Some LPs I’ve bought recently I really wished I’d discovered as a teen, simply because when you’re that age, as opposed to a harassed bald wage slave, you can just kick back and live in an album – spend all afternoon, all day just luxuriating in it, rather than a few cursory listens when your mind is racing elsewhere. One such is Soundgarden Ultramega OK. It came out in 1988 when I was 16, had I been the hippest 16 year-old in Carmarthen I could have spent nights listening to it driving around at night in the rain, drinking cheap cider to it at the beach, spinning it in my room in the dark, attempting to get to first base … you get the picture.
Instead I discovered it when I was 39 and so I’ve spun it a few times listlessly while my daughter has been driving me crazy, drinking strong coffee to stay awake, spinning it in the dark and falling asleep, attempting to get to Homebase … you get the picture! Ain’t it fun, to quote Stiv Bators.
Ultramega OK is an album that deserved far more of my time than I’ve given it thus far, so I offer the following as my defence against a charge of Vinyl Neglect In The Third Degree*. To be honest the album title, as it was intended to be, is a pretty honest description of the contents – the band were very unhappy with the production by Drew Canulette. As an album there are moments of standout brilliance, some common or garden good stuff and a few boring bits too.
As a positive sort of chap let’s get stuck right into the brilliance. My favourite track is the most METAL one, ‘Beyond The Wheel’. This sounds like the best obscure Germanic metal track you’ve never heard; slow and doomy, shrill and gloomy and very roomy. Chris Cornell** sings pessimistic sentiments in a wonderful half-strangulated falsetto when the song really shifts into gear, that sends all manner of thrills pulsing through my jaded and calloused central nervous system. The music is also very sparse, the drumming brilliant and Kim Thayil’s solo jagged and effective. This has just kicked ‘Outshined’ into second place in my Top 5 Soundgarden tracks.
I’m also really fond of ‘Mood For Trouble’ with its half acoustic riff and churning indie-ish beat it hits some of the same ground as, my beloved, Jane’s Addiction and again Kim Thayil plays a blinding solo again; ‘Flower’ ditto. Big bonus marks also go to the half-crazed rave up of ‘Circle of Power’ sung in a demented fashion by Hiro Yamamoto, which the band later ripped off (in spirit at least) for their own ‘Ty Cobb’, it’s a proper hard charger with a slight touch of SST hardcore about it. the best bit of ‘Circle …’ is when it all breaks down and Hiro sings,
‘Ol’ big bad ass circle of power’s comin’ to getcha!’
in a fully certifiable fashion.
Where Ultramega OK loses is the second side, which is at best amusing – see their cover of John Lennon’s ‘Two Minutes of Silence’, but at worst dull – how can tracks called ‘Nazi Driver’ and ‘Head Injury’ bore me? their cover of ‘Smokestack Lightning’ changes enough that I didn’t recognize it and isn’t bad, until you realise just how incredible the original is.
You can hear most of the bits that went to make up Soundgarden here, metal, punk, indie, churning beats and Beatles-esque harmonies, together with a wicked sense of humour that marked them apart from the usual bunch of wilfully alt-metallers that were cropping up at the time. Perfect hindsight aside, would I have picked them out on the basis of Ultramega OK as having real, massive potential? probably not, but the talent is all there groping towards that realisation. Employing full-on heavy producer Terry Date next time around was a step in the right direction.
Maybe I just hold the fact that I never got my jollies, or my heart-broken, or drank so much Southern Comfort that my liver cried, to the sound of this album, against it, entirely unfairly of course. That’s what you get for discovering teenage kicks 24 years too late.
*I’d also like a related offence of random capitol-letterization to be taken into account, your honour.
**recently voted hottest dude on Earth in a recent poll of Mrs 1537s.