Closer to the Stars: Best of the Twin*Tone Years
efore they became the scapegoat of dogmatic “alternative” gatekeepers more concerned with ideological purity than actual music, Soul Asylum helped establish the infrastructure of indie rock. While most of the band’s peers found themselves superseded by their own imitators, Soul Asylum managed to stumble into commercial success (that it was a stumble can be grasped by the fact that it took “Runaway Train” for 1992’s Grave Dancers Union to blow up—they weren’t meant to be balladeers talking about runaway children, they were supposed to be rockers looking for somebody to shove). After that, the band quickly slid back into obscurity, and they’re quite likely remembered by many today as closer to Deep Blue Something than Husker Du.
Closer to the Stars, a compendium of the band’s early years on hometown Minneapolis label Twin/Tone (or Twin*Tone, as Ryko has it here), makes a valiant effort to place the band in its proper position in the canon. Tracing the group as it evolved from its punk roots into more developed (but still endearingly ragged) melodic sensibilities, Closer draws from the band’s three Twin/Tone albums and final EP to present its case. Keep your Icarus jokes to yourself when reading the album’s title: this band slipped the surly bonds of the garage and perhaps flew too close to the arena, but our focus here is on the beautiful takeoff.
Their 1984 debut album Say What You Will, Clarence documented a formative period, as the band grew out of its name Loud Fast Rules and commenced the Soul Asylum years. “Draggin’ Me Down” epitomizes their early storm-the-tower approach, all thrashing guitar riffs, stomping drums, and Dave Pirner’s anguished howl backed by Dan Murphy’s shouts. Clearly inspired by local heroes Hüsker Du and the Replacements, both then emerging from their own hardcore stages into their classic periods, the young Soul Asylum nonetheless managed to stake out its own identity. “Stranger,” also taken from the debut, shows the band getting the nightclub jitters a few years before the ‘Mats felt them, riding a surprising Pirner saxophone melody that eschews facile minor-key melancholy for a more affecting bright tone, sounding like a smile forced to hold back tears.
By 1986’s Made to Be Broken, Soul Asylum had abandoned punk for Cheap Trick, or at least expanded to encompass both. It’s the band’s zenith, a virtual concept album about defeatism, narrated by Pirner in his new voice of Sardonic Barstool Philosopher. Murphy bashes out choppy chords and soaring leads on guitar, while bassist Karl Mueller steps to the forefront on “Can’t Go Back,” swiftly playing the lead melody as if possessed by the spirit of Mike Mills. Closer to the Stars draws wisely from the album, offering five of its best tracks. It takes its title track from the follow-up While You Were Out, also released in 1986. The song continues the downbeat theme, sniping at a fame-seeker from the comfortable armchair of failure. Another show-stopper from that album, “No Man’s Land,” surveys the bleak Midwestern landscape of rust-belt decay; while it goes a bit astray near the end, with hokey imagery about “kings of nothing” (as a rule, Pirner seems to be at his worst on songs that mention kings), the song nonetheless carries a potent, bitter charge.
Soul Asylum’s final 1988 Twin/Tone EP, Clam Dip and Other Delights, while solid as a whole lacks individual standout tracks (it’s remembered mostly for Mueller posing on the cover in a parody of an old Herb Alpert album—Alpert being their new boss at major-label A&M;, who had then-recently acquisitioned Twin/Tone). Closer to the Stars confronts this dilemma creatively, albeit a bit disingenuously, by digging out two covers from the EP’s UK version for their CD debut. Neither Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” nor Janis Joplin’s “Move Over” stand out for anything but their display of the band’s flannel-clad populism (not as rare as one might expect—while notions of “indie” would ossify into dogma among fans, they never really did among the actual bands, and classic rock covers abound in the 80s indie canon. See: Hüsker Du, the Mats, R.E.M., the Minutemen, etc.). Pirner wails like a banshee on both, to relatively little effect; even the unlisted closing cover of Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” b-side “Put the Bone In” on 1988 A&M; debut Hang Time surpasses these.
Closer to the Stars would have been better served with some early Fast Loud Rules tracks to better emphasize the growth of the band over the course of these early albums. Still, to the extent that I can condone greatest-hits collections, this one undertakes the worthwhile mission of revising historical memory regarding Soul Asylum. It’ll probably fail, but this self-defeating group wouldn’t have it any other way.
Reviewed by: Whitney Strub
Reviewed on: 2006-06-15