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Alice's EP unchained from grungy self-indulgence

JAR OF FLIES

Alice in Chains.

Columbia Records.

By Scott Deskin
Associate Arts Editor

Grunge is out. A friend of mine revealed this to me last June in a city not far from Seattle, Washington, grunge capital of the world. For me, his preemptive statement seemed to tarnish the follow-up albums of Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and other "grunge" acts before they were even released late last year. For a while, it seemed thatrecord companies took the grunge hype seriously and then tried to exploit it for all it was worth. Like punk rock in the late 70s, grunge was supposed to shake up the music industry and create a resurgence of hard-hitting guitar-based rock in the pop charts.

Of course, the whole grunge movement was a myth. And a letdown of the fickle world of pop music was inevitable: no longer blessed with a song with pop/rock crossover explosiveness (e.g., Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or Pearl Jam's "Alive") the two most popular grunge acts failed to resonate with their pop audience to the degree that made their previous albums so surprising. Both Nirvana and Pearl Jam owe much of their success to a primary crossover into the singles charts, but are now focusing their efforts toward a largely rock/alternative audience.

Alice in Chains is no exception to the above formula. Slowly (but not quietly), they earned respect with Facelift (1990), and then upped the ante with an album heavily steeped in drug/heroin motifs with Dirt (1992). The relative heaviness of material contained in their sophomore effort did not faze record-buyers (producing the hits "Rooster" and "Would?"), but was greeted less enthusiastically by critics who felt that guitarist Jerry Cantrell's and vocalist Layne Staley's music was a bit too weighty and self-indulgent.

There is no such problem with their third release, an EP entitled Jar of Flies. This seven-song set captures the same lyrical message and angst of previous albums, but in a much more subdued setting. Sharply contrasting with slabs of neo-grunge-metal from their other albums, songs like "I Stay Away" and "No Excuses" are executed with a more relaxed, natural, and less visceral feel.

But this doesn't mean that this group is making an acoustic-based retreat or is coasting on in-between album filler. It is mood music, blending Staley's distinctive, throaty baritone with the usual guitar, bass, and drums and the wistful baroque feel from a supporting cast of violins. The lyrics, as usual, are filled with disgust, fear, and longing ("Hands are bruised.../Drained and blue/I bleed for you/You think it's funny, well/You're drowning in it too" from "No Excuses"), but without Staley screaming the refrains, the songs become miles more personal and poignant. Even "Whale and Wasp," an instrumental, fits seamlessly with the other songs on the album.

In fact, this may be Alice in Chains' best piece of work to date. Unlike U2's Zooropa, which alienated some listeners by trying to be too avant-garde, Jar of Flies is instantly accessible to popular listening, or -- dare I say -- a radio-ready format. Still steeped in confusion and angst, Alice in Chains may not win over a whole new audience from the pop realm. But with this album, Alice in Chains is ready to take a harder look at the musical movement and marketing strategy called "grunge" that spawned them, confront it, and go on to explore the edges of rock, alternative, or whatever they like.