Tiny Music and Stone Temple Pilots’ long-overdue reconsideration
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
At one moment early in my musical education, I would’ve likely put Stone Temple Pilots right near the top of any kind of “best bands” list. Top five, favorite artists, whatever the parameters, they would’ve been right there.
But that didn’t last long. Years go on, tastes evolve and bands change. STP fell apart about a year after 2001’s Shangri-La Dee Da, came back together, broke up again, eventually moving on with new lead singers following Scott Weiland's dismissal. Eventually, another reunion between the singer and band would become an impossibility with Weiland's death in 2015. Around then, I revisited a band I’d put on the shelf for more than a decade, slowly remembering what it was that drew me in originally, but not expecting any of it to land quite the same way as it had. I loved this band, then I didn’t. Still, I kept listening in a way I hadn’t for years, and went further down the rabbit hole than I had since I was a teenager.
Stone Temple Pilots were, fair to say, critically maligned in their time and dismissed as just another band cashing in on the cultural shift away from hair metal. But their original run, from their 1993 debut Core through the next four albums, displays tremendous growth and variety that wouldn’t have been immediately apparent from just listening to that first record. They hit another plane on the sophomore Purple, and continued to let the weirdness roll in 1996 with Tiny Music ... Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop.
By this point, the band already been through the rock-star ringer, with videos and live clips airing regularly on MTV, while singer Scott Weiland’s every move away from the mic was charted, plotted, charged and analyzed. Following a 1995 drug arrest, Stone Temple Pilots may or may not have broken up, but they reconvened after some time apart, gathered their gear in a Southern California mansion and recorded a statement as sprawling as it was refined.
As much as they were associated with the second wave of “grunge” and an alternative to rock that turned decidedly mainstream (all of which, based off of Core, was warranted), Tiny Music symbolized something greater — not necessarily in a self-aggrandizing sense, a band actively trying to make themselves over to something its not, but in the dramatic growth that the record reflected. The DeLeo brothers Dean and Robert could still churn out riffs and lay down a ferocious floor, perhaps best exemplified on “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart.” But they were able to step back into the guts of what made them great, as with “Big Bang Baby.” All bass and punctuated by the bizarrely sunny pop of its “Nothing’s for free” bridge, the song just rips through everything that makes a great rock or pop song — three minutes, snarling vocals, riffs for days.
The change of pace on this album is apparent immediately, with the jazzy “Press Play” gently welcoming CD listeners into the fold. It glides along until slamming into the first nasty riff on the record, the vaguely autobiographical “Pop’s Love Suicide,” which had Weiland switching from his gruff voice on the verses to a higher-pitched melodic wail on the chorus. It was decidedly different from anything the band had attempted in the past, and had more in common with classic T. Rex than any of the meathead copycat bands blasting through radio at the time.
Those themes — exploring the surreal world of celebrity while trying to maintain artistic freedom — would appear again and again on the album, often paired with those nasty staccato riffs that set the band apart from their peers. Weiland gets even more direct on the next track, “Tumble in the Rough.” If he doesn’t receive the poetic credit of, say, Kurt Cobain or Layne Staley, he’s fantastically effective, able to illustrate his grievance through his unique chameleon voice. Here, he shotguns through all his ailments before getting to the pointlessness of it all:
I can't eat
I can't sleep
I can't live
I can't cry
I can't die
I can't walk
I can't talk
I can’t booze
I can’t booze
Steal your shoes
So I can move
Tumble in the rough
Tumble in the rough
Tumble in the rough
Styles come and go through the rest of the album. The jokey pop of “Art School Girl” turns terrifying on its chorus, with Weiland switching from lighthearted accounting of underground parties into the screaming “I told you five or four times” refrain. The jazz of the “Press Play” intro returns on “Adhesive” and serves as the backing for another twisting autobiographical account, with Weiland again gently disguising a personal confession into something more abstract. And the album sends the listener home on the wings of “Seven Caged Tigers,” another conceptual story that reveals more in feeling than it does in literal translation. Over another riff churning out of Dean DeLeo’s guitar, the lyrics sort of fall out and land in this pastiche of thumbnails that leaves plenty of room for interpretation and, most importantly, reveals new images and sketches on each listen.
And from barely restrained menace to churning pop, from glam to metal, the band could just as seamlessly transition into Beatleseque territory. “Lady Picture Show,” Weiland’s ode to an ill-fated dancer, was a hit but, in this opinion, can’t be appreciated enough. The way the song spins its tale of the lonely figure, complete with her face in a jar by the door, over a riff that swings on the verse and shifts to a stop-start crunch on the chorus is expert, and the effect is hypnotizing.
It’s not the only example of this transformative ability on the album, but it could be argued that this song is the crystal-clear distillation of everything that made Stone Temple Pilots their own entity in the crowded field of 1990s rock and roll, and why their work deserves to be dissected and appreciated going forward.
A little over a year ago, on a car ride with a friend, we were discussing music and started pulling up bootlegged stuff on each other’s phones — anything weird and cool and possibly unfamiliar. I remember playing some Led Zeppelin stuff and maybe the Rolling Stones, and he pulled out an acoustic version of “Seven Caged Tigers,” which came from a Howard Stern appearance in 1996. In just those few minutes, the stripped-down melody and gentleness of Weiland’s voice were all that were left to propel the song, and it was more than enough to make the point.
As soon as it was over, I came up with a little rubric that I’ve used ever since: if I really love a band, I’ll want to hear all their weird digressions and alternate versions. I’ll want the live shows and the early demos and every diversion away from the core discography. If not, the albums are more than enough.
Right then, I cemented what I’m not sure I’d acknowledged since I was in high school — at that moment, I loved this band. I made a mental note to track down more of their acoustic sojourns and any other live stuff worth acquiring, and spent the next few days doing just that. But first, when the song was over, we listened to it again.
Jan. 19, 2021
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org