Alice In Chains

Columbia Records, 1990


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


When you have a collection as vast as the Pierce Memorial Archives (if any more musicians die, we're going to set off the fire alarm due to the memorial candles), sometimes I don't always get the opportunity to give an album a second chance. I'll listen to it a few times, then file it away, digging it out only when I have a desire to listen to it or to review it.

Fortunately for me, readers like Trent Nakagawa help to refresh my memory. In a recent e-mail volley we had, Trent raised the question why we hadn't reviewed anything by Alice In Chains in our 13 months on-line - and asked me to take another look at Facelift, their 1990 debut album.

It took some digging, but there it was, next to the Poi Dog Pondering and Dire Straits (don't ask... I gotta stop letting Wild Man Fischer categorize my tapes). And, while Facelift has some very solid moments, it mostly captures a young band still feeling out where they wanted to go in the business.

One of the harder bands to come out of the Seattle scene, Layne Staley and crew proved themselves to be worth our attention when they released a three-song EP We Die Young, an album which had me slamming my head into the walls when I was in college radio. "We Die Young" is an incredible track, featuring the crunching guitar work of Jerry Cantrell, Sean Kinney's trap work and a solid bass line provided by Michael Starr.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

These days, however, Facelift is remembered for "Man In The Box," a song which combines the best elements of funk, rock and metal and whips 'em into a whole new flavor of its own. Kinney's drumming often throws in flashes of thrash with subtle double-bass work, while Cantrell proves himself to be one of the most promising guitarists of this decade. (I think the term "guitar god" went out in the '70s with disco, but if someone were looking to resurrect the term, he'd be an ideal candidate.)

One of the more telling songs, at least in retrospect, is the album's closer "Real Thing," the story of a junkie who seems to want to break free from his addiction. If we had only known that this could have been Staley's cry for help, the band's present-day status might have been different. It's a little sad and painful to listen to today, seeing that the band has splintered apart due to Staley's recurrent drug use - but at the time, this cut could have been a very poignant picture of a life of addiction.

There are other solid performances on Facelift, notably "Sea Of Sorrow," "I Know Somethin (Bout You)," "Confusion" and "Bleed The Freak", where the band's talents clearly come across. Maybe the reason we don't know some of these as well as other Alice In Chains songs is because they really didn't fit neatly into any genre. They were too hard for alternative, and not heavy enough for metal - and fortunately for us, they seemed unwilling to compromise in either direction.

But the biggest problem with Facelift is an occasional lack of cohesion and direction. When the band kept their songs shorter, they were more in focus. But on cuts like "Love, Hate, Love" and "Put You Down," it sometimes feels like they're drawing the song out for no apparent reason. The end result is I find myself losing focus with the album on several occasions.

Don't get me wrong, I found more to enjoy about Facelift on this listen than I did when I bought the tape back in 1990. It's just that Staley and crew were still trying to find their musical niche. (They were still searching when they released the EP Sap, and seemed to find their groove with their next full-length album, Dirt.)

Facelift is still an album that's worthy of your attention, though it might be a little difficult to get through in one sitting. And if you can separate Staley's problems from the band's early days, you may find some surprises lurking on this one.

Rating: B-

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© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.