(PLAY PEN MUSIC/RHINO RECORDS/WARNER MUSIC GROUP; 2018)
After a brief dalliance with the late Chester Bennington, Stone Temple Pilots (drummer Eric Kretz and the brothers DeLeo, guitarist Dean and bassist Robert) are back with a new record and a new singer (Jeff Gutt) in tow. Unlike the recent stale, rather listless return of the Layne Staley-less Alice In Chains, this band had me intrigued the very first time I heard the advance single, “Meadow,” on the radio; this is not an “all new, all different” STP, this is an extension of those early albums that thrilled us throughout the ‘90s. With the ghosts of both Scott Weiland and Bennington floating in and through this music, we are pummeled by the realization of just how great this band are. Gutt – lyrically and sonically – is on virtually equal footing with Weiland (even if he does kinda remind me of Layne physically).
“Middle of Nowhere” is as straight forward a rock ‘n’ roll tune, with a ballsy Led Zeppelin riff and a snotty sorta solo, as anything from the band’s original run with Weiland. The music does sound a little compressed to me, but that could just be Dean’s guitar being tuned a little bit toward the lower side of things… a sound that is not entirely unappealing to these ears. We are definitely starting things off on the right foot here. On “Guilty,” Jeff displays a certain violent swagger, much like the dangerous edge that defined many of Weiland’s lyrics: “You’re gonna pay the price/You’re gonna pay tonight.” Robert’s bass is quite prominent in the mix, highlighting just how good he is… something that I somehow missed on those classic records. The compressed sound continues, an artifact I’ve learned is unique to the vinyl version of the album; again, it sounds pretty good to me, a little more bassy, which I like. I must admit, though, it is a bit nettling to think that this may not have been the sound the group was aiming for but, you know… VINYL! The first single, “Meadow,” is steeped in the classic STP sound and could very easily be mistaken for an early outtake or a B-side from PURPLE or TINY MUSIC… SONGS FROM THE VATICAN GIFT SHOP. A staccato guitar and pumping bass are indicative of that signature sound, as well as some multi-layered vocals from Gutt. “Just a Little Lie” burns low, a near-stately pace that finds the band hitting on all cylinders. More of Jeff’s brilliantly oblique and illusory lyrics lend the tune a rather melancholy feel even as he invites the listener to sample this new Stone Temple Pilots: “Step inside the maiden ride/It helps if you don’t breathe/Patronize and criticize/And welcome to the scene.” Dean DeLeo offers a trippily laid-back solo that perfectly fits the mood of the number. A short, potent stab of near-perfection, “Six Eight,” plays out as a weighty piece of psychedelic Blues of Zepplinesque girth and Hendrixian breadth. The lyrics, again, are at once fraught with a multi-leveled complexity yet given over to the simplicity of a well-turned phrase… and here I thought it was only Rock ‘n’ Roll! “Thought She’d Be Mine” is a magnificent ballad as only STP can deliver. There’s a certain power-by-subtraction approach to Eric’s drum work, as he concentrates his efforts on the vibes, underscoring the chiming quality of the guitars. Though he’s more than proven himself through the first five tracks, this is the best indication so far as to the superb lyrical and vocal abilities of the new guy.
Side two (or, for those of you who don’t speak “record,” the second half) kicks off with “Roll Me Under.” The song kinda makes me think, “What CORE woulda sounded like if it had been recorded by some strange mash-up of Pink Floyd and Guns ‘n’ Roses.” As far as that statement goes, Gutt’s lyrics may answer the assertion best: “Do with me what you will.” “Never Enough” is a strolling piece of mid-’60s British Invasion Mod, with a nod to Steve Marriott and Peter Frampton-era Humble Pie and Robert’s bass part has a definite Entwistle quality to it… I can almost see the Ox’s nimble, fleet-fingered hands working this one out. The melody line on “The Art of Letting Go” reminds me – believe it or not – of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Melissa.” Obviously, with that comparison, the tune is another solid ballad. The kinda open-ended lyrics could be about a lost love or the band’s two previous singers; it works nicely either way. And, of course, after the Allmans where can you go but to the Beatles? There is just something about the vocal melody line of “Finest Hour” that keeps screaming “McCartneyism!” to me. The song features the usual solid work from the musicians, especially Dean’s guitar and Kretz’s drums. “Good Shoes” is STP playing Rockabilly filtered through a rough punk groove. While maintaining the Rockabilly feel, Dean also supplies the record’s most stinging, snotty guitar along with a very Rock God solo. “Reds and Blues” is the type of song that Alice In Chains should have gone with for their return. As is, it makes a great album closer for STONE TEMPLE PILOTS and bodes well for the future of this group. While the four members of STP embrace their history and the memories of Scott Weiland and Chester Bennington here, they are also forging a path forward that should excite their fans, both old and new.