed on one spin, with twists in the arrangements that follow the song’s internal logic. The band continues its experiments with country music on the wistful “Never Really Been” and the crackling title track, as well as beginning a new tradition of warping heavy rock to its own purposes with “Growing Pain” and “Don’t It (Make Your Troubles Seem Small).” The group hasn’t forgotten its punk rock roots, however – cf. the breathless rush of “New Feelings” and the frenzied explosion of “Whoa!” Due to its carefully curated eclecticism and strong songwriting and arrangement skills, it’s no exaggeration to say that Made to Be Broken is the birth of Soul Asylum as we know it.
As with Say What You Will, a passel of album outtakes fill out the disk, from the fierce “Long Way Home,” “Friends” and “Hey Bird” to the goofy “Freeway” and “The Snake.” Also included are seven unsourced recordings with demo quality production and not-quite-there arrangements and performances. “Swingin’” and “Song of the Terrorist” may be useful more for fan service than potential playlist rotation, perhaps, but they’re no less oddly charming for that.
Soul Asylum would go on to make records with more acclaim and success, but its first two lay out the qualities that would get them there, making them as essential as anything in the band’s catalog.
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