Soul Asylum made headlines recently, but for all the wrong reasons. The band’s bass player, Karl Mueller, has been diagnosed with cancer, and some of the finest musicians around Minneapolis are joining forces for a benefit concert in late October, including Paul Westerberg and Bob Mould. After a greatest hits package lead singer Dave Pirner and company put out a couple of years ago, it was thought that perhaps another album was one the way. But Pirner went for a solo route, releasing his own disc.
As for live material, the only thing Soul Asylum fans have had to enjoy was a Black Gold EP years ago. But a 1997 flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota was the catalyst for this album. Asked to play a prom, the band went into it not knowing what would come of it. Thankfully somebody recorded it, since it’s a pretty good souvenir of a pretty good night. This despite the fact that they open this 18-song collection with a bland cover of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”, which has the crowd lapping it up immediately as Pirner talks about no more pencils, books, or teachers. It then goes instantly into “Misery” from 1995’s Let Your Dim Light Shine. Although it’s not quite as punchy here, the band is still able to capture the essence of the song in a slow building and slightly haggard rock feel. The album hasn’t been obviously presented from top to bottom here, as Pirner talks about leaving and returning after this song.
The band’s finest track, or at least one of its finest, is “Black Gold”. Here, the tune is done early, nailing it with an acoustic slant. The ending still has the passion of yesteryear, though, with the audience along for the ride. What set Soul Asylum’s sound in motion was obviously the later days of the Replacements, something that is especially heard on “See You Later”, recalling Don’t Tell a Soul or All Shook Down. However, this leads nicely into the galloping “Without A Trace”, which takes you back to 1993 with its poppy, punchy roots groove. At times they also change things up in terms of reworking or tinkering with some tracks, especially “Somebody to Shove”, which is a contagious power pop tune here. Another gem, and personal favorite, is “Just Like Anyone” as it spills out into a full-throttle 4/4-time rocker, although in this offering the balls (oops, can I say balls, well I just did twice!) of the song seem to be somewhat lost.
There are a couple of odd cover selections, including the slow dance “Tracks of My Tears” which is perhaps performed by Smokey Robinson. Pirner gets a lot of soul into the tune although it’s nothing like that of Van Morrison. But the biggest cheers are for Soul Asylum’s biggest hits, especially the trademark “Runaway Train” that goes at a likable pedestrian pace. A couple of tracks miss the mark completely though, especially “I Know”, which was a hit for someone I can’t remember. But to try their hand at Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” is perhaps too much to chew. Although it’s okay, it’s a tune best left to other bands. They seem better suited for the breezy, reggae-angled “I Can See Clearly Now”, with some backing harmonies fleshing out the track.
The homestretch of tunes are a few more covers, but not before Pirner performs a slow and country-ish “Black Star” that seems perfect for their brand of music. The hokey cover of “Rhinestone Cowboy”, originally done by Glen Campbell, is cheesy at best. The album has its shining moments, but you might have to endure a couple of choice selections to get to them.