The Skinny on Songbook
The November release of Chris Cornell’s album Songbook, recorded during live performances of his recent tour, is not intended for new fans. This album features tracks that date back to Cornell’s involvement with bands such as Temple of the Dog (a band that featured former members of Mother Love Bone, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, as well as a rising vocalist of the early 1990s, Eddie Vedder). The setlist offers long-time fans something from each Cornell era (from Temple of the Dog, to Soundgarden, to Cornell’s solo career, to Audioslave, and back to his solo career). Don’t be fooled, though — this is by no means a Greatest Hits-type compilation.
The album recasts earlier songs and successfully presents them in a strange yet familiar framework. It should be noted that, with the exception of one song, “The Keeper,” there are no new tracks on this album. Cornell takes his best headbanging hits and his most beloved rock ballads and introduces them to his audience anew. This live, acoustic version is both surprising and impressive — it’s just a man and his guitar. In this way, Cornell not only reaffirms that he is a dynamo unto himself, but that he can single-handedly capture the full attention of his fans by once again laying out the full range of his vocal capacity and reminding his listeners of his brilliance in songwriting.
Chris Solo vs. Chris with a Band
I have always maintained that Chris Cornell performs at his best when he is in a band and not when he is recording, or playing, solo. Although he is an excellent songwriter, something that he has proven time and time again, I always held the belief that he was more powerful when he was working off of the chemistry he had with Eddie Vedder in Temple of the Dog, or with Kim Thayil in Soundgarden, or amongst the remaining members of Rage Against the Machine, while in Audioslave. His solo albums, in and of themselves, have a few songs on each album that always seem to catch the attention of the masses (e.g., “Can’t Change Me” off of Euphoria Morning); but, it seems that while listening to any album by Audioslave, Temple of the Dog, and Soundgarden there are no tracks that one could safely skip and feel ok about skipping. Every song is just that good. I have not been able to say the same for Cornell’s solo efforts in the past…until now. Perhaps now I am able to see the full extent of his songwriting abilities and the arresting nature of any performance of which he is a part.
Just FYI, you can listen to these songs for yourself on Chris Cornell’s website: Songbook.
Cornell opens the album with the heavy-handed and lyrically vulnerable track “As Hope and Promise Fade.” As he croons “Never more than two drinks away from crying,” he decidedly begins his album with a classic anthem about love lost. With each new commentary that Cornell provides, his performance gradually becomes akin to an episode of Storytellers. This is a good thing. Cornell speaks.
Temple of the Dog: From his Temple of the Dog era, Cornell decides to cover two tracks: “Call Me a Dog” and “All Night Thing.” Next to “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” “Call Me a Dog” is my favorite song by Temple of the Dog and I was glad to see it included in this album. Fans immediately cheered as the song began, which clearly indicated that they recognized it. The re-imagining of the 1991 track proves that at 47, Cornell can still belt the fuck out of his lyrics. Cornell’s solo rendition of “All Night Thing” is so great simply because it sounds as if it could have been recorded in 1991. Cornell’s vocals never fail to impress and this “grungy” version successfully transports the listener to a time without studio excess.
Soundgarden: The acoustic version of “Fell on Black Days” is quite haunting without the drums in the background or the vibrato electric guitar. I absolutely love this bare-bones minimalist approach to this classic grunge tune. Cornell’s replacement of the electric guitar with the acoustic still preserves an intense level of edginess and rock n’ roll. On the other hand, the acoustic version of “Black Hole Sun” is eerie and disarming. While listening to the song, the track does not automatically bring to mind Barbie dolls roasting on a skewer or distorted, melting wax-like faces painted in suspense of a black-hole sun.
Here’s an experiment – Queue up the video on Youtube (link below) and hit play on the album (link to Songbook at the beginning of the track list) and you’ll see what a sharp contrast there is between the remake of the song and the original rockin’ concept for the video.
Solo Cornell: Cornell revisits three songs from his solo career. From his 2007 album Carry On, “Scar on the Sky” is not markedly different from the original version and does well to further showcase the trademark raspiness of Cornell’s voice. His version of “Can’t Change Me,” however, fails to impress. I guess I’m used to the heavily produced studio version on Euphoria Morning, but it seems that the acoustic version doesn’t lend itself well to the lyrics of the song. The acoustic version powers-down the impact of the song and leaves the listener feeling as if he or she is sitting around a campfire (which might be acceptable to some). At the very least, people know the song and can sing along. Lastly, the previously unreleased song “Cleaning My Gun” instantly identified Cornell’s faithful concert-goers. Cornell explains that it’s about a man who loses the love of his life and then contemplates suicide. There’s a reason why this song has only been performed live. I cannot imagine it being recorded, and subsequently mixed, in any studio. It’s a simple track that requires a simple delivery.
Audioslave: The acoustic version of “Ground Zero” is the best thing Cornell could have done for this song. The funkadelic mix that was released as part of his 2009 album Scream was distracting and moved the listener away from his intended message. In this version Cornell mentions the attacks of 9/11 and prefaces his performance of the song by stating that he wants to find a way “to make the world better instead of stupider. “I Am the Highway” translates very well into the stripped-down version that Cornell presents us with. The key chords and vocal inflections are retained, which makes for a nice interpretation of the song. “Doesn’t Remind Me” and “Like a Stone” also prove to be successful crowd-pleasers. However, “Wide Awake” is a rocking track from Audioslave’s 2006 album Revelations. The lyrics “I find you guilty of a crime / Of sleeping at a time / When you should have been wide awake” serve to reinforce the fact that this song needs to be on your stereo at full-blast. For this reason, I find the song an odd choice for this setlist.
Covers: I have a lot of problems with Cornell covering non-Cornell songs. For instance, can the Led Zeppelin classic “Thank You” work without John Bonham’s drums? Can it work with anyone but Plant? I think not. Sorry, Chris — I’m a purist at heart. And while Cornell’s rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” is interesting, it is not quite as interesting as Cornell’s version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” I almost expected this Lennonian-standard performance from Cornell at some point. The version is “ok.”
New Stuff: Lastly, the folksy new single from Chris Cornell entitled “The Keeper,” and made for the movie Machine Gun Preacher, is simply stunning. Listen to it. Enough said.
Most Successful Acoustic Translation: “Scar on the Sky”
Least Successful Acoustic Translation: “Can’t Change Me”
Most Surprising Acoustic Translation: A tie between “Ground Zero” and Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”
Least Surprising Acoustic Translation: John Lennon’s “Imagine”