[16 November 2006]
So what if Staind have already bypassed the peak of their musical glory? You have your 15 minutes of fame, you bask in the spotlight, and you learn to accept it when you find that the trend you ride doesn’t last forever. But what takes an equal amount of nobility and belief that people should still care about what you have to say is when you keep releasing albums after your hip moment has passed. It’s something Staind have been doing for a while now, and it’s continuing to be a joy that the ‘rest of the material’ on those albums lives up to even their biggest successes.
Then there’s the greatest hits. Strung together after a particular phase of popularity has come and gone, its ultimate marketing purpose is to convince the public that there’s memories worth relieving in an artist’s career.
In the case of Staind, it’s is an especially interesting package –- they may not be one of the most consistent bands of the past 10 years (hence the name The Singles 1996-2006, celebrating a decade of introspection), what with their torn obsession between unplugged ballads and rampaging grunge-metal invectives that, combined, fit right into the alternative spectrum they’ve based their career around, but there’s a clear change, a progression that rings true in each of their works if you’d only look. It might be fair to say that no one in recent times has combined mainstream appeal with pure emotion as aptly as Aaron Lewis has.
The Singles kicks off with a remix from their debut Tormented, “Come Again”. It’s disarming how heavy they were in those days, how screaming misery (“Get the fuck away / Can’t take one more DAY! / I cannot conform, I cannot conform, I cannot conform…”) over harsh, sololess distortions made them sound more like the protégé of Pantera than the descendants of Alice in Chains they do today. “Mudshovel” follows, the benefit of that explosive towering riff, and “Home”, which sets the mold for some of their later hits: choking out self-pity underlined by edgy dynamics. We are made to feel Lewis’ pain; it’s always as if he’s singing to ease his own loathing, not to score rotation.
“It’s Been Awhile”, their biggest hit to date, comes and goes, as do “For You” and “Price to Play”, the group’s own aggressive contribution to condemning misguided morals and parental abuse, but “Epiphany” is the first real ballad, taken from their monster album Break the Cycle (although both “Fade” and “How About You” are left out), and together with diary-extracted “Zoe Jane”, it’s a testimony to the quartet’s musical prowess –- they choose to write about their daughters instead of cutting their limbs or hating their parents. Honesty, if ever it existed.
“So Far Away”, taken from fourth release 14 Shades of Grey, an overlooked musical evolution for the band that saw them acknowledging that even scars can fade with time, is an outlet of introspection and harmony, and it’s surprising that it was incessantly overplayed in the day of the shallow rock radio quota.
And it’s obvious that last year’s Chapter V, in turn, was a difficult record to make, and the singles reflect that: there’s both the midtempo crème de la crème that was crafted for the airplay and found it (“Right Here”), the heavier statement (“Falling is easy / It’s getting back up that becomes the problem”), and a testament to their songwriting versatility and ardor with just a few chords and an acoustic guitar –- “Everything Changes”, which here appears as an acoustic performance, making it seem even more intimate and pretty.
A quarter of the album is live material, which demonstrates added power in Lewis’ supple voice. One is the famous Family Values rendition of “Outside” with nu-metal clown Fred Durst, who interrupts in mid-song to yell (typically) “This is the real deal, y’all!” The studio version came without that, but it’s easy to see, with its major-minor modulating strumming and none-too-shabby lyrics, why it was a hit.
With the band rather arrogantly refusing to write any new songs, though, the compilation’s new ground is made on three bonus tracks: one is a cover of the Alice in Chains’ classic “Nutshell”, during which there’s a greater likeness than ever to the late Layne Staley in the air, and which is introduced by Lewis as ‘A song written by a fallen hero. A different fallen hero,’ he adds. An unplugged replica of Tool’s “Sober” manages to conjure a sense of brooding even more evident than in the original, and amplify Adam Jones’ discordant riffage. As for Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”; well, they tried. It’s acceptable to fill empty spaces with “Nutshell”, a song many bands like Staind have now covered, and it’s more daring to tackle Tool (and pull it off), but in the case of Pink Floyd, Aaron Lewis vocals do not match David Gilmour vocals. Period.
The Singles, however, is the perfect stopgap in between the group’s first five albums and new Staind discs to come. While three out of the five have comfortably debuted at number one, it will be interesting to see whether Staind can again come to the forefront by means of a comeback. In the meantime, there’s no less than four number one rock radio hits contained here, and even the flow between tracks is admirable. It’s fine to discover bands outside the mainstream both better with their lyrics and more innovative than Staind, but if ever you’re looking for a retrospect on a band who have been a pretty dominant force in shaping what’s been heard on rock radio throughout the past six years, or just in search for a starting point with the band, The Singles is brilliant.