Scrunged: Stone Temple Pilot’s Tiny Music…Song’s From The Vatican Gift Shop

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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: Stone Temple Pilots.

As I’m writing this, it’s been less than a week since Scott Weiland was found dead in his tour bus at the too fucking young age of 48. As such, I’m awash in a sea of tributes, eulogies, think pieces and listicles celebrating his legacy. Sadly, I wonder how many of them were on file and ready to go, minus a few key dates and recent events, considering the singer’s long-standing issues with drug and alcohol abuse.

When these articles look back on Weiland’s time with STP, they all seem to touch on the same points. The band’s first two albums were wild successes that outsold many of their contemporaries. At their peak, the band’s success was stymied due to Weiland’s legal issues related to his various addiction. When the band was finally able to continue with a (questionably) sober Weiland in the early 2000s, the spark was gone and they broke up. Weiland went onto record a couple of albums with Velvet Revolver, briefly rejoined STP for a self-titled reunion album, and then left the group again, this time on seemingly even more hostile terms.

Then the band recruited the guy from Linkin Park for an EP and tour and everyone was like “what the fuck.”

That’s a pretty accurate summation of the group, at least from a popular perspective. But it’s criminal in that it leaves out the band’s third LP, Tiny Music…Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop. Coming off the massive success of the band’s first two albums, which sold eight million and six million copies, respectively, Tiny Music was widely seen as a disappointment when it came out, as it sold “only” two million copies. Thanks largely to the previously mentioned drug issues, the band barely toured for the record, and the singles for the album were released erratically, making it difficult for the album to gather momentum.

And that’s a goddamn shame.

I’m not going to spend anytime on this article to question whether or not STP have a legacy. They obviously do. They obviously did even before Weiland’s untimely passing. What I am going to do is try my best to recenter that legacy off of the band’s first two (admittedly great) albums and the tragic trainwreck that was Weiland’s life and instead shift the focus to that third album, which is probably one of the best albums of the decade.

Tiny Music came out in 1996, and at the time it seemed like STP were primed to become the grunge kings. Nirvana was gone. Alice In Chains were rapidly retreating thanks to their lead singer’s own massive drug issues. Pearl Jam had gone insane. The only Seattle group left was Soundgarden, and they had just released Down on the Upside, a good record, but one that saw them embrace a far more radio-friendly sound. STP could’ve gone into the studio, churned out another record cut from the same stone as their first two, and counted their money.

But instead they chose to go the route of the “difficult” album. And to understand why it’s important to remember that at the time STP were not a popular group with the critics. Most lambasted them as a wannabe act, Pearl Jam impersonators and false grunge rockers from California (gasp!) who were riding the coattails of an established scene in order to find success. All because of Weiland’s vocal similarity to Eddie Vedder.

Admittedly, Weiland does have more of a Vedder-edge to him on Core, and while we’re being honest, Core doesn’t really hold up all that well to modern ears. The good tracks have all been played to death by now, and the album cuts, well, the album cuts were album cuts for a reason. It’s an inconsistent record. Purple is a much superior album, with the band casting off its more metal influences for a diverse tracklist that includes acoustic ballads, weird experimental tracks, and arena-rock anthems that, while remaining radio standards to this day, hold up to repeated listening far better.

That album came out in 1994, which was more or less the last grasp for grunge. Kurt died that year, Pearl Jam began their recluse period, and more mainstream-friendly acts were starting to enter the fray. Soon we’d be seeing the pop charts no longer filled with Nirvana and Alice In Chains, but with The Wallflowers, Hootie & The Blowfish and Alanis Morisette. It was a dangerous climate to experiment in, but STP did it and it paid off, at least creatively.

With Tiny Music, the band purposely set out to make a record that would blow off any preconceived notions about the group. And that usually backfires. History is filled with disastrous examples of popular acts trying to re-invent themselves for critical success. The Killers’ Sam’s Town, Def Leppard’s Slang, half of Duran Duran’s discography, intentionally aiming to please the “cool kids” usually backfires tremendously.

But STP didn’t just succeed with Tiny Music, they hit it out of the park. They utterly annihilated their sound and rebuilt it from the ground up, keeping only their scuzzy sounding guitars and Weiland’s trademark howl intact. In many ways, Core and Tiny Music don’t even sound like albums from the same band. The STP of 1992 could have never written a ballad as beautiful as “Lady Picture Show,” or a wonderfully upbeat and joyfully manic song as “Big Bang Baby.” They certainly couldn’t have crafted anything as creative and downright bizarre as “Art School Girlfriend” or “Adhesive.” Name another grunge-era band who was brave enough to feature a clavinet solo on their album.

STP opened the gates with Tiny Music, allowing damn near anything to influence them. It’s a neo-psychedelic glam punk blues explosion of insanity. Much like aiming for the art critics, purposely drawing from as many influences as possible rarely pans out, the fact that STP managed to make it work is nothing less than a miracle.

A miracle by the name of Scott Weiland.

In the days since his death, more and more critics are coming out to say that Weiland was a lyrical genius and one of the best vocalists of his generation. It’s a damn shame that it took his death for them to wake up and realize that. Even on many of STP’s lesser moments, Weiland usually shines thanks to his incredible range both vocally and stylistically. With Tiny Music, Weiland largely abandoned his baritone Vedder-esque vocals for a higher register that better reflected the album’s 60s and glam rock influences, all while keeping his trademark swagger, powerful delivery and boundless energy. Without him, that record would’ve been a shadow of what it was.

In a perfect world, Tiny Music would’ve been the start of a brave new chapter in the world of STP. They would’ve used it as a springboard for further experimentation, and would have gone on to branch out even further in exciting new musical directions. But for whatever the reason, be it the album’s lackluster performance compared to the band’s preivious releases, Weiland’s increasing instability, or changes in the rock landscape, Tiny Music was instead an anomaly in the group’s discography.

Three years after the release of Tiny Music, STP followed it up with No. 4, an album as unoriginal as its name. It largely disregards all the advancements made on the album prior and instead shifts heavily back to the band heavy metal roots. Not an awful record by any stretch of the means, and it certainly has its fans, but for people like me who were excited by the potential unlocked by Tiny Music, it was a tremendous letdown.

The band followed that up with Shangri-La Dee Da in 2001. That album is far more diverse than No. 4, and it does feature a slight return to the band’s experimental phase, but while it branches out stylistically, it’s a damn boring album. It showed that STP could do power pop with the ultra-catchy “Days Of The Week,” but nearly everything else on the album, including some pretty dire ballads, are drab beyond belief.

(I’ll be honest and say that I haven’t heard all of the band’s self-titled 2010 effort, but from what I have heard I can definitely hear a return to the Tiny Music sound, albeit in a more mainstream, safer, capacity. I mean, I haven’t heard the whole thing but I’m gonna bet that record doesn’t feature a clavinet solo.)

We’re still in the immediate wake up Weiland’s death, so I’m sure that alt-rock stations have all added a handful of STP’s hits to their playlists. You’re probably hearing more of “Vasoline” and “Plush” at the moment, and probably a hell of a lot more of “Interstate Love Song” and “Big Empty” as well. Those are all great songs and they deserve to be heard. But if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere in the world that has a radio station that still takes requests, be sure to call in and request “Trippin’ On A Hole In A Paper Heart” and “Big Bang Baby.” If you’re feeling brave, maybe even shout out an album cut like the wonderfully odd “Art School Girl” or “Adhesive.”

Tiny Music is the closest thing grunge had to a Pet Sounds. And it deserves to be recognized as such.

6 Responses to Scrunged: Stone Temple Pilot’s Tiny Music…Song’s From The Vatican Gift Shop

  • Serpico009 says:

    12 Bar Blues has been left out of most (all?) of these post-death STP/Weiland discography overviews, and it deserves some attention. Spotty but ambitious, weird vintage beat boxes on almost every track, “Barbarella”…

  • Grebo says:

    Man, I’d forgotten what an unabashed rip-off/homage of REDD KROSS “Big Bang Baby” was. I mean, still a damn great/fun song, but there’s no denying that sound.

  • Andrew says:

    Tiny Music has always been my favorite of their albums.

  • John Spade says:

    This was one of the first reviews of Tiny Music where the reviewer knew what he/she was talking about. I was born in ’75, so my teens and early 20’s were during the grunge movement. I had a huge problem getting behind Nirvana and Pearl Jam (they’ve grown on me in later years) and save for the odd track like Soundgarden’s “Spoonman” that was certainly unique, I thought most of it sounded the same.

    STP at first seemed like just another flannel band until the unplugged “Plush” performance caught on from MTV. Weiland could actually SING, not just scream or Jim Morrison mumble through a song. They progressed more like a ’60’s band than any of their contemporaries; Core is a messy but solid debut, with Purple they the grunge aside and blossomed into Tiny Music, the most criminally underrated album of the 1990’s and perhaps history of rock.

    I was working at a Wherehouse records (remember them kids?) In 1996 when Tiny Music was released. The store always got promo discs and other press kit stuff for every major label CD release and when I first played the store sampler disc and heard “Big Bang Baby” and “Lady Picture Show” I was totally floored. I dug “Interstate Love Song” and had bought Purple and even the Core CD but this new music was incredible! I played that album all summer and fall everyday, and whenever I hear a song off it I’m instantly transported back to 1996.

    This review said it best, this was like the grunge kids Pet Sounds! There are so few albums that I could play from new artists back then and especially now that even get a few repeat listens, let alone staying for weeks in the car stereo. Tiny Music was like the great ’60’s and ’70’s albums that rewarded you with something new each listen. It was released during a time of major problems for Weiland, and I am so thankful I got to see STP live in Las Vegas on the Tiny Music support tour. It was only a few gigs later I believe that the wheels came off and they got off the road. The night in Vegas at the old Aladdin Performing Arts Center was magic though. Those cats were on and the show remains in my Top 10 concerts…as does Tiny Music hold a place in my Top 10 albums. Hopefully, but regrettably, the tragic death of Scott Weiland will bring new ears to Tiny Music and their catalog. STP were so much more than some grunge ripoff band…they were the real deal and one of the last bands who made albums as art. Great review and thanks…

  • Eric says:

    Tiny music is my favourite album by them…. But the author is senile if they think no.4 is cookie cutter…. Firstly the name number four is not “unoriginal” , its slang for heroin. And how can you call an album with tracks like Atlanta, I Got You, Sour Girl and Glide “boring”. Scott continued to push his vocals into new directions and deleos tone sounds like a direct challenge to the “Nu metal” bands dumb bland heavy sound that dominated the radio at the time. Ive never heard a guitarist get such a heavy tone from a p90 while maintaning that midrangy “honk”.

    You need a re listen dude…..

  • Pwillco says:

    Great write up of “Tiny Music…” . I bought this album the same week it came out on the same day I got my driver’s license in 1996 when I was 16. I was lucky to see them on tour in 1997, with Garbage opening (at the time I didn’t realize the trouble the band was going through with Weiland’s drug addiction). They did an acoustic bit in the middle of the concert, doing some Zeppelin (they covered one of their songs on a compilation). I remember after the concert, I wrote the band a handwritten fan letter, complaining about the price of t-shirts and never heard back.

    Then they broke up and soon after the rest of the band released Talk Show with another singer, and I still haven’t bothered to listen to that album. Weiland was certainly essential to STP. Tiny Music is definitely a great highlight of the nineties grunge bands (the pop sector, anyway). I liked the album a lot when it came out, perhaps I’d been primed with Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy album (which I actually purchased on vinyl at the time) which was very experimental for the grunge guys. Even Vs. for Pearl Jam was a big break from their first album Ten. Both STP and Pearl Jam got better with subsequent 2nd albums. At the time, I only first heard STP and PJ with their 2nd albums, and I still think both are stronger than their debuts.

    Anyway, back to STP, they really did hit it creatively out of the park with “Tiny Music…”. They really suffered from lack of momentum the rest of their career thanks to Weiland’s drug problems after this one though. I really liked “No. 4” ( I agree with the above comment by Eric) when it came out, and it’s still a solid record, Weiland was even channeling Jim Morrison by the last song, but if they’d been able to stay together to begin with, who knows what they could have come up with after “Tiny Music…”. “Shangri La…” is also very good, but then they f-ing broke up again sometime after that one. By the time their 2010 reunion album came out I couldn’t care less, plus I wasn’t keen on ’90’s grunge music at the time. I still haven’t really listened to that album but a few times. I may need to revisit their last album with Weiland, it may not be that horrible, but it just seemed like a re-hash of past records (and too close of an Aerosmith homage on one song). I would have cared more if they’d stayed together like Pearl Jam all along and not had to make a reunion album.

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