There was a time when Soul Asylum was more than just a gateway between the college-dazed rawness of the Replacements and the adult contemporary stylings of the Goo Goo Dolls. Before frontman Dave Pirner started dating Winona Ryder and singing about "Runaway Trains" and all that other genius pop-rockery, Soul Asylum was simply four dudes from Minneapolis who played by their own loud, fast rules, mixing that city's barroom hardcore zeitgeist with some original wit and rhythm. The hyperkinetic jams they kicked out on the legendary Twin/Tone label landed 'em a deal with A&M in 1988, resulting in two albums and one EP for that label.
The 40-odd jams represented here capture (nearly comprehensively) the era in which the band channeled Pirner's clever-boy-next-door-cum-rock-god lyrics into their previously-scheduled full-throttle, "amps-to-11" Midwest bar-rock gut-punch. In short, it was a transitional period. But what a transitional period! There may have been a click track in that major-label-supplied studio, but if there was, you never, ever felt its presence in the club-tested lock groove and slam that Soul Asylum presented on such track as "Bitter Pill" and this comp's opener, "Down on Up to Me."
They had volume, swing and punk rock energy always in search of a hook on which to hang the distortion. Tracks like "Sometime to Return" and "Easy Street" point the way toward the string of Top 40 hits the band would soon enjoy (after signing to Epic), while still conjuring that twitching, grinning mop-topped-head-banging, flannel-clad Minneapolis dude in the front row. And if there was any doubt regarding their capacity for good old-fashioned licks, sticks and kicks, there are several live tracks (including covers of Screaming Jay's "I Put a Spell on You" and Lulu's "To Sir With Love"!) included here that get at the heart of why this band was that sweet spot between the 'Mats' stumbling genius and Hüsker Dü's full-throttle intensity.
Chris Handyside writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail [email protected].