Sometimes critics categorize the Atlanta-based Collective Soul as grunge. Yet something does not seem right at all about that label. We think of grunge bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and the seventh wonder of the world, Silverchair. These bands generally play a barrage of power chords, open chords and exquisite lead parts all coalescing in a bed of feedback. It helps if these bands have a good lead singer, but the singer is not what identifies them. Collective Soul departs from grunge in this respect. From beginning nearly to the present, the lead singer and his backup vocals are the focal point, denying their place among the gone, but not forgotten, grunge movement. A very good friend of mind, a lifelong rock fanatic, told me there never was a grunge movement. He said it always was just "hard rock." I see his point entirely. Our labels are a little too convenient to have a bearing on the truth. We want mile markers instead of recognizing that every band listed has its own unique identity, take it or leave it. Collective Soul has certainly been true to its identity for nearly the whole span of its existence. Their first album, Hints Allegations and Things Left Unsaid, has an unusual history which can be found on Wikipedia. The biggest single, "Shine," would never be matched in their impressive repertoire. Another good song off the first album was "Love Lifted Me." It's heavy on rhythm guitar and a catchy chorus. "Heaven's Already Here," sounds like the southern band they are with very good harmonizing backup vocals -- a little repetitive, though. Then they have the audacity to include orchestral music on their first effort. This did not hurt their sales of this very popular album any. What grunge band, by the way, used orchestral music? Acoustic guitars? No, I do not see them being labelled grunge. This first album is rounded out with a few different sounding songs -- the rocking "Breathe," the punk sounding "Scream" and the laid back "Burning Bridges." Maybe the last song on it fails to cause much interest, but there aren't many on this album like that. The good reviews proved more than just hype. The beginning of something vital and relevant to rock-n-rollers everywhere originated with the release of this first album.
The self-titled second album enjoys the benefit of a slicker production. The guitar excels compared to the first. The evolving style matures from the more primitive raw sound that characterizes the first album. Even the drums have more clarity and blend into the music more tightly. The lyrics are easy to understand. In the second song "Untitled," (yes, that is the song name alright) familiar rhythm guitar drones from one chord to another only to disappear while the lead flies off the handle with an interesting part. The third song listed represents to this album what "Shine" did to the first. The infusion of orchestral music creates a slow, thoughtful ballad, "The World I Know." Find a person who lived in the 90's who did not see the video. It really brought some fans into the fold. So did the sinister sounding "December." Again, the vocals are key with some keyboard and a minor chord progression. All that sets the stage for the minimalist "Where the River Flows." A real bare bones rocker. Filler muddies up the last half of this album. In the last song we find something this band will do from time to time. They write lyrics sometimes with imagery taken from the Bible. But they do it in a non-religious way. They are certainly not alone in this practice. Rockers have been stealing from the Bible for a long time.
Two years pass between the self-titled second album and their third, Disciplined Breakdown. The band had time to work on their sound and songwriting. By the release of this third album, their fame is catching up to them. With the status comes the attending pressure. The first song is more melodic than usual. The instruments have a sound that has more definition than their previous ones. The lyrics include material a bit arcane and the singer uses many big, unpoetic words. The second song "Listen" makes you want to clap your hands and dance around in circles. But what the high paid consultants want to know is can it fit in the format? Personally, this may be my favorite CS album. I know there are no big hits on it. It doesn't matter. The guitarist tries new styles, new sounds. The music is more even, more subdued. The horns in the song "Full Circle," might surprise us as they take their place in a song that sounds more like pop than rock. Some will be open to that experimenting and rightfully so if they expect to appreciate some of the later music. Much filler in the end of this album comes as an annoyance but "Crowded Head" makes up for it. We hear lead singer, Roland, singing falsetto in one song. The album's last song has a lot going for it. I like it where the lyrics go: "Everything is everything." Never really thought about it like that before.
Another two years pass and CS releases their fourth album, Dosage. The album cover does nothing to build an interest in the album, but rather quite the opposite. The album opens up strongly with "Tremble for my Beloved," featuring a wall of electric guitar. This recording includes some songs that are perhaps the most guitar-oriented of their career. The second song "Heavy" has a very strange lead guitar part completely in sync with the urgent singing. This song is lightened up by the next, "No More, No Less," a carefree tune. The fourth, "Needs," was not improved by the untreated falsetto despite its sweet sound. This song may appeal to those who are not CS fans. Orchestral parts and acoustic guitar help to compliment the singer's untreated vocals. With "Dandy Life" we find our first organ in a CS song. The song comes dangerously close to being pop. One would expect a rock and roll song with this title to be sarcastic. -- nope, just CS being themselves. They really don't waste their time being social critics like some other rockers. Then the song "Run," which is just about my favorite song of theirs, finds itself buried in the middle of this solid album. Again, an orchestral accompaniment draws our attention. It is very pronounced this time, but does not distract from the song. This song has perfect balance, but some will think it is too much like pop. They should realize by now that the band is making that transition. We also appreciate the absence of filler on this one. The last song only is a dud.
On CS's fifth album, Blender, a song fourth on the playlist called "10 Years Later" tops all the others in composition and presentation quality. It is a slow song with treated vocals, but doesn't make up for the first three songs being horrible, however. The band must have forgotten how to play their instruments on those. So they added lots of synthesizer crap. For someone who likes the pop of CS's later albums, I find Blender goes too far. It really doesn't help that Elton John sings on the album. He is legendary to the point he can do no wrong. Well, until he sang on this album. He sings the one called "Perfect Day," which is what you might be having until you listen to this album. Then it will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. I wish I had something good to say about Blender. If it were even mediocre, it would not be so bad.
Evidently, other people felt the same way. It took the band four years to produce an album worth hearing, called Youth. This time they succeed with a more pop-oriented album. They open Youth with a loose song, a feel-good song, somewhat danceable. What is music, if not to have fun with it? Collective Soul was never caught up in the sanctity of art over commercial. People are building myths when they ascribe the art of CS as a given. Everything about this album clicks. One of the producers of Youth produced Blender as well. The difference was he has a new co-producer this time and the change gets noticed.
The best song on Youth, by far, is "How Do You Love" -- notably, with orchestra as well. But just listen to the song "Home" and can a person insist they have completely lost their bearing? Nope, not like CS did on Blender. The guitar is better and the keyboards are not anywhere near as annoying -- not to mention the improvement in the songwriting. They have the energy they had in the past. They are not your garden variety, drug addled musicians. Yes, the music sounds more commercial than back in the 90's. We live in a different world now. They try to fill a void in modern rock and appeal to young people as well. That doesn't mean radio stations will acknowledge the effort. All I know is that on the song "Him" there are handclaps. No one is ever too cool to have handclaps in their songs. That should be the criteria of every DJ on the planet - play the handclap songs. The singer sounds sort of like Tom Petty on "Perfect to Stay" -- Petty also a radio reject, an anachronistic figure in the world of rock music. Who would know that Lady GaGa and every other tramp without talent would own modern music? Song number ten on CS's Youth, "General Attitude" rocks like the old days. The album ends with another orchestra accompanied song called "Satellite." It is soft and nice and I find no flaw in it.
Three years after Youth, CS released their seventh album, Afterwords. The first song, "New Vibration," could pass for something off Youth -- except that this song is a bit better in that it rocks AND has handclaps. The lead guitar part on "Never Here Alone" really makes the song. The way the guitar, vocals and keyboard go together so well on this song and some of the others shows a marked improvement, a tightening of the band that stand out. The song "Hollywood" sounds like they ripped off the Cars. This album as a whole has its ups and downs. The most noteworthy of the rest of the songs becomes obvious when hearing "I Don't Need Any More Friends." I think just everybody has been there before. This frantic song has the strange energy you might find in a Talking Heads' song. "Georgia Girl" flows along slowly, mostly with vocals and guitar. The album ends with the song "Adored" -- a beautiful song, very slow and the emotion in the vocals is nearing the limit. CS crafts the song that remains the kind of thing you could listen to all day.
The last album of CS is self-titled, but since their second album was also self-titled, they call it Rabbit. A figure of a rabbit can be found on the cover. This 2009 album was released on the same label as Youth and Afterwords. OK, the first song is pretty good. The second one opens up with the band whistling. Hand claps AND whistling? This could be the greatest band since Led Zeppelin. I bet they have more fun anyway. Or they can remember the fun they had. The last song on the album stands on its merits as a nice tribute song with piano and vocals only. The rest of the album proves to be a fiasco. The first two songs and the last are good and what songs are between them are worse than mediocre. This band has lost its identity for the most part. They sound like every other band out there. I don't expect them to sound like they did in '93, but it would be nice to give an accurate guess who they are just by listening. I don't expect them to rebound from this. If they do, someone has more money than brains.