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After years of throwing albums at an apathetic wall to see what stuck, Soul Asylum finally hit pay dirt with their '92 effort Grave Dancers Union. Their two previous albums screamed frustration (Hang Time) and demonstrated their knack for writing catchy college rock songs (and the Horse They Rode In On), but this time they took a deep breath, counted to ten, and made a classy commercial album perfectly capturing the imagination of early nineties scenesters.
The big hit of course was Runaway Train, bolstered by its attention grabbing video; a walking talking charity advert for missing kids. Black Gold with its war = bad theme is a similarly paced song, and along with Train is a fair representation of the band in ballad mode. The rockers, however, are real barnstormers. Somebody to Shove and Get on Out are real fist pumping anthems, great choruses, great sound, and complementing their softer side perfectly. The 2 highlights for me however are shouldabeenaHUGEhit Keep it Up, a life affirming driving tune if ever I heard one, and Without a Trace. The latter boasting the sublime line "sitting in the sun with a Popsicle, anything is possible".
It's actually a little unfair to single out one line from an album bursting with outstanding lyrics ("Though the rain weighs down your wings, still the caged birds got to sing" from Keep it Up, "I'm waiting by the phone, waiting for someone to call me up and tell me I'm not alone" from Somebody to Shove, "I am so homesick, but it aint that bad, cos I'm homesick for the home I never had" from Homesick, I could go on all day), but they were a great lyrics band from day one.
Whilst not quite on a par with 89's Hang Time to these ears, this was to be the peak of their commercial achievements. Sadly they faded back into obscurity faster than they'd crawled out of it, despite knocking out a handful of fine albums afterwards. A band that deserved so much more than they ever got. A real shame.
Grave Dancers Union the 7th album by long serving rockers Soul Asylum still stands as the bands biggest commercial success to date but is also something of a mixed bag when it comes to song quality.
The commercial success of the album was mostly fueled by the success of mega single 'Runaway Train' which is undoubtedly the albums (and possibly the bands career) Highlight. However there is a lot more on offer here to elevate the band above the one hit wonder status that has plagued the bands career.
With 'Grave Dancers Union' Soul Asylum ditched the indie/punk sound that had them labeled as also rans throughout the 80's for a much more commercial approach to song writing and as apposed to making them sound like a bunch of sell outs (see the Goo Goo Dolls for a prime example of that) it actually brought the bands qualities to the for front. These being A strong sense of melody and Dave Pirners Emotional cracked and broken vocal style.
On songs such as the for mentioned 'Runaway Train', first single 'Somebody to shove', 'Without a Trace' and 'Black Gold' Soul Asylum have created an album of very good heartfelt mid tempo rockers that no doubt paved the way for other bands in the genre such as Matchbox Twenty and Counting Crows.
There are some duff moments here, with the band sounding a little half baked when attempting to return to there rockier past ( 'April Fool' and '99%') but ultimately this is a good album full of very well written songs.
Yep, this is the one with 'Runaway Train' on it.
If the truth be known, Soul Asylum had been written songs of equal quality years prior to their breakthrough smash, it's just that not too many people were paying attention. Their previous album to this, 'Hang Time' was a glorious collection of ragged punk, packed with melody and shot through with the wonderful lyrics of Dave Pirner (Pre Winona)
'Grave Dancers Union' follows the modern rock template of mixing up the rock songs with a few ballads (one of which, 'New World' is probably the best thing on here) and it really seems that Pirner has managed to adapt his songwriting style to perfectly into the accessible early 90's rock framework so that Soul Asylum say comfortably alongside their (grungier) peers.
Their power eventually faded after this album, becoming more of a countrified version of themselves, and Pirner became 'That Bloke that went out with Winona'. For a few years, over a group of classic albums, Soul Asylum were simply a very good band.
Grave Dancers Union by Soul Asylum
This 1992 record was actually Soul Asylum's sixth, although many probably mistook the Minneapolis alt-rock five-piece for a new act, riding in on the coattails of the Seattle sound of Nevermind and Ten from the year before. Despite the heavy sound of the lead single, Somebody To Shove, singer and songwriter Dave Pirner actually has a fine ear for a more traditional style of ballad, and it was the third single, Runaway Train, that brought the band their biggest success, and won the 1994 Grammy Award for the best rock song. It was accompanied by a video from director Tony Kaye (who went on to make the Edward Norton prison drama American History X) and which highlights the plight of runaway children. Grave Dancers Union (apparently an apostrophe is not deemed necessary) went double platinum and the band contributed music to the films Clerks and Chasing Amy. The follow up record Let Your Dim Light shine sold well too, but that was pretty much it for the band commercially, although they still record and perform to this day. Rhythm guitarist Dan Murphy also contributes to the band Golden Smog, which is a side project for alumni of various other bands including The Jayhawks, Wilco, Big Star and The Replacements. Indeed, some of the songs on this record show alt-country and folk tinges. Booker T even guests on Hammond organ, and there are some string arrangements too. Drummer Grant Young was fired from the band not long after this record. Bassist Karl Mueller passed away in 2005. Dave Pirner was briefly famous as the boyfriend of Winona Rider in the early nineties.
One - Somebody To Shove
Opens with a screechy guitar riff then a punchy rhythm framework that under lays vulnerable vocals before a more aggressively loud and upbeat chorus and a big and tuneful guitar solo. Pirner is perhaps a bit whiny but he sells it authoritatively and I like his voice and think it has character. The band has plenty of energy on this first track. It's got a good beat and a strong tune. The lyric to the chorus "I'm waiting by the phone / Waiting for you to call me up and tell me I'm not alone" suggests the song is about anger replacing love: "Cause I want somebody to shove / I need somebody to shove / I want somebody to shove me."
Two - Black Gold
Starts in a more acoustic fashion before the gruff vocals and heavier rhythm guitars throttle a bit more force from the material. But basically this single was a popular ballad and the second best known song on the record. There's a quiet interlude with a siren and the sound of a crowd milling about and maybe a news reporter. The lyric seems to be about a war veteran suppressing his anger at the 1990 Gulf War, so black gold refers to oil. "I don't care about no wheelchair / I've got so much left to do with my life." But he's also looking backwards at his neighbourhood, and perhaps remembering childhood skirmishes between kids, and wondering if people ever grow out of territorial squabbles.
Three - Runaway Train
This is probably one of the most famous songs of its type from the mid 1990s and it's got a very classic acoustic guitar feel, a lot of hooks, and a big catchy sing along chorus. There's a Hammond organ subtly filling out the depth of the music too. Pirner puts plenty of feeling into his words about battling depression. "Bought a ticket for a runaway train / like a madman laughing at the rain / little out of touch, little insane / it's just easier than dealing with the pain."
Four - Keep It Up
Another noisier song with prominent rhythm guitars and grouchy but tuneful vocals. "Gonna get what I want if it takes forever." The lyrics extol the virtue of perseverance: "I'm gonna put it back together if it tears me apart" but "it's just that things don't always go the way you planned." The catchiness of the song once again makes misery sound a little too cheerful but the sentiment is always sincere.
Five - Homesick
A more plaintive sounding song but which once again has an exceedingly infectious chorus as Pirner imagines he is "stuck inside this fleeting moment / tucked away where no one owns it / wrapped up in a haste and by mistake got thrown away." He concludes "it ain't that bad" feeling "homesick for the home I never had." The vocal sounds yearningly optimistic and the rich guitar sound is luxurious enough to wrap around your shoulders if you need to keep warm.
Six - Get On Out
Feigns a rockier intro before launching into an exuberant roller coaster ride through an electrified slice of Wild West countryside: "Will I be on the streets tomorrow / will I have to beg and borrow / will I have to go back to the job I left behind."
Seven - New World
A slower number, with string arrangements accompanying the acoustic sound of the band. The lyrics "live in a lonely little town" where "no-one's around except for the drinking" and argue that if "you can't believe in yourself" and "can't believe in anyone else" then "why sit and wait for the new world to begin?" The music suggests the uplifting feeling of making plans you never put into action but hope you will.
Eight - April Fool
One of the few genuine hard rock songs on the record, this starts with a big guitar riff and the vocals are fairly distorted. The rhythm section holds back for a while to keep the sound relatively spacious though so it's a song with attitude rather than outright volume and it never really strays much beyond mid tempo either. Pirner ropes in some friends to sing the choruses with him.
Nine - Without A Trace
Another great guitar pop ballad and the final single from the record. Rhythms and melody swirl with plenty of energy as the vocal occupies more mournful territory as it contemplates running away. The album title, Grave Dancers Union, is taken from these lyrics, although Pirner may have over done it with the rhyming on this one: face, disgrace, place, suitcase, place, trace, trace, face, waste, trace, trace, mace, face, trace, trace. Life seems to be a struggle to find direction: "trying to do the right thing / play it straight / the right thing changes from state to state."
Ten - Growing Into You
A swaggering electrified rock song. The vocals are delivered with a whiny snarl but the melodic hook is generous and the big guitar solo has a crisp and clean sound. The lyric observes "there's one thing that I know that's perfectly clear / you never grow out of fear," before insisting you must "get over it."
Eleven - 99%
The guitars are more claustrophobic and paranoid on this track than elsewhere and the vocal is heavily filtered through raspy fuzz. It's reasonably melodic but all the same the brash presentational style isn't entirely enjoyable in my opinion although I suppose it provides the record with greater sonic variety. There are a few instrumental interludes that just tread water really.
Twelve - The Sun Maid
The melody is too simple on this song and rather plods along in my estimation leaving the strings to sound more interesting in the background. It has something of a nursery rhyme quality about it at times. I kind of feel this is a great album but it finishes with two of its weakest tracks. Get rid of 99%, April Fool and The Sun Maid and I'd happily say this is one of the strongest guitar records of the 1990s.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Somebody To Shove
2 Black Gold
3 Runaway Train
4 Keep It Up
6 Get On Out
7 New World
8 April Fool
9 Without A Trace
10 Growing Into You
12 Sun Maid