Like live albums in the Seventies, unplugged CDs have become the vehicle of choice for bands in the 90s interested in gaining "stature" for themselves. Produced in tandem with MTV, unplugged shows, and their accompanying CDs, often find otherwise simple, hard-rocking outfits (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) surrounded by candles, chandeliers and ornate tapestries that look as if they'd just been yanked from the Sultan of Brunei's personal audience chamber. Accompanied by ultra-serious-looking string sections, these shows are clearly meant to bring out the given band's Earnest, Serious Side. Unplugged CDs aren't necessarily selling the show, per se; they're selling a sense of intimacy, a sense of having been gotten a peak of the group when it had its guard down. As simple, hard-rocking Live would say, unplugged shows and discs are selling you the drama, baby.
The packaging for these unplugged discs is often strangely majestic as wellit's not unusual, for example, to get scented paper, tons of carefully distorted photographs and a wealth of audience shots, all pepper with mile after mile of line credits, themselves typeset in a carefully cultivated, gritty-looking font. The impression created is not so much of having caught a small, live concert in New York on some random weekday night, but of having crystallized a critical, historic moment. This wasn't just a few acoustic numbers, these albums all but scream, this was a Turning Point in Rock.
That having been said, once one gets past the fascinating packaging, unplugged records can actually be a rewarding experience from time to time. Nirvana's Unplugged in New York is a fine example of a band stretching its wings in a new format, and Neil Young's similarly unpowered effort worth checking out as well.
Alice in Chains, like just about every other act in the known universe, have made a bid for acoustic glory as well, though their effort isn't entirely free of flaws. The problem isn't in the selection of songswith tracks from just about everyone one of their releases, this CD is perhaps the best sampler the uninitiated could get of their musicor in the sound quality (like Nirvana's disc, this release boasts a crew of engineers who figured out exactly how far away the microphones needed to be).
The only problem, and it's only an intermittent one, comes from the band's performance itself. Though "Nutshell," the set's opener, is executed efficiently enough, "Brother," which immediately follows, sounds sluggish and uninspired beside the version which appears on the Sap EP. Given that the EP cut was also acoustic, their unplugged version is a bit of a mystery: why does the true live version sound timid and unrehearsed, while the EP versionrecorded only hours after the band wrote the songsounds positively booming with confidence? Why does "Got Me Wrong," which was recorded under identical conditions, and which also begins as an acoustic song in its EP incarnation, sound similarly hampered on this new disc? Likewise, why does Layne Staley's voice, which soars to staggering heights on the band's other releases, sound a little ragged here? Especially given that it doesn't have to compete with a forest of amps?
Of course, there are those who would argue that a ragged voice is exactly the thing for an unplugged recordwhat better way to showcase a band's "natural," "raw" and stripped-down side than with a set of vocal chords worn tough as leather? What better instrument is there with which to contrast the elaborate packaging than a hoarse cry? To be fair to Staley and company, though, there are numerous moments when this side of his sonic delivery offers an interesting tone to the tunes. "Down in a Hole" and "Angry Chair" sound more desperate than their Dirt counterparts when delivered by a singer who sounds as if he's just staggered out of his own crypt, and "Rooster," robbed of its studio gloss, might very well be closer to the way guitarist Jerry Cantrell meant for it to sound in the first place. "Would?" gets almost geniuinely creepy, especially when one peruses Staley's cover photo when listening to the track. Clad in black and topped with a tousled head of hair, he could very well be Doestoevsky's troubled Raskolnikov come to life, a similarity enhanced by the song's resounding chorus: "Am I wrong? / Have I gone too far this time?" Staley'ser, Raskolnikov'svictim would no doubt agree.
Ultimately, then, Alice in Chain's unplugged disc is a lot like attending an actual, live performance: interesting in places, mostly enjoyable throughout, and worthy of a little talk by the water cooler the next day. The artwork and the million candlesyes, like all other unplugged CDs, this one features them in overwhelming abundanceare a neat touch, but, as with other artwork on studio CDs, they can only wow so much.