By Chris Parker
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In the seven years that I've been a Minneapolis resident, I've spent plenty of time championing local-turned-national music, whether it meant watching Atmosphere charm an audience in the middle of a sweltering California desert or enjoying a static-y VHS tape of Lifter Puller's appearance on Jenny Jones. The local scene has always helped me feel more at home in my adopted city. But does being a homer mean that I have to pretend to like everything?
When it comes to the '80s and '90s bands on which Minneapolis stakes its legendary reputation, there's Prince, Hüsker Dü, and the Replacements—great acts all. Then there's Soul Asylum. At this point I slip into my imitation of Michael Bluth questioning his son's taste in girls on Arrested Development: Her? I mean, them?
For a non-native Minnesotan, Soul Asylum are just that band that did "Runaway Train," the video I spent the better part of 1992 trying to avoid on MTV. Since moving to the Twin Cities, I've heard a number of songs that friends deemed the group's best and I still don't see what the big deal is. Not that a little pride for local '90s heroes is something to be ashamed of. I'm sure Tempe residents get all excited over breaking Gin Blossoms news and Williamsburg, Virginia, still loves its Seven Mary Three. (Hell, being from Wisconsin, I've been known to reminisce about Citizen King's early coffee-shop gigs. Remember them? Anyone?) But Minneapolis invests Soul Asylum with an air of mythos that would be deemed ridiculous anywhere outside the 612.
That being said, I tried to listen to their new CD with an open mind. A little more than a year after the death of bassist Karl Mueller, the band is releasing the record many thought would never come—The Silver Lining, their first studio album in eight years. This was a chance to get to know my neighbors a little better, to bond with likeminded, local-loving friends. I was determined to get to the bottom of this.
I did not get to the bottom of this. The new album is largely inoffensive, which is a nice way of saying I almost made it through the whole thing in one sitting. But somewhere along the way, perhaps while Dave Pirner was wailing about a "Bus Named Desire" (yes, I said "Bus Named Desire"), I started having flashbacks to little Timmy, missing since 1987. I just wanted to change the channel.
The bus song rocks out in a way that's hilarious and exaggerated, and convinces me that Soul Asylum are vying for an opening slot on Poison's tour. Overall, the band's melodies are occasionally catchy in a bar-band-from-the-'burbs kind of way. But the lyrics wouldn't be worthy of a high school poetry mag, with rhymes so predictable and trite that I could guess the second half of the couplets before they were brought to life by Pirner's cornball rasp. The opening track opines, "You might be right/You might be wrong/You might just think your life has gone on for too long," and later, "It won't take long/You can't go wrong/Stand up and be strong." To his credit, Pirner could have thrown in the most useless of all lyrics, "And that's why I wrote this song," but he didn't.
On "Crazy Mixed Up World" he offers a string of clichés about violence and poverty: fighting in the streets, people's obsessions with guns and money, panhandlers that leave you "wishing for change" (har har). And then there's the inexplicable verse about ranching. In "Slowly Rising," Pirner drops a line employing "weapons of mass destruction" as a sexual metaphor. Ballads like "Good for You" fare a little better in that they thrive on maudlin sentiment. Then comes the chorus: "I think I'd be good for you/Just like orange juice." Someone call the Florida citrus council.
So in the end, I learned nothing from this listening experiment. For what it's worth, I hear they're great live, although, as you can imagine, I'm not exactly counting the days until their next show. Sorry, guys. I just don't get it.