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First off let me first say that this has been one of my most favourite albums for 20 odd years, so its gonna be pretty hard to write an objective review but I`m gonna give it a go. Alice in Chains were always one step ahead artisically and musically of the rest of the grunge scene. Where they led others did there best to follow.
Jar of flies follows on from the mainstream success of Dirt with `Jar of flies` and in doing so threw the listener a curve ball. Gone are the savage, distorted riffs and in are the acoustic guitars and the tastefuly restrained electric guiatar solos such as the one on `Nutshell`. There`s even a string section in the intro to `I Stay away` but despite your worst fears that this would sound contrived or overblown it all works and sounds just perfect. The strings allow Layne`s voice to soar like never before and his harmonies with Jerry are the stuff of legend. Have two voices ever been better matched in a modern rock band? I think not.
With just 7 tracks you might be thinking you were being shortchanged, but the quality and variety of the music far out ways its short running time. They even manage to slide in a short instrumental piece `Whale & Wasp` without it sounding out of place.
In short Jar of flies is Alice in Chains at their emotional and creative peak. Sheer genius!
Many rock music fans will often cite 'Dirt' as the best album of the grunge era. Ask an Alice in Chains aficionado what their favourite album is and chances are they'll say 'Jar of Flies.'
While most bands riding the wave of a successful second album would quickly release a third full of paint-by-numbers numbers and similar sound-a-likes, Alice in Chains did something entirely different. They got out their acoustic guitars and released a seven-track mini-album. Nowadays, acoustic albums are released by pretty much everyone when artists become either bored of their own sound or want to "artistically challenge" themselves. Back then it was almost unheard of - especially when the band had just had its break-out monster hit album. But that's precisely what Alice in Chains did -and what an album it was.
The first track is the hauntingly beautiful 'Rotten Apple,' a long, sentimental track with some wonderfully meandering solo guitar work more likely to be heard from David Gilmour than Jerry Cantrell. Next up is the beautifully bleak 'Nutshell,' which possibly explains the feelings the band had about being in a successful rock band, with them "chasing misprinted lies" and having their privacy raked. Whatever the song's sentiments, it's a very strong second track - even more important when you are only choosing to record seven.
'I Stay Away' follows, which sounds slightly more like classic Alice. Not because they've suddenly plugged in and down-tuned their guitars, but its chorus has a more familiar harrowing feeling compared to others on the album. But when you consider that the song also contains a rather quite exquisite string arrangement, you still forget that this is written by a grunge band who have written songs like 'Sick Man' and 'Junkhead.' 'No Excuses' is that rare beast on this album, a catchy number with mainstream appeal - which almost makes it sound unwanted. Nothing could be further from the truth. This, genuinely, is Alice in Chains at their best and I am yet to hear anyone groan when it appears on a playlist. This is a song that never, ever gets skipped.
The only song that slightly disappoints on the album is 'Whale and Wasp,' and that's only because it's an instrumental track. 'Don't Follow' is an underrated tune in my opinion. With Cantrell singing the lyrics, it has a country feel with its finger-picking guitar style and harmonica playing, but the song gradually builds to a wonderful crescendo with Layne Staley taking over the vocal duties and giving the whole track a new sense of power. Completing the album is 'Swing on This,' a good track but not quite worthy of its position of album closer.
As an extra treat for Alice fans, when you buy this version of 'Jar of Flies' you also get another four-track acoustic EP called 'Sap,' originally released after the band's first album 'Facelift.' (Technically, it's a five-track EP as it contains the uncredited 'Love Song,' but you'll see what I mean when you listen to it.) All four of the songs on 'Sap' stand up as great acoustic songs of their own and wouldn't look out of place on 'Jar of Flies.'
Fans would probably pick 'Got Me Wrong' as the one truly great track from 'Sap,' which found commercial success after being featured in the Kevin Smith film 'Clerks' and performed in Alice's MTV Unplugged set. However, personally I don't think you can get much better than 'Right Turn,' a beautifully simple little guitar track which features some wonderful vocal harmonies between Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell, before a couple of familiar guest vocalists turn up (in the form of Chris Cornell and Mark Arm) to sing the song out. It's one of those moments you wish you'd witnessed - all those great singers and musicians essentially getting together and having a campfire sing-along. It's just stunning.
Most people consider the music of grunge bands like Alice in Chains to be all about loud guitars and distortion pedals, and while that stuff was (and still is) great, it was the respites provided by these two mini-albums which made Alice in Chains different from any other band around at the time. To fully appreciate the band Alice in Chains is to judge their entire oeuvre, and proof why 'Jar of Flies/Sap' is as essential a purchase as 'Dirt.'
After the bleak junkie grind of previous album Dirt few would have predicted the warm majesty of their next release. Where in the past their tracks had a habit of shouting or snapping at you, this time they hold out a friendly hand and guide you along the way. It's this reassuring nature that makes the album easy to love and get drawn into.
Rotten Apple opens with an almost mournful bassline, and gradually builds up to a sublime pace with its skitterish percussion and tasteful lead guitar. Layne Staleys vocals are strong here, as they are throughout the album. Second track Nutshell showcases the vocal harmonies that were an Alice in Chains trademark, against an autumnal acoustic setting.
I Stay Away is an epic tune, the guys in the band playing at their peak and joined by strings, it's a really beautiful song. The drama is left behind for No Excuses though, an unashamed pop song and great mood lightener.
Whale and Wasp is an instrumental track written by Jerry Cantrell way back when, and it fits in well here, if not quite standing on its own. Don't Follow is akin to I Stay Away, a delicious tune with a dark undertone, and the closing Swing On This is a playful throwaway tune that ends proceedings on a fun note, a first for Alice.
What you also get tagged onto this release is the 4 track EP Sap, first released some 2 years previous, and a hint at the splendour to follow. Standout track is Got Me Wrong, whilst the Wilson sisters from Heart also pop up elsewhere.
But overall it's the 7 tracks of Jar of Flies that are the real winner here. Whether making a racket or quietly strumming away, Alice In Chains flaw you every time.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Rotten Apple
3 I Stay Away
4 No Excuses
5 Whale And Wasp
6 Don't Follow
7 Swing On This
9 Got Me Wrong
10 Right Turn
11 Am I Inside
12 Love Story