Barrett Martin has the right idea about things. At a time where reissues are parked out like clockwork every five years, selling the same thing to the same people over and over again, he seems to prefer the more honest and altogether fun approach by picking up a box of tapes, soaking up the memories that they bring back, and then letting the rest of us share in his reminiscence. Following on from 2011′s reissue of previously unissued Screaming Trees recordings comes this expansive and emotionally-tempered re-release of one of Seattle’s stranger supergroups.
I say “strange”, in that the common ground shared by the four main elements in Mad Season is arrived at from two distinctly different directions: Bassist John “Baker” Saunders and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready met in a Minneapolis rehab centre and came out wanting to find an outlet for their freshly clean creativity; Barrett Martin and Layne Stayley had just completed a world tour together as respective members of Screaming Trees and Alice In Chains and wanted to recharge their knackered batteries by doing something different. This is where Above’s strength is drawn from, a strange spiritual weariness elevated by a huge amount of drive and craft.
The most “ungrungelike” of pretty much everything else that was going on around them (or indeed from them) at the time, Mad Season’s Jazz-infused blues ethos comes across as a modern, alt-rock version of Cream, expanding and twisting expected directions into something utterly unique. Central to this of course is Layne Staley’s own performance, allowing everything else to whirl around him while he offers his most personal insights in the middle of it, integral to songs such as X-Ray Mind and Lifeless Dead, almost completely separate to Wake Up‘s extended jam. Whenever he is there though, he commands all the attention – indeed during the incomparable River Of Deceit it’s almost as if there’s no accompaniment at all, such is the strength of his sad conviction.
As with other stories with sad endings, and particularly where this geographical and chronological point is concerned, Above does feel like Temple Of The Dog in reverse, where the feeling is of a wake that has yet to happen. What sadness is here in the words and music (tempered by a lot of hindsight) is perfectly and beautifully balanced by a calmness present throughout, and if Staley was writing and singing about the shortened road that lay ahead of him, he was doing so without bitterness, which reveals no small strength of character.
Being so far removed from much of the rockier end of the 1990s alternative stuff, time has aged Above very well indeed, and the record’s mellow tones may well feel better placed in today’s climate than it was back then. Or maybe that’s just me – I did find this a bit of a muchness back in 1995 (I was 24 with issues, and subtlety was a trait that I lacked at the time), and I love it now.
Back in the now, and the audio side of things has been boosted rather sweetly. As well as the reappearance of the acoustic instrumental Interlude (that appeared on early promo copies of the album) and a remixed version of the band’s I Don’t Wanna Be A Soldier that appeared on a John Lennon covers album, there are three “new” tracks. A second Mad Season album commenced in 1996 but ultimately broke down due to Layne’s health preventing his involvement – separate commitments and time got in the way of the completion of the fifteen basic tracks, before Baker and then Layne lost their battles. Three songs have been completed for this release with the words and voice of Above’s other vocalist Mark Lanegan, and it’s moving stuff. Not just the songs themselves, but this glimpse into how close it all came to fruition and just how vital it all sounds. Locomotive is a punchy affair made all the more special by Lanegan’s feel for the song that includes more than a couple of musical phrasings where the listener can sit and think “I can totally hear Layne singing this” – not in terms of pitch or timbre of course, but those little unexpected changes of musical direction that was Layne’s musical personality. Black Book Of Fear (co-written by Peter Buck of R.E.M.) is slightly more familiar territory for 1996-era Lanegan, sounding not unlike the Screaming Trees’ more reflective moments of that time with only McCready’s guitar removing it slightly. And finally, Slip Away‘s vibe-laden eulogy is as fitting a farewell as any band could hope to have.
Add to that a DVD that includes the Live At The Moore performance (plus outtakes that didn’t make the original release, plus another CD with the full audio of this show), their two-track contribution to Pearl Jam’s Self Pollution Radio pirate broadcast and (as if that wasn’t enough already) a previously unreleased New Year’s show where Layne asks “If Mark’s here…” to join him onstage for a song (if he was, he didn’t get up there – reminding me slightly of a festival where John Peel went on the PA to request Steve Turner to make himself available as Mudhoney were due to appear onstage), and you’re left with a weirdly complete lifespan of a band in one package. This package is given its heart by Barrett, whose extensive recollections and open, warm style of prose make this something rather fragile and precious. This is a fantastic reissue, and is there for all the right reasons: to entertain, to reconnect, and to look back fondly and proudly without regret.