Scrunged: Silverchair’s Frogstomp
Scrunge (second-rate rip-off grunge) is a largely forgotten genre, and every few weeks I’m going to examine a scrunge act or two and see if they deserve a second chance. Today’s band: Silverchair.
In my very first “Scrunged” post I made a dismissive comment regarding Silverchair’s “Open Fire (Ana’s Song),” calling it “decent but dour.” A commenter misunderstood what I was trying to say (shocking, I know) and claimed that I “owed them a revisit.”
And he may have been right, but I hope he wasn’t thinking I should start with Frogstomp.
Silverchair is an interesting case in the scrunge pantheon, hailing from Australia, they were literally just kids when they were signed to a major label, and had a hit single in the form of “Tomorrow” by the time they were all just 15. They were like Hanson, except they were before Hanson, and y’know, all grungy and dark and shit.
It’s been 20 years since Frogstomp‘s release, and the members of the now-defunct group are all grown up now, but I still feel a little bad for smack talking them so much. It’s hard to pick on kids for being kids, aping the sound they were no doubt obsessed with, american alt-rock. Hell, if I had known my way around any musical instrument I probably would’ve spent hours in my garage playing Pearl Jam and Soundgarden tunes while trying to figure out which Nirvana song title to appropriate into a band name too.
But while I can appreciate where Silverchair was coming from, that doesn’t magically make Frogstomp a good record. It is, in fact, a very bad record.
I guess my negative view of Frogstomp puts me in line with the critical consensus of the time. While Frogstomp was an international smash hit record, the band never did hit it big with the critics. Soundgarden for kindergarten was a common refrain if I recall. A lot of critics at the time used Silverchair’s age as a reason to dismiss them, which really wasn’t fair at all. I mean, you could totally use their actual music to do that.
I feel like I’m coming off as overly harsh, but I’m finding myself struggling to find something to defend about Frogstomp. It is such a brazen, obvious rip-off of everything Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam were doing, with zero originality. I’m sure if I Googled “Silverchair” and “by the numbers grunge” I’d get a few hits. Lemme check.
Okay, apparently that’s the line from a review featured on the group’s wikipedia page. Good job wiki-editors, you really nailed it with that one.
There are song on Frogstomp that I actually do like though. “Tomorrow” was a hit single for a reason. Perfect parts angsty and vague, if you were a pissed off teen in 1995 it certainly hit all the right buttons. The opener “Israel’s Son” certainly gets things off on the right foot too, and the way it crescendos at the end (complete with Cobain-esque scream) make it a great tune to mosh to I bet. “Pure Massacre” is pretty all right, even if the opening does kind of highlight that 15 year old Daniel Johns could not sing at all.
The biggest problem with Frogstomp is that the rest of the songs on it just sound like pale imitations of the good tunes. It’s a lot like that Paw album, there’s a lot of filler on this record. Like I said, I’ve spent a better part of a week with it, but I’d be damned it I could name any song off of it that wasn’t a single. Not a lot in the way of melodies or hooks on the album cuts.
And the ballads, oh god, the ballads.
In America, Silverchair’s post-Frogstomp highlight was probably “Open Fire (Ana’s Song)” a ballad about Johns’ struggle with anorexia. Now, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of that song from a musical standpoint. But I get why it was a hit. First of all, it’s about a topic that we don’t hear a lot in rock music (especially from men). Secondly, it’s a remarkably well-written and subtle song that uses metaphor and some clever wordplay to paint an incredibly vivid look into the tortured mindset of someone struggling with such a painful condition.
It is a song that is infinitely better than the pair of the ballads on Frogstomp. “Shade” is more of a fragment than a song; two four-line verses, one two-line chorus. The overall message of it all being “hey, if you’re depressed you should talk about it.” Which is, of course, not wrong, but is about as practical and helpful to a depressed person as saying “hey, don’t be so sad!” And then there’s “Suicidal Dream” in which John tells us, you guessed it, his suicidal dream. While “Open Fire (Ana’s Song)” sounds like a cry for help, an accurate protrayal what living with a mental disorder must be like, “Suicidal Dream” sounds like the whiny ramblings of a kid who read Kurt Cobain’s suicide note a thousand times over because he wants to be “edgy.”
It’s a tremendously bad song.
After Frogstomp, Silverchair quickly released two more records, 1997 Freak Show and 1999’s Neon Ballroom. I owned Freak Show and remember liking it more than Frogstomp, but apparently not enough for me to buy the third record. Although that might have more to do with the fact that their lead-off single was the absolutely hideous “Anthem For The Year 2000.”
Silverchair released their fourth LP, Diorama, in 2002, and from all accounts I’ve read, it’s a vastly better album than its predecessors that breaks away from the group’s heavy reliance on the grunge sound. That record was followed by a five year hiatus that ended with the group’s final record, Young Modern. The break certainly did them good, and it must have given them the chance to finally wash off whatever grunge they still had under their nails. Not a smudge of the Seattle sound is to be found on that one, with the group instead seemingly embracing psychedelia, baroque pop and even some glam.
Is it a great record? Not really. But it is a good record. And most importantly, it’s an original record. While the majority of Silverchair’s first three albums found them desperately trying to sound like other bands, Young Modern found them desperately sounding not to. And kudos to them for that. Too bad the band decided to call it quits after the album’s release. They could’ve really gone somewhere with the sound they stumbled upon with that album.
A lot of the scrunge bands I’ve written about live on with their one hit. Right now, in America, I can guarantee you there’s a radio station playing The Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom.” But I don’t know if the same can be said for Silverchair and “Tomorrow.” I haven’t lived in the states for a while, but I feel that if I had heard that tune on the radio recently, it was part of a throwback weekend or something. While the group still has a fanbase and legacy in their native Australia, it appears that they’ve been tossed aside in the states.
And I don’t know if that’s entirely fair. Yes, Frogstomp has aged horribly. If you weren’t 15 years old when it came out then there’s nothing for you on that record. But their other albums are, at worst spotty and at best pretty damn good. Frogstomp may have deserved to be forgotten, but the same can’t be said for Silverchair.
And hey, at least they weren’t Jet. Australia still owes the world an apology for that one.