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Soundgarden: Rock's Heavy Alternative

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Soundgarden's hooks aren't the kind that play Sousa marches in your head all day if you hear them in the morning. Rather, they sneak up on you cat-burglar style, ethereal snippets of lullaby and mood-altering chord progressions that appear from nowhere and often disappear just as quickly.

Cornell's lyrics, too, are probably an intellectual stretch for the typical MTV viewer. Although the pervading gloom and cynicism of Cornell's writing provides a certain in-your-face aspect, what really sets Soundgarden apart is the singer's flair for metaphor. Even on autobiographical material, Cornell keeps most of his cards up his sleeve: His songs are surreal word paintings, with a distinct visual quality that probably goes underappreciated by the let's-party-dude set. "The hand of God's got a ring about the size of Texas," he sings on Screaming Life's "Hand of God." Badmotorfinger's "Mind Riot" finds Cornell "tightrope walking in two-ton shoes."

"That's the way I like to read poetry or hear lyrics," says Cornell. "Things that are really personal song after song are irritating. A lot of lyricists are that way: 'Me, me, me. Me again. More me.' I don't think that a listener can necessarily relate to that."

After eight years of recording, the members of Soundgarden are well aware that their music isn't everybody's cup of tea. Their status as late bloomers in the mainstream-acceptance sweepstakes seems more a merit badge to them than anything else.

"There's sort of an underdog mentality that helps you pull up your bootstraps when it feels like everyone's against you and you're saying, 'Fuck you,'" says Cornell. "You know, 'I'm different, I'm special, everyone hates me.' That worked for us for years. We loved to play at shows where everyone would sit there with their arms folded; we really fed off that.

"I can't say that we're motivated by anything but achievement," he continues. "And the achievement isn't based on things like Grammy nominations or chart positions. It's based on what we do musically and how we personally feel about it. Nothing could be worse for us, I think, than if we made what we thought was the worst record we'd made, and it ended up selling a lot. I think we're all so self-conscious and prone to disillusionment that that would really make our lives hard as far as wanting to make another record after that."

Cornell says the scenic, one-fan-at-a-time route is preferable for another reason: He and his band mates are more grounded for having adjusted to the limelight – and the mounting pressures – gradually.

"There's never been a moment when we just woke up and were successful," he says. "Even the fact that we just went gold – it wasn't like we were popping bottles of champagne. I mean, it's good to reach that point, and it seems like a really big accomplishment for the kind of band that we are. We've never changed the way we recorded, and I feel really fortunate. But this isn't one of those situations where one day nobody knows who you are, and the next day you've sold a million records."

"We've worked very hard to get where we are," says Cameron. "And it's been a very gradual thing. Once we get past that to where it might be a mass popular thing, we might hate it. And I'm not really in any hurry to get into that situation."

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Song Stories

“Bizness”

Tune-Yards | 2011

The opening track to Merrill Garbus’ second album under the Tune-Yards banner (she also plays in the trio Sister Suvi), “Bizness” is a song about relationships that is as colorful as the face paint favored by Garbus both live and in her videos. Disjointed funk bass, skittering African beats, diced-and-sliced horns and Garbus’ dynamic voice, which ranges from playful coos to throat-shredding howls, make “Bizness” reminiscent of another creative medium. “I'd like for them not to be songs as much as quilts or collages or something,” Garbus said.

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