Two years ago, Springfield rockers Staind scored a surprise smash on the pop charts with the introspective ballad "Itís Been Awhile." At the time, the band were coming off a platinum major-label debut, Dysfunction, and had already established a decent foothold at rock radio. But whatever hopes they had for the follow-up, Break the Cycle, skyrocketed when it debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 chart with what turned out to be one of the biggest weekly sales totals of the year. The disc went on to sell four million copies ó and according to guitarist Mike Mushok, that significantly upped the pressure during the making of their new album, 14 Shades of Grey (all three releases are on Flip/Elektra). "After Break the Cycle did a lot better than any of us ever anticipated," he explains, "we realized that we had become responsible for a lot of people making a lot of money. And with that, everyone wants to be involved. I mean, when we made Dysfunction, nobody heard it until it was done being mixed. Nobody cared, you know? I mean, they did, but now itís like everybodyís got their producerís hat on. Theyíre like, ĎI think you should change this lyric.í What? Get the fuck out of here."
To judge by the parental-advisory label on the cover of the album, Staind won that particular battle. And the way their business team tried to interfere with the creative process also ended up inspiring the bandís new single, "Price To Play." "We fail to see how destructive we can be/Taking without giving back ítil the damage can be seen," sings frontman Aaron Lewis at the outset. Those lines are easily applied to the atmosphere of greed that surrounds the world of commercial rock, but their implications are universal.
"One thing Aaron does a lot is take something specific and broaden it so it can apply to more people," Mushok goes on. "That song deals with the price that everyone has to pay to do what they do. Thereís definitely some frustration in doing what we do, but Iím not going to complain about it because Iím doing exactly what Iíve dreamed of forever. Are there things that go along with it that make it difficult? Yeah, but you know what? You have things like that in your job, too, and so does everyone else."
"Price To Play" covers familiar territory for Staind: Mushok kicks it off with a thunderous guitar riff, and Lewis takes center stage during the driving, radio-friendly chorus. By the time Lewis is barking his way through the songís convulsive bridge ó "What you pay to play the game" ó itís become clear this is the bandís heaviest single since the Dysfunction hit "Mudshovel." "Itís definitely an aggressive song, but thereís still a lot of melody," Mushok points out. "Thatís the reason we picked it to be the first single."
Staind put "Price To Play" near the top of their set list back on May 17 at the Manhattan Center in New York City, where they played the second of four free shows to celebrate the release of 14 Shades. The performance was broadcast live over the Internet, and the band played seven new songs over the course of an 85-minute set. As usual, Lewis and Mushok were an exercise in opposites on stage: the bald singer remains reluctant to engage his fans, whereas the affable guitarist is more than happy to pick up the slack. Sporting a classy faux hawk, drummer Jon Wysocki started the show with an anxious snare pattern, and bassist Johnny April contributed stellar vocal harmonies.
The groupís presence might have been unassuming, but the new songs did the talking. 14 Shades is easily the most upbeat album Staind have ever made: they keep the unplugged stuff to a minimum, and Lewis even abandons the sourpuss routine long enough to celebrate his new-found success. The surprises start with the second track, "How About You," which recalls U2 with its swirling guitar melodies and easygoing rhythms. Lewis still sounds cynical about the music biz ó "I sold my soul to get here/How about you?" ó but he also sounds willing to seek redemption in a pretty song. On "So Far Away," he reveals that stardom has brought him peace: "I can forgive, and Iím not ashamed/To be the person that I am today." Mushok matches the trackís inspirational theme with a gentle folk-guitar strum thatís miles away from the dour cadences the band are known for.
As proud as he is about what Staind have accomplished, the greatest source of happiness for Lewis these days is his family. He wrote the lilting ballad "Zoe Jane" for his baby daughter, both as a celebration of her birth and as an apology for all the time he has to spend on tour. "I want to hold you/Protect you from all of the things Iíve already endured," he coos over a waltzing acoustic-guitar backdrop. "Fill Me Up" is a hard-rock love letter to his wife, Vanessa: "You fill me up, youíre in my veins/A look could take my breath away." The sentiment is sweet, but the music is stormy ó Zoeís lullaby aside, the discís quiet moments are few and far between.
Around the same time Lewis became a father for the first time, he also learned that one of his heroes, Alice in Chains frontman Layne Staley, had died. On "Layne," the band deliver a pitch-perfect tribute to the fallen grunge god by appropriating the psychedelic vocal harmonies and light/shade dichotomy of prime AiC. Lewis still has plenty of despair in his life: the epic power ballad "Blow Away" finds him kicking and screaming at lost memories during a dark day on the road, and "Yesterday" is the latest in a long line of songs about the emotional trauma of his childhood. But with the string-driven "Intro," he ends the album on a positive note: "Thank you to the people in my life for putting up with me."
Staind brought their Manhattan Center set to a close with a parade of hits that ran the stylistic gamut, from the naked catharsis of "Itís Been Awhile" to the crackling angst of "For You" and "Mudshovel." But the one that got me was the moody power ballad "Home," which was their current single the first time I ever saw them, at the 2000 Boston Phoenix Best Music Poll party. That was back in the halcyon days of new metal, when they were still riding Limp Bizkitís industry coattails. That era is long gone, but the song still sounds fresh, and thatís the ultimate tribute to the bandís staying power.
"Everyone says fans are fickle, you can have them now and they can leave you, and weíre very aware of that," Mushok acknowledges. "We just write songs that we like, and weíve been very fortunate that thatís translated to songs doing well in the marketplace. All we tried to do was focus on writing good songs and putting together a record thatís listenable from beginning to end. Thatís all we can go by, because thatís all weíve ever gone by."
LIKE STAIND, Portlandís 6gig released their major-label debut, Tincan Experiment (Ultimatum), at the end of the new-metal explosion. They stood out by virtue of their pop leanings ó frontman Walter Craven was a versatile singer with an ear for a sharp hook ó and they got some national exposure with the single "Hit the Ground." But the album never took off, and the band were dealt an emotional blow when original drummer Dave Rankin died last spring, shortly after leaving the band.
6gig decided to carry on with new drummer Jason Stewart, and now theyíre back with a new album, Mind over Mind (Ultimatum), which was tracked early last year with Rankin behind the drums. The group ó whoíll be performing June 12 at the Middle East ó produced Tincan Experiment by themselves, and until recently they were primarily a local operation. These days, theyíve got former Tool and Janeís Addiction manager Ted Gardner on their side, along with producer Matt Wallace, who recently worked with labelmates Sugarcult and whose résumé boasts discs by Faith No More and the Replacements.
The bandís lofty commercial aspirations are apparent on the albumís first single, "Free." The track busts out of the gate with a raunchy riff that shows they havenít yet given up on new metal, and guitarists Craven and Steve Marquis unleash some impressive space-age stun licks halfway through. Craven faces his personal demons and emerges a new man on the uplifting chorus: "ĎCause Iím free, Iíll never go back again." Like "Hit the Ground," itís a catchy song with enough bite to make Foo Fighters proud.
"Free" is straightforward enough to fit into the conservative hard-rock climate that has risen in the wake of new metal, but the rest of Mind over Mind is more progressive. Mixing the personal with the surreal, the dysfunctional family epic "Deadbeat" blossoms into a noisy psychedelic jam ą la Radiohead. Craven has a few words for his absentee father on the thudding "Proud," which leaves room amid the bitterness for some tasteful pop shenanigans. He also takes successful stabs at unplugged balladry ("Say Goodbye") and rampaging pop punk ("Squeezed Out Plot"). The commercial hard-rock world is a crowded one, but 6gig deserve the larger stage theyíre shooting for.
6gig appear Thursday June 12 at the Middle East, 480 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square; call (617) 864-EAST.