Monday, February 11, 2019

Soul Asylum - While You Were Out/Clam Dip... (1986/1988, Twin/Tone, 2019, Omnivore) - A brief review.

Of all the high pedigree indie-rock bands to spill a little ink on a major label recording contract in the late '80s and '90s, Soul Asylum's back catalog seems to be one of the most neglected and un-examined.  I'm not referring to availability, as Twin/Tone's distribution arm had decent outreach, making their presence felt in plenty of Sam Goody's and such, but given the sizable breakout success of Grave Dancer's Union in 1992/93, you'd think newfound S/A fans would have felt some nagging urge to backtrack and find out if the spate of five proper albums that preceded it would've stimulated them.  Then again, Say What You Will Clarence, Made to be Broken, While You Were Out, Hang Time, and ...the Horse They Road in On weren't exactly chockablock with contemplative ballads in the mold of "Runaway Train."

So yeah, Dave Pirner & Co's "Sony years" were demonstrably more consistent with the aforementioned GDU and subsequent Let Your Dim Light Shine and Candy From a Stranger ebbing and flowing on a more linear, and dare I say conservative course.  Par for the course when punks sign to majors - the odd feathers get plucked, sometimes a lot quicker than even the most devoted fanboy expects.  While You Were Out was Asylum's last indie hurrah, and although I'll never fault them for making the leap, the irony is Mpls' little quartet that could had already made a quantum stride between their raucous, wet-behind-the-ears '84 debut Say What You Will Clarence to the largely more tuneful and occasionally disciplined Made to Be Broken a year later.  Those two album were the focus of nicely bonus-ized reissues in late 2018, and now 1986's While You Were Out is seeing a similar overhaul, with the subsequent Clam Dip and Other Delights ep hitching a ride with some totally unreleased material. 

What made Soul Asylum so effective was their ability to emanate character without any one member of the band being a character themselves.  Never was this facet more evident than in the band's nascent, pre-Grave Dancers era.  The secret sauce constituting albums like WYWO were the congested, frenetic arrangements of it's creators, frontman Pirner, Dan Murphy on guitar, the late Karl Mueller on bass, and thrashy as-all-get-out drummer Grant Young.  "Carry On," "Crashing Down" and "Miracle Mile" all bear the punky, ramshackle tincture of their Replacements-informed roots, but by this album Asylum's rambunctiousness was tempered by something resembling melody and/or restraint.  And the hooks get downright heady on "Closer to the Stars," a near-anthem of their early years, wherein thoughtful and vaguely philosophical notions made their way into the quartet's wooly mix.  The relaxed-fit "Passing Sad Daydream" is a corny ballad that closes the record out in typically sardonic S/A fashion.  Albeit not entirely consistent, While You Were Out is still overflowing with highlights, many outdoing the cream of the crop on Made to Be Broken.

Soul Asylum were clearly on a roll - one that perpetuated through their first major label outing, Hang Time.  '88s Clam Dip and Other Delights ep isn't necessarily part of that volley, as it were, given it wasn't a proper album.  Instead, the six-song hodgepodge with the spot-on Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass album jacket parody is a collection of loosely executed covers and some outtakes yielding jovial but mixed results.  One of the standouts, "Chains," was originally the invention of another Minneapolis act, The Wad, that Soul Asylum keenly transform into an essential missing link of their own.  There were two versions of Clam Dip making the rounds, depending on what side of the Atlantic you obtained it on, but Omnivore's reissue includes all the songs from both incarnations.  Four Twin/Tone-era outtakes conclude the CD incarnation of the reissue.  While You Were Out and an expanded version of Clam Dip are available separately on vinyl.  Physical versions are available now straight from Omnivore, and Amazon has you covered as well.

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