Feats of Strength: Soundgarden

Soundgarden released several deluxe reissues of their classic album Superunknown today, and along with their recent rollicking performance of the album in full, it seems like now is the perfect time to spotlight the band for our Feats of Strength examination.  When discussing the brilliance of Soundgarden, it is absolutely required that one mentions the sheer musical talent of each person in the group, and how each contributed significantly to the group’s unique sound.  From Chris Cornell’s dynamic and immense vocal range, to Kim Thayil’s distinctive and exhilarating leads, to Ben Shepherd’s dark and groovy basslines, and to Matt Cameron’s complex patterns and fills, each member represents some of the finest talent to ever pick up an instrument.  For the young musicians out there, any one of those guys would serve as a fine role model for your playing.

The point of that glowing introduction was to illustrate that it would be pretty easy to point to just about any song in Soundgarden’s deep catalog and use it to show off a particular strength of the group.  Oh, you want an idea of Chris Cornell’s range?  Check out that ending to “Slaves and Bulldozers”.  You’re doubting Kim Thayil’s ability to shred?  I have no idea how you managed this, but somehow you’ve apparently ignored rock radio over the last twenty years completely, and so have completely avoided “Spoonman” or “Black Hole Sun”.  However, those examples are the kinds of displays of technical prowess that should be obvious to anyone with ears; you don’t need someone like me to point them out.  Instead, I’ve chosen to highlight something much simpler and easy to overlook over the first few listens.

As I mentioned before, Matt Cameron is known for some complex drum patterns, such as the one used for “The Day I Tried to Live”; part of that was unintentional, and the result of fitting odd riffs to a workable drum beat.  However, the one used for “Limo Wreck” [embedded above] is one of the most basic drum beats in music: the waltz.  Step-two-three, step-two-three; boom-chk-chk, boom-chk-chk.  The genius is not in the selection of the pattern itself, but its use as support for the lyrics.  The waltz pattern, with its echoes of stuffy and old high society, provides the perfect ironic backdrop to lyrics that celebrate the imminent demise of the gaudy and materialistic upper classes.

It took several listens over the years before I noticed this pattern; the waltz is not clearly telegraphed, as is often the case (either in title or in the opening drumbeat).  But now it’s often the first thing I think of when I listen to this song, and it provides an indelible image in my mind of a snooty ballroom dance, with each participant oblivious to the crumbling of society around them.  And while the band has claimed before that they often don’t think of time signatures when writing a piece, I can’t imagine that this subtle touch was spontaneous, but instead planned to perfection.

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