I remember the instant hipster derision when this came out. Specifically, I remember watching the lead single’s video, and a friend of mine – a hipster if memory serves – was nearly apoplectic when Slash stepped forward to play the solo. Apparently such a longstanding expression of “rock” authenticity was just totally uncool, at least at that moment in time.
But hipster derision doesn’t really tell us anything at all about the music on Contraband. Hipster derision usually – but not always – involves not listening to something but judging it anyway. I think this derision is – in this case – misplaced for two important reasons. Firstly, Stone Temple Pilots have usually been derided as a post-grunge band. I think most hipsters would be surprised to hear actual artiness in STP, artiness that is the antithesis of post-grunge (in fact, you might say that post-grunge is all about ridding the artiness from grunge); artiness that goes against STP’s clear ambition of being arena rock stars. Also, I think most hipsters are too young to remember how dangerous – dare I say how cool – the Gunners were considered in 1987. Those of us too young to remember need to have a good sense of history to know that and hipsters don’t like history – otherwise they wouldn’t be hipsters. But these are two things that, in 2004, were certainly out of date. So how exactly do we approach this strange beast?
Two ways immediately come to mind: treating it as the logical conclusion to STP and treating it as if the Gunners replaced their lead singer. (And ignoring the pseudo-existence of G’n’R sans-band.)
The first approach strikes me as one stemming from those who like to see the Vocalist as Everything in a band, whereas the converse is more often true. It gives way too much credit (for good or ill) to Weiland and his heroin addiction and it also ignores the music within Contraband, which contains very little of STP’s awkward and somewhat forced artiness and little of their “grunge”-ness, whatever that is.
But the other approach seems just as flawed. Only two original Gunners are present (Sorum was a session guy, essentially): Slash is responsible for some of their most noticeable moments but when one looks at the songwriting – at least where they credited it individually – he’s hardly a standout. Duff may have authored the Gunners’s best song (“So Alone”) but he was not their best songwriter – that would be Izzy, who has been off on his own reasonably successful planet for some time – and in fact both Slash and Duff were partially responsible for some of the Gunners’ worst moments (“Get in the Ring” for example). The fact is the Gunners were far greater than the sum of their parts, regardless of who was drumming. The moment Izzy left, things were no longer the same.
So I think either approach is highly problematic and the truth lies somewhere in between. The music here sounds to me like it was produced as if it was STP – or geared towards STP’s audience, which makes sense given that their fans are younger – but much of the music itself sounds like a slightly updated version of the Gunners might have sounded like without all their characteristic naughtiness and flamboyance, much of it provided by Axl. Certainly this music is far too rooted in classic rock cliche to resemble much of STP’s oeuvre. But it doesn’t exactly sound like the Gunners and it is not just because Weiland has some very Weiland touches here and there. (Some of the backing vocals sound stolen from STP songs.)
And I know I’m kind of saying that this is a Gunners-STP hybrid, but that’s not exactly what I mean. If anything, I mean it’s something less. It’s actually missing too much of both, if that makes sense. Slash plays in fine form, but the music he and his other bandmates contribute doesn’t exactly make one feel like we are listening to Appetite for the first time. Weiland is less annoying than he could have been – provided you don’t listen to the lyrics – but he has certainly brought the less interesting parts of STP with him.
The result is something that is just very meh. I’d like Slash’s solos more if I liked the songs that led into and out of them. I’d pay even less attention to Weiland’s attempts to pop things up if the whole thing sounded rawer and louder. I’d like the whole thing more if Duff had contributed something on par with “So Alone”, etc. I can’t for a second say this is bad, as it is very competent and capable and all of that. And there are moments that work well.
But it is meh in a way that is disappointing to me as a fan of the original Gunners. I wish it could be more.