Review Summary: A poor facsimile of what, I’m sure, were a series of excellent live shows.
I’ve always had a deep-seated distrust of live albums. What I mean is that I find them to be a base betrayal of an avid music-listener’s strongest proclivities. Like a team of well-trained predators, these albums track down and prey on our biggest weakness: the desire for all things Band X. The constant presence of a faceless gaggle of hoarse and delirious individuals in the songs’ background (apparently having the time of their lives at some rather impersonal venue), followed by a few slight changes in the vocalist’s tones and pitch on the night, is often conflated with being an improvement on the original studio recording. The few bars of random guitar doodling at the end of a few songs are also presented as the ultimate rubber stamp of authenticity – like a particularly eloquent “wish you were here” postcard. The more one listens to Soundgarden’s Live on I-5
, the more one sees these elements unfurl. Live on I-5
is a near inch-perfect reminder of why these shoddy excuses for an album should, nine times out of ten, be ignored completely.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: this particular record isn’t even a recording of a single concert. It is instead a (very well) stitched together compendium of tracks which were performed live by Soundgarden in late 1996 at various locations across North America. So why are those song segues are so smooth, then" Although Soundgarden can hardly be accused of mugging their fans, Live on I-5
still does present a band that is more than willing to play up the idea of this being the perfect live show. All the hits, no holds barred, prime-time four on the floor. It is an understandably safe set-up that probably would have worked - had the performances themselves not been so woefully uninspired. Take, for instance, album opener “Spoonman”, which is completely laid to waste by the many superior renditions that one can easily find on YouTube or on innumerable other bootleg sites. There is not a shred of raw life in this particular version, nor any colour or energy; much less audacity. Unfortunately, the following quintet of songs is much worse. Save for the (merciful) editing out of the bizarre animal farm tour at the beginning of “Searching With My Good Eye Closed”, none of the cuts are meaningfully different from their original studio versions found on the excellent Badmotorfinger
. The biggest criminal here is none other than “Head Down”, where the whole band sounds like they were made to play through the auditory equivalent of thick mud.
Indeed, it’s a sure sign that something’s amiss when the best cut available on the first half of the album is none other than a cover of The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter”. The textured chaos of this clangorous piece fits Kim Thayil’s raucous guitar bites particularly well, and with vocalist Chris Cornell succeeding in his attempt to sound right damned and dirty on the microphone, the corpse does manage to jerk a little. But one good song does not a good album make, particularly as things go spiraling down again from there on end. None of the Down On The Upside
live cuts manage to make a decent impression, and it’s not until “Black Hole Sun” makes a belated appearance does the album again show some signs of life. Although it soon transpires that the best had been saved for last – the groovy whup-whup
of “Jesus Christ Pose” is preserved in all its helicopter-blade glory – it is a classic case of too little, too late. Soundgarden will have to release much better material than this if they want to return to the fold after a fourteen year absence.