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Scott Weiland's "12 Bar Blues."

By Matt Ashare

MARCH 30, 1998:  Stone Temple Pilot Scott Weiland's 12 Bar Blues, the troubled singer's solo debut, won't be in stores till this Tuesday, March 31. The disc has, however, already been the subject of some fawning previews, reviews, and feature stories. Rolling Stone salutes its "ambition" and "urgency." Spin, though alluding to Weiland's cluelessness, credits him with "the best Bowie song in years." And Alternative Press, once a bastion of Weiland bashing, calls the album "utterly fearless." All this for guy who has not been particularly popular with the music press in the past. Roundly criticized for stealing from the great Seattle triumvirate (Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam), then blamed for sullying alterna-rock's hard-won integrity, and finally hated for not accepting responsibility for either offense, STP have easily been one of the most scorned bands of the decade. Of course Weiland, as the story goes, spent those years laughing all the way to his dealer, feeding heroin and cocaine addictions that led to an arrest in 1995, a canceled tour in 1996, and a rather tepid Weiland-less sojourn for the rest of the band, whose album as Talk Show has SoundScanned fewer than 60,000 units to date.

So why all the fuss over 12 Bar Blues? Well, for starters, now that Weiland's cleaned up his act, he has a juicy celebrity-survivor tale to tell -- "I've been to hell and back, man," he's quoted as saying in his latest press bio, disingenuously copping one of Persephone's better-known lines. (For the gritty details of his epic Dantean journey see the April issues of Alternative Press, Request, and/or Details.) The Great Pretender of Grunge has, it would appear, completed the first stages of the standard post-trauma image makeover, one in which the pathetic court jester returns from a harrowing ordeal as a knight in shining armor -- or, in this case, a suave, Gucci-wearing musical visionary. And that's just plain more fun than a new Pearl Jam album, if not quite as entertaining as an allegedly philandering president.

All cynicism aside, 12 Bar Blues is more interesting and ambitious than the first two turgid Stone Temple Pilots albums ('92's Core and '94's Purple), though you had to admire the sophisticated nature of that band's Pearl Jam/Nirvana facsimiles. Working primarily with former Samiam drummer and fellow rehabber Victor Indrizzo (piano/guitar/co-songwriter), producer/engineer Blair Lamb (Sheryl Crow), and Eno protégé Daniel Lanois (who mixed several tracks), Weiland dabbles in everything from the wham-bam glam of thank-you-ma'am Bowie to the pomo Achtung of early-'90s U2, baby!, from the melodic inversions of the Revolver Beatles to, well, the arena angst of STP. Sheryl Crow drops by to play accordion on the cabaret-style waltz "Lady Your Roof Brings Me Down," and Grammy-winning pianist Brad Mehldau lends a little jazz cred to the cocktaily "Divider."

In other words, 12 Bar Blues is a mess -- which is genuinely refreshing coming from a guy who's been so neatly packaged in the past, and who by the way does have one hell of a voice, whether his falsetto's caressing a power ballad like "Where's the Man" or he's biting into a rocker like "Cool Kiss" with a deep growl. The album's also not as big a departure from STP as some might have you believe. In the melodramatic "Where's the Man," for example, Weiland wanders up the same dark, brooding alley as in Core's "Creep" and Purple's "Big Empty," with a little less guitar churn for company. And let's not forget that with '96's Tiny Music . . . Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop the Stone Temple pirates were already moving on from the overcrowded Isle of Grunge to dip into the glam pop of "Big Bang Baby" (a "Jumpin' Jack Flash" rip), the barfly crooning of "And So I Know," and lots of little Beatle-isms.

Weiland's bout with substance abuse may give his pained bloodletting ("Grab a scale and guess the weight of all the pain I've given with my name") on 12 Bar Blues an illusion of depth he's never had before. But that's a red herring. The real action here takes place in the surface arteries, when industrialized guitar distortion intersects with a vintage Beatles chorus in "About Nothing" -- which, like most of the disc's best tunes, actually is about nothing. (The mechanized grind of U2's "Zoo Station" shows up twice, in "About Nothing" and on "Cool Kiss.") "Barbarella," the tune Spin called "the best Bowie song in years," is "Space Oddity" crashing into "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide." And the best tune that didn't make the album -- it's called "Lazy Divey" and I heard it on an advance tape -- is so "Hey Jude"-by-way-of-"I Am the Walrus" that Paul McCartney would definitely have been getting some of the royalties. So, yes, Weiland's every bit the narcissistic sonic kleptomaniac he's always been. But on 12 Bar Blues he lifts cooler shit. And that, apparently, is the difference between an "artist" and a hack.

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