If you ask a couple of my friends, they’ll snicker that I’m clueless about Eighties pop culture. And it’s true, to a point: I haven’t watched most of the John Hughes oeuvre, and while I have probably two dozen albums in my CD collection that were released during the decade, only two were hugely popular (Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.and Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever) and neither really “sounds like the Eighties.”
No, for the most part, my Eighties music collection is dominated by Elvis Costello and a trio of bands from my hometown. Only one of them hit it big (and that wasn’t until the Nineties), and it was probably the weakest of the three. But their best album came out in 1988.
Soul Asylum, Hang Time
I didn’t listen to Soul Asylum (or any popular music, for that matter) until 1992-1993, when Dave Pirner & Co. released Grave Dancers Union and achieved massive MTV rotation thanks to a video for “Runaway Train” that doubled as a public service announcement for runaway youth. Having long been overshadowed by fellow Minneapolis rockers Hüsker Dü and The Replacements (whose frontman, Paul Westerberg, supposedly called Soul Asylum the “B team”) and then dropped by their label, Soul Asylum quickly became everyone’s favorite underdog in the early Nineties. The band opened for Keith Richards and played the Clinton White House, Pirner dated Winona Ryder, and by the time I hopped on the bandwagon… well, the backlash had already started. A few years, a fired drummer, a Dave-Winona break-up, and a widely panned follow-up album later, and it was hard to be all that passionate about the band.
All the more so because grunge had hit — and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam seemed so much more sophisticated than Soul Asylum, who may have been too earnest to suit the tastes of Gen X. (Though Pirner does make a cameo in Reality Bites, in which he clips his toenails.) And on the other side of the alternative landscape, R.E.M. somehow managed to become multi-millionaires who played golf with PGA pros or made deals in West Hollywood without losing the allegiance of indie diehards who owned Murmur on vinyl. (Earlier this year music blogger Nicholas Pell waged a “death match” between R.E.M. and Soul Asylum, with surprising results.)
Now, Grave Dancers Union (to say nothing of Let Your Dim Light Shine or Candy from a Stranger, their two attempts to duplicate its success) isn’t going to make anyone forget In Utero, Ten, or Automatic for the People. But I don’t enjoy any of those albums nearly as much as the two that Soul Asylum made before GDU: 1990’s And the Horse They Rode In On (which had fantastic songs but unaccountably lousy production) and 1988’s Hang Time. (Buy them together, with a third disc full of live tracks, B-sides, and other rarities, as Welcome to the Minority: The A&M Years, 1988-1991.)
In fact, I’ll go so far as to wish this: that somewhere there’s an alternative universe following a musical timeline in which Hang Time went platinum. Not only would guitar rock have been rescued from the narcissism of Guns ‘n’ Roses, but Kurt Cobain would have seemed simultaneously (a) less revolutionary in being able to marry an alternative sensibility to pop songcraft and (b) insufferably dour by comparison to the fun-loving boys from Minneapolis.
From the start, and in spots throughout, Hang Time still finds Soul Asylum seeming to ape Hüsker Dü (as it had two years before on the Bob Mould-produced Made To Be Broken): spinning out complex guitar riffs and angry-young-man vocals that bring to mind Pirner’s claim that he was then too punk for metal and too metal for punk. (The band — whose new album comes out next Tuesday — recently recorded a set of punk covers, interestingly.) Listen to opening tracks “Down On Up To Me” with earbuds and you might not find yourself singing along, but you will be impressed by the guitar work done by Pirner and Dan Murphy, a skilled, restrained (solo-free, on most songs), and eclectic alternative to the Slash school of shredding. (The instrumental bridge alone is like a tour of Seventies and Eighties guitar styles.) The same theme continues at the beginning of “Little Too Clean,” but at the one-minute and two-minute marks, you get thirty-second hints of what’s about to come: a more anthemic chorus that doesn’t just rock, but starts to roll (“Afraid you lost your innocence / to some odd social scene / You’re right on time but you’ve been replaced / By a shiny new machine”).
Some of the old Loud Fast Rules (the band’s original name) thrashiness returns on later tracks like “Ode” and “Heavy Rotation,” but in the middle comes the wonderful six-song cycle that makes the case for Hang Time as the album that should have proved that alternative rockers could make pop music. “Sometime To Return” is laden with lyrical hooks (though Pirner’s facility with internal rhyme would start to get overblown really quickly, here’s it’s still novel enough to be catchy), “Beggars and Choosers” sounds a lot like Westerberg’s “The Ledge” but is just as memorable, “Endless Farewell” is perhaps the best slow number in Pirner’s repertoire (“What I want so badly / is for this to be a place you can call home”), “Standing in the Doorway” does Cobain before Cobain (“I’m not going out there / Don’t try to tell me I’m paranoid / Wouldn’t say I’m not scared / Though it may be safe to say that I am annoyed”), and “Marionette” takes the guitars from 11 to 10 in order to produce the poppiest sound (pianos and tympani!) the band had recorded to that point.
Best of all is the song I skipped over in that run-through: “Cartoon,” written by guitarist Murphy, which I’ve played at least eight times while writing this post. In my alternative universe, Hang Time went platinum primarily because this song got the radio and MTV play our timeline denied it. Backed by their distinctively interlocking, chiming guitars, Pirner and Murphy sing the platonic ideal of a Soul Asylum anthem for angst-ridden, suburb-bound post-adolescents…
Now everybody’s looking after me
If I’m dragging by some coattail
I can’t see, it’s too dark
But I’ve got to know what’s got the best of me…
Didn’t it almost make you feel
Like something’s gotta happen soon
Then you wake up feeling lost in your own room.
And that’s followed by the most Midwestern verse in this Minneapolis band’s corpus: “If you’re crying in your beer / You’re gonna drown / If you think we’ll rise above, you better look around, you’ll see / It’s a mountain made of sand coming under me.”
(Murphy, by the way, contributes only one or two songs to most Soul Asylum records — Grave Dancers Union being a rare one entirely written by Pirner — but they’re always one or two of the best tracks. So while he’s not prolific, the quality is high enough that I think you could put together a pretty great compilation album with nothing but Murphy-written songs recorded by Soul Asylum or its spinoff, Golden Smog. It might look like this playlist that I put together in iTunes — truly, college professors do get some work done during the summer, just at a different pace…)
To wrap things up, Hang Time adds a hidden, “bone-us” track: a drunken, unrehearsed (the chord changes are called out on the recording), seemingly unending cover of “Put the Bone In,” the double entendre-laced B-side to Canadian singer Terry Jacks’ 1974 hit, “Seasons in the Sun.” Childish? Sure. But it (together with the folky goof “Twiddly Dee” two tracks before) shows a band thoroughly, and refreshingly, unconcerned that it be “taken seriously.” Like I said above: it’s a nice antidote to grunge.
As a bonus to the “bone-us,” the track closes with one of the band — maybe Murphy, who sings lead here — spoofing John Lennon’s famous line at the end of the rooftop concert in Let It Be: “I’d like to thank the group, on behalf of ourselves. I’m sure we flunked the audition.”
Release Date: 1988
Three Favorite Tracks: “Cartoon”; “Sometime to Return”; “Beggars and Choosers”.
Other Nominees: Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker; The Beatles, Help!; Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited; The Jayhawks, Hollywood Town Hall; Dixie Chicks, Home; Joe Ely, Honky Tonk Masquerade; The Replacements, Hootenanny; U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.