Friday, February 08, 2008

Album project: Crawling through the A's

Alice in Chains, Jar Of Flies (1994): Seattle's Alice In Chains often gets lumped in with the grunge movement that emerged from the city in the early 90's, although their sound comes closer to classic hard rock and heavy metal. Their commercial breakthrough came in 1993 with the release of Dirt, a dark album featuring several tracks dealing with drug addiction, and spawning huge airplay successes with "Down In A Hole" and "Rooster".

The band decided to switch gears in recording a follow-up. Jar Of Flies is a surprising effort that places some of the band's darker concerns in an acoustic format. The title was inspired by a third grade science experiment AIC guitarist Jerry Cantrell participated in. Vocalist Layne Staley described it:

They gave him two jars full of flies. One of the jars they overfed, the other jar they underfed. The one they overfed flourished for a while, then all the flies died from overpopulation. The one they underfed had most of the flies survive all year. I guess there's a message in there somewhere. Evidently that experiment had a big impact on Jerry.

Once again several tracks deal with the topic of drug addiction; heroin in particular was beginning to take its toll on Staley's life. The biggest hit from Jar Of Flies, "No Excuses", is a song about Staley's failed attempt at rehab. "I Stay Away" and the melancholic "Don't Follow" were also big airplay tracks; another standout is the foreboding instrumental "Whale And Wasp". Although marketed as an EP, the disc's running time of nearly 31 minutes is as long as that of many full-length albums back in the pre-CD era. Jar Of Flies became the first EP to reach #1 on the Billboard album chart.

Sadly, Layne Staley's heroin problems only continued to mount, bringing the group's first era to an end after releasing only one more disc, the best-selling Alice In Chains. After the death of his girlfriend in 1996, Staley became a recluse, almost never leaving his condominium and spiraling deeper into the depths of his addiction. Layne Staley was found dead in his condominium on April 19, 2002. An autopsy determined that he had been dead for two weeks when his body was found. The rest of the group has finally begun working again, with vocalist William DuVall, and intends to release a new studio album in 2008.

Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah, Lake Shore Drive (1971): Mitch Aliotta, Skip Haynes and John Jeremiah were fellows from West Allis, Wisconsin who made their way down to Chicago and found work in the city's blues and folk scene. They got the chance to record several albums for independent labels in the early 70's, of which Lake Shore Drive became the best-known. The trio's strengths were its harmony vocals occasionally reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and the dexterous piano playing of John Jeremiah that provided the foundation of many of their songs.

Lake Shore Drive's title track became an underground hit in much of the Midwest, as its continued references to Chicago's great boulevard by its initials caused many to believe that it was a song about an acid trip. Actually, "Lake Shore Drive" is a beautiful homage to Friday night cruising and to the city of Chicago:

And it starts up north from Hollywood, water on the driving side
Concrete mountains rearing up, throwing shadows just about five
Sometimes you can smell the green if your mind is feeling fine
There ain’t no finer place to be, than running Lake Shore Drive
And there’s no peace of mind, or place you see, than riding on Lake Shore Drive
And there ain’t no road just like it
Anywhere I found
Running south on Lake Shore Drive heading into town
Just slicking on by on LSD, Friday night trouble bound

Lake Shore Drive was re-released on CD in 1992; unfortunately, the CD version leaves off one of the LP's finest moments, their medley of Bob Dylan's "Long Time Gone" and Leadbelly's "When I Was A Cowboy". The vinyl version of Lake Shore Drive is well worth tracking down for that cut alone. The CD version includes tracks from other Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah albums in its place.

The picture above is the back cover shot from the LP. To me, it's a classic 70's pose - stoned macho hippies summed up so much of what that decade was all about, especially in my part of the country.