Record Review: Soundgarden’s Live on I-5

Soundgarden: Live on I-5Soundgarden: Live on I-5 (Universal / A&M, 3/22/11)

In an interview conducted on A&M Records’ Hollywood lot around the release of Soundgarden‘s pivotal 1991 album, Badmotorfinger, bandleader Chris Cornell summed up the iconic Seattle quartet’s approach to working in the studio: “We’ve always been looking to capture what we sound like live on tape. I think that’s what most rock bands try for — and that’s probably most rock bands’ biggest problem when it comes to recording a record.”

It was a curious statement considering that, if anything, Soundgarden had the opposite problem. Known for its signature brand of heaving, de-tuned muscularity, Soundgarden also played a counterbalancing sense of agility to supreme advantage on record. In concert, however, the band routinely stumbled, more weighed down than liberated by its own bulk, to say nothing of the fact that Cornell had trouble matching the piercing wail of his studio vocals.

Fortunately, Soundgarden’s onstage flaws recede to the background on this newly assembled live album. Comprised of recordings from a string of West Coast dates in November and December of 1996, Live on I-5 reveals that Soundgarden, captured here just months before breaking up, was a surprisingly limber and inventive unit. Unbeknownst to the band members themselves — or to recording engineer Adam Kasper, who also manned the boards for Soundgarden’s final studio album, Down on the Upside — these performances would be Soundgarden’s last in the continental USA.

But Cornell, lead guitarist Kim Thayil, bassist Ben Shepherd, and drummer Matt Cameron hardly come off as the road-weary bunch of malcontents that their own first-hand accounts paint them out to be. (Shepherd infamously stormed off stage at the band’s final show; Cameron described shows from this period as “increasingly bad” to Grunge is Dead author Greg Prato; and Thayil makes reference to heavy drinking and “unpredictable temperament” in the liner notes.)

What perhaps saves Live on I-5 from typical live-album pitfalls is that Thayil, Cameron, and Kasper specifically selected performances for their spontaneity and deviations from the original studio versions. “Slaves and Bulldozers,” for example, is a song that originally was permeated with a sense of pent-up frustration about to erupt into violence. In this new form, the song is reinvented as slinky, slow-simmering blues rock. Likewise, the band recasts the shimmering, trance-like psychedelia of “Searching With My Good Eye Closed” as a fuzzed-out, big-bottomed arena-rock barn-burner that may as well have been recorded in 1973.

Viewed from fresh angles such as these, many of the songs become compelling in all new ways. And, aside from an obligatory number or two (the groove of “Outshined,” for instance, sounds utterly flattened), the track listing also boasts a generous helping of deep cuts.

Hardcore fans will immediately notice that nothing from early albums Ultramega OK or Louder than Love made the final cut, but several other surprises help mitigate those omissions, and the running order nonetheless achieves an impressive sprawl. Cornell’s voice is, to say the least, not in perfect condition, but his weary croak contains one of the keys to this album’s charm. Strangely, the clear, almost pristine sound quality allows for a high-resolution image of the band’s rough edges. As the album progresses, it seems increasingly unlikely that anything was overdubbed or “fixed” after the fact.

And, like the crop of classic, staunchly imperfect live albums from the 1970s (Aerosmith‘s Live Bootleg, Rush‘s All the World’s a Stage, etc.), Live on I-5 ultimately is lovable for being exactly what it is. If any complaint is to be made, it’s that Cornell’s rhythm guitar is brighter in the mix than Thayil’s — which is highly unfortunate, especially considering that Thayil himself supervised the project. His leads cut through the loudest, however, and the entire band’s chemistry comes to the foreground in ways that none of the studio albums ever really conveyed. We tend to think of Soundgarden as heavy and precise, a kind of high-performance juggernaut. Here, the band sounds loose and easy without losing its footing.

It’s impossible to gauge what the impact of this album would have been had it come out as planned in 1997. Perhaps it would have registered as just another blip in Soundgarden’s career trajectory, a rote stop-gap to fill time between studio albums. And though arriving as it is, 14 years after the fact, makes the release of Live on I-5 a thrilling event unto itself, any electricity that’s discernible in the music can’t necessarily be attributed to nostalgia alone. The master tapes of the recordings were never actually mixed — and hadn’t been heard by anyone in the band — until last year. Whether it’s a stretch to say that one can hear the band members’ excitement over revisiting their legacy, the very fact that Live on I-5 isn’t a document of a band nosediving toward implosion makes it worthy of celebration.

In fact, Live on I-5 makes it clear that Soundgarden’s demise was all too abrupt. Though the recent announcement of a return to the studio certainly is big news, the band may never again display this much ragged power.

Note: Five soundcheck recordings are included as iTunes-only bonus tracks with pre-orders. (A sixth, additional bonus track, “Blow Up the Outside World,” is included with pre-orders directly from the Soundgarden website and was not available to ALARM at press time.) Minus a completely disposable Doors cover, the song selection — deep-album cuts from Badmotorfinger and Upside — is enough to make a dedicated fan drool. But the extra tracks amount to a mixed blessing at best. Though the idea of hearing the band play to empty houses is intriguing, the emphasis on acoustic echo sounds exaggerated.

Ultimately, this bonus material falls much closer to the despondent performances from the same period that litter YouTube. Like “Outshined,” the rhythmic shape of “Room a Thousand Years Wide” comes across as cardboard thin compared to the original, and Cornell’s voice sounds tattered beyond repair. Those who suspected that Soundgarden was past its peak in 1996 need only point to this these recordings for validation, and all are advised to stick to the main album.

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