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Alice in Chains – Jar of Flies

September 19, 2008

While Alice In Chains made a great deal of angry metallic hard rock, they also made two EPs worth of equally emotive music. Both Sap and Jar of Flies are melancholy EPs that find Alice in Chains at their most vulnerable. While Sap was a fun outing, it was also a little unsure of itself. Jar of Flies, however, perfectly articulates what it is trying to say without missing a step. What makes it so appreciable at first listen is how different it is from any other Alice in Chains release, in that none of the songs have the heavy crunch that the full albums do, and instead rely on texture and simple melodies to do their work.

Launching with Rotten Apple and Nutshell was a dangerous move. These are two of the band’s most well put together songs, and one would think that putting them back to back would make for too difficult of a beginning. But their juxtaposition only does them good. Rotten Apple is the albums foremost statement. Everyone is at their instrumental prime here. Layne Staley works layered vocals like no one else can in wispy flourishes, Jerry Cantrell presents an almost funky sounding guitar solo while alternatively strumming complex but warm chords, Mike Enez’s bassline is the strong supporting undercurrent of the song, and Sean Kinney delivers a knockout drum performance. All of this comes together to make quite a start…sad and affecting, yet somehow fun and digestible, as Cantrell’s fun riffing at the end suggests.

If Kurt Cobain ever wanted to heal the fully realized articulation of what it means for “comfort in being sad,” we can only wonder if he heard Nutshell before his suicide later in 1994. This is likely the saddest song committed to recording, mostly due to Layne Staley’s vocals. His delivery is completely earnest and believable, and when he says that he would be better off dead, we know he means it. Kinney’s steady rhythm sounds almost like the crackling of a campfire. Enez’s bassline is once again the core of the song. Cantrell takes the cake with a memorable chord progression and a muscular solo.

From here the album hits its emotional extreme with the second single from the EP, I Stay Away. This is about the hardest and softest the EP gets, all within the same song. After a short delicate string intro, the song starts its light, emotional verse. Each verse is interrupted what feels like halfway before it should to make way for an angry alternate second verse, which sounds like a slowed down Dirt outtake. The song teeters in this schizophrenic style until it finally reaches its chorus only to be once again interrupted by the angry second verse. When the song finally does hit the entirety of its chorus, the full force of the violin melody does its emotional damage. This song is the blends the sadness that precedes it with the recovery that proceeds it.

And that recovery comes with No Excuses, the disks first single, which pulls the listener up by their collars into something more happy. Instead of settling for despair like the songs before it do, No Excuses, much like Got Me Wrong from the Sap EP, seems to offer a constructive solution to the problem, and therefore lyrically feels very accomplished. It also helps that the song might just be the catchiest single in Alice in Chains’ library. Once again, the performances all around the board are perfect, and by this point we can trust the band. Also notable here is Jerry Cantrell’s excellent backup vocal performance. It is hard to not think of Staley and Cantrell as being one of the best vocal duos in rock history.

Whale and Wasp is the EP’s odd duck, in the sense that it is an instrumental. However, it is just as well constructed a song as any other piece on the disk. Like its title suggests, it also deals with extreme contrast, like I Stay Away, albeit somewhat more softspoken. The song alternates between a minor toned guitar strum that is complemented by sharp, haunting solo tones, and a more happy chord progression that is complemented by a cello solo part. By the end of the song, both parts meld to make a lush major toned melody that acts as a compromise to the conflict that came before it.

After this we have the most tender song on the album, Don’t Follow. The song is a lullaby, the basis of which is a lightly plucked melody on an acoustic guitar from Jerry Cantrell that develops into a gospel piece with Layne Staley’s finest vocal performance on the disk. And finally, the EP is capped off with the funky sounding Swing On This, probably the most positive song Alice in Chains ever made. In fact, Layne Staley does say “I’m okay,” halfway through the song, albeit in his signature haunting doubled vocals, but we believe him here as much as we believed him on Nutshell. The speaker finally gives up being alone and says that it is time to come home, which is a proper resolution to listlessness, confusion, and recovery present on the rest of the album. Jerry Cantrell ends the disk with a similar funky guitar solo to that which ended Rotten Apple at the beginning of the EP.

The magnitude of excellent songs on Jar of Flies would have been enough to make the EP be one of the best ever. These songs are completely confident of themselves and understanding of complex emotions. But its development is what makes it truly striking, and an easy pick-me-up for me when I feel sad. I used to think Sap and Jar of Flies should have been combined to make Alice in Chains’ finest full album, but I see now that this could not have worked. Jar of Flies is perfect on its own. It tests the limits of the artistic possibilities of the EP format and succeeds in revealing a wealth of conclusions of its strengths and boundaries, as well as being a perfectly formed album. And it ended up being one of the top selling EPs of all time, and also being the first to reach number one on the Billboard Top 200. Those numbers don’t lie. This is likely the greatest EP of all time and Alice in Chains’ definitive statement.

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3 comments

  1. have my love child


  2. what is an EP? you said it like 500 times.


  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extended_play

    “An extended play (EP) is a vinyl record, CD, or music download which contains more music than a single, but is too short to qualify as an LP. Usually, an EP has around 10–28 minutes of music, a single has up to 10 minutes, and an album has 30–80 minutes. Mini-LPs generally contain 20–30 minutes of music. In the United Kingdom, the Official Chart Company defines a cut off between EP and album classification at 25 minutes length or four tracks (plus alternative versions of featured songs).”



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