For Old and New Fans Alike
Mother Love Bone was a short-lived grunge/alt-metal Seattle band that recorded from 1988 to 1990 before lead singer Andrew Wood died of a take-a-guess overdose. Far from a historical footnote, Mother Love Bone’s influence was inversely proportional to their sparse discography. The surviving members channeled their formative experiences in Mother when forming new bands such as Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
The band has made a welcome return into the musical conversation in 2016 due to the recent release of On Earth As It Is: The Complete Works. On Earth is a sprawling 40-track compilation cornucopia encompassing remastered tracks, unreleased songs, remixes, and B-sides. Obviously, this will not be a front-to-back listening experience for casual or new fans, so let’s deconstruct this Bone bonanza piece by piece.
The album starts out with the remastered versions of about ten of their biggest hits in more or less decreasing order of popularity. Thus, the beginning is a perfect place to start for the uninitiated. As its name suggests, opening track “This is Shangrila” demonstrates Wood’s penchant for conjuring dreamy, escapist landscapes filled with woozy colors, endless dancing, and lovers whose touch is as soft as a butterfly’s wings. Yes, the guitars are distorted, the bass growling, and the drums shattering, but Wood’s vocal contribution makes Mother Love Bone one of the most unabashedly sentimental grunge outfits in the genre’s history.
Wood has the frontman charisma to maintain this mood without dipping into cheesiness. This is fortunate, because certain lyrics would come off as uninspired without his effortless charm, like “Capricorn Sister”’s tepid offering that “Love breeds like rabbits.” Like rabbits? Slow down, Baudelaire! Nonetheless, Wood’s imagery is largely rich and often quite funny, such as when he compares his indefatigable quest for romance to a “stubborn goat on trial” on “Heartshine.”
OG fans of Mother Love Bone may feel tempted to skip past the remastered tracks. Yes, the audio quality is a little bit better, but anyone who’s been listening to the group’s 17-song discography for the past 26 years probably has every last note burned into memory. The rest of On Earth offers glimpses into the band’s humble yet glamorous beginnings, its short but sweet heyday, and the future that almost was.
Demo versions of classics like “Chloe Dancer” may surprise long-time fans with their roughness. Woods comes off as unusually vulnerable without his polished veneer, but the insight into his creative process is an unambiguous positive. The live tracks are also a highlight, particularly Wood’s go-for-broke performance of “Stardog Champion” at the Plant arena.
“Stardog” gets a third rendition near the album’s close in a live performance by Pearl Jam. Hearing Mother Love Bone’s music performed in the 21st century is a slightly jarring experience. Pearl Jam’s made-for-stadium acoustics mollifies Mother’s inherent scrappiness; nonetheless, any new music is like an oasis of the purest water for the long-deprived fans of America’s most exuberant grunge band.