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