Soul Asylum was never anybody’s little brother.
First released in late 1986, While You Were Out is Soul Asylum’s third LP. Produced by Chris Osgood (Suicide Commandos), the original 11-song collection finds the scrapping young lads in fine form. Reissued now by Omnivore with a round of bonus tracks, including a 1989 EP, Clam Dip and Other Delights, this collection reminds us that Soul Asylum was always a hardscrabble outfit, capable of writing powerful songs with a particular worldview intact, one that has carried over into even its latter-day work. Though forever linked to Minneapolis pals The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum was never anybody’s little brother. By the time While You Were Out arrived, even those outside the Twin Cities had to reckon with the quartet’s particular might.
There was always a hint of stadium-level sounds to the material, a sense that though Dave Pirner and his crew could appreciate punk rock and were essentially punk (in that flannel-wearing Midwestern way), their eyes were fixed on a larger prize. These were guys who could get down with the obscure English bands in your older brother’s record collection but could also (probably) appreciate the spectacle of groups such as Kiss. The songs were smarter, of course, and more ambitious, but it was always easy to imagine them translating from some South Minneapolis hovel to a huge stage.
The volume here is, from the beginning, blasting. Opener “Freaks” benefits from dynamics that make it seem like the perfect candidate to be worked into an extended live jam. There’s unmistakable magic between Pirner and Dan Murphy in the guitar department, something that carries over to the anthemic “Crashing Down,” “The Judge” and the amphetamine-and-blues driven “Closer to the Stars.” On the last of those, Pirner proves that he was far more steeped in soul music than many of his contemporaries. He climbs through melodies like a man who’d heard his share of Stax and Motown while dreaming of burning down the world with his six-string.
Meanwhile, “Never Too Soon” suggests that SA wasn’t above being influenced by its hometown heroes. Namely, The Replacements; this track burns like something off Hootenanny or Stink. But it’s not all fast and furious. The sunshine pop of “No Man’s Land” gives us glimmers of the collective’s future pop glories; “Carry On” feels like a revelation even today and one wonders how it escaped the firm but fickle grasp of radio. “Passing Sad Daydream” remains an endearing experiment in dynamics and emotions as well as being a brilliant album closer.
Clam Dip reveals a more mature sense of composition via “Just Plain Evil,” a vintage Aerosmith-style rocker that may be among the best the group ever issued. A cover of The Wads’ “Chains” combined with Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero” are as engaging as anything else, including the folk-driven “P-9.”
Four previously unreleased bonus tracks round out the collection, including a hair-raising “Saving Grace” (no wonder metal fans could get behind these guys), “Forever and a Day” (a nice glam-laced number), “There It Goes” (a nice glimpse of the lads having a lark) and a demo of “Artificial Heart.”
If you’ve never dug Soul Asylum (and liner note scribe Jon Wurster admits he didn’t at one time), this and the other reissues that Omnivore has been overseeing give you a chance to catch up and it’s really worth it. Lucky for us, there are other territories available to rediscover. The excellent 1988 effort Hang Time and 1990’s And the Horse They Rode in On are further evidence of a band that had (or should have had) the world at its feet.
What’s more, we are reminded throughout of the late Karl Mueller’s significant contributions to the musical landscape. His bass playing, along with Grant Young’s drumming, serve as a loving anchor amid the storm surrounding them.
The excellent packaging (including Wurster’s aforementioned insights) and excessively good music make this one of the better reissue packages you’ll lay your hands now or any time soon.