Scrunge Retrospective: Rotting Pinata & Throwing Copper 20 Years Later
A few years ago I read an issue of Spin that had a retrospective on grunge rock. Part of that retrospective was dedicated to “scrunge” or “fake grunge” that blew up in popularity immediately following the mainstream embrace of Nirvana and Pearl Jam in 1991. Most scrunge acts were reviled by critics, but many of them went on to become phenomenally huge, albeit for a very brief period of time.
Looking back, the era of scrunge was incredibly short-lived. I would say it started not soon after grunge itself, probably in 1992 with STP’s debut album, peaked in popularity just two years later in 1994 with Bush’s Sixteen Stone, and then vanished without a trace by 1997, being replaced by post-grunge and fellow flash-the-pan genres nu-metal and rap-rock.
So five years in total, and while that’s not much, as someone who was a teenager at the time, I really can’t overstate just how big this kind of music was. Soul Asylum, Candlebox, The Toadies and their ilk, they may have been shooting stars, but sure shined bright while they were here. So in that regard, I’m disappointed to see just how much they’ve been forgotten in the years since.
At the same time, I’ve been wondering if my somewhat positive views of these bands is nothing more than the rose-colored tinge of teenage nostalgia. Because, while these bands played a crucial role in my development as a music-obsessed geek, to be honest I’ve rarely re-visited most of them in the years since their prime. So maybe their continued snubbery in the annals of rock history is justified?
Or maybe not. I’m going to find out. Every few weeks I’m going to check out an album or two of scrungey classics and see just how they hold up today. Are they dated nonsense, obviously transparent examples of b-grade wannabes cashing in on an in-sound? Or are they unjustly maligned and unfairly forgotten?
I chose to start this series with both Sponge and Live because I think they both exemplify two extremes of the scrunge era – the barely one-hit wonder and the arena rock superstar. The copycat and the originator who was, perhaps unfairly, lumped in with a scene it had no aspirations to be a part of in the first place.
Sponge formed in 1991 in Detroit, Michigan and released their debut album Rotting Pinata in 1994. The album garnered two hit rock singles “Plowed” and “Molly (Sixteen Candles),” the later of which even made it to the Billboard Top 100 for a short bit. The album gained enough traction to go gold with over 500,000 copies sold in the US, but the band was never really able to capitalize off of its success. Their sophomore LP Wax Ecstatic came out in 1996, scored one minor hit with the title track, and then sank into obscurity, taking the band with them.
Then there’s Live. Hailing from York, PA, the group first started playing together in the late-80s while they were all still in high school. In 1991 they released their first album, Mental Jewelry, but they really didn’t take off into the mainstream until the release of Throwing Copper in April of 1994 (two weeks after Kurt Cobain’s death). Buoyed by the massive success of singles like “I Alone,” “Lightning Crashes” and “All Over You,” Throwing Copper went onto be a ginormous megasuccess, selling over 8 million copies in the US alone. Each of the group’s successive albums failed to catch the public opinion like Throwing Copper did, however, and the band has spent the better part of the successive 20 years slowly circling the drain in terms of both popularity and critical favor.
Even at the time, Live’s inclusion as an alt-rock also ran, a grunge rip-off, seemed a bit unfair. They formed far before grunge took off into the mainstream, after all, and they even released their first album in 1991, after Nirvana’s Nevermind, but likely recorded before it came out. Finally, and most importantly, they certainly didn’t sound like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or just about any other band of their era.
Grunge acts at the time were dark and angry, drawing from the same wells of malcontent and misanthropy that their punk and metal icons drew from decades prior. Live were far more inspirational (in a vague, non-religious way) and positive. And even when they were wallowing in despair with tracks like “Shit Towne” and “White, Depression,” they were doing it in a more abstract and convoluted way than the teenage angst inspired hollering of their contemporaries. I don’t know what bands Live claim as inspiration, but when I listen to Throwing Copper today I hear R.E.M. the most, with maybe a slight touch of wild progressive side of early Genesis, with some obvious odes to 80s rock thrown in.
Of course, one of the most striking elements of Live at the time was the vocals of lead singer Ed Kowalczyk. In an era of yelling, screaming and Vedderesque groaning, Kowalczyk’s voice was uncommonly, well, pretty, and undeniably powerful. The range he demonstrates on “Selling The Drama” is behemoth, and is only topped on the still powerful as a motherfucker “I Alone” where he goes from a whisper to a scream to a “fuck you shut the fuck up and LISTEN TO ME AS I TELL YOU I LOVE YOU, YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE” in a heartbeat. It’s intense.
Compare to Sponge’s Vinnie Dombroski, who is trying so hard to sound like Scott Weiland or Eddie Vedder, with a hint of whiskey-coated cigarette sleaze, that its at times almost embarrassing.
Rotting Pinata swings wildly from one style to another. The first is your standard grunge-esque hard rock, ala “Plowed.” On these songs the band relies on their tendency for slick riffs and an aggressive style, and it serves them well enough for the most part, although when they try to slow things down for mid-tempo ballads like “Giants” or “Rainin'” the group completely falls apart in a drudge of sludge that is more reminiscent of the post-grunge that would come in the following years than the grunge of their era. With those tracks they’re more on the Creed side of things than the Pearl Jam.
When Rotting Pinata works the best is when the group sheds their grunge-inspired trappings for a slightly new wave sound that fit their dirty and feedback-heavy sound surprisingly well. The title track, with its driving beat and jangle guitars are a good example of this, but the best is without a doubt “Molly (Sixteen Candles)” an absolutely stunning track that has done nothing but only improve with age.
While almost all of Rotting Pinata has an aura of anger or menace around it, “Molly” is stunningly bright and cheerful sounding, at least musically. The fuzz and feedback of the album’s other tracks are stripped away here, and replaced with a college rock sound that would’ve fit in on a Game Theory record.
Of course, the lyrics of the track do not match the upbeat music that accompanies it, which are clearly about someone finding the body of a girl who killed herself. The juxtaposition fits though. If the track was played at a slower tempo, or in a darker tone, then it would’ve become just another suicide slog, a “message song” about the loss of innocence ala The Verve Pipe’s horrendous (and justly forgotten) “Freshmen” or Silverchair’s decent but dour “Ana’s Song.” The song lures you in with the sugar-coated pop hooks, but keeps you coming back with its serious and heartfelt message.
So do either albums deserve to be rediscovered by new audiences today? Throwing Copper does certainly. Twenty years after its release and it still sounds entirely unique, not even Live’s subsequent albums, which are just watered down versions of Throwing Copper, come close to matching it. They may sound a little overly grandiose and bombastic at times, but they fucking earn the right to do so. Their earnestness isn’t false, they’re not Scott Stapp, posing as Jesus while he hopes to bang you in the trailer after the show. And goddamn Ed can fucking sing.
As for Sponge, well, sure, why not? Yeah, Rotting Pinata has its fair share of sub-standard filler, but the highlights definitely outweigh them. And they have “Molly (Sixteen Candles).” Live may have delivered the better album that year, but Sponge delivered the better song, and in a fair and just world Sponge would be a beloved one-hit wonder at least, and not completely forgotten.
Although it should be said that I completely forgot until I started writing this that I actually saw Sponge live once. So I guess I shouldn’t speak too highly of them. I have more memories (albeit negative) of the Hootie & The Blowfish concert I went to than that Sponge show.
But yeah, “Molly (Sixteen Candles)” good tune. Live’s Throwing Copper, great record. Check them out. And if you remember them from way back when, share them with a friend. Don’t let them vanish. They deserve better.