From the moment they burst on the scene with their debut effort "Core", back in the fall of 1992, critics lambasted the Stone Temple Pilots as a cheap Pearl Jam rip-off, a San Diego quartet that pretended to the Seattle throne. And though there was some amusing grist for their millthe Atlantic records talent rep who signed the band thought they WERE from Seattlethe band were hardly the copycat careerists critics and columnists alike so often accused them of being. Indeed, by turning down an offer to tour with megastars Aerosmith so as not to miss an opportunity to participate in a decidedly less glamorous jaunt with the Butthole Surfers, the Pilots were hardly going for a quick rise to the top. But then their single "Plush" exploded, their album went triple-platinum, and life was never the same. What got overlooked along the way was that "Core" was, musically, a very creditable effort. Filled with churning guitars, eerie echoes, and lyrics which hinted at political revolt and spirtual transformation through sin, the album offered a distinct alternative to the "alternative" music proffered by the likes of guilt-ridden Nirvana and angst-addled Pearl Jam. It was also quite good.
Sadly, that can't be said of the Pilots' latest effort, "Tiny Music ... Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop". Though the album has the distinction of sounding nothing like the band's previous two releasesa good selling point for an increasingly cynical listening audience that views any fidelity to style as a sign of artistic stagnationit also has the unfortunate quality of sounding almost overbearingly like the band's self-proclaimed influences. "Big Bang Baby", the album's first single, comes across as an unholy blend of the Beatles' psychedlic-era fuzz and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust work. The album's opener, "Press Play", could just as easily be an outtake from Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon". On "Art School Girl", singer Scott Weilland mentions that his girl is from "sweet home Alabama" so many times you can't help but wonder if he'd rather his audience were listening instead to Lynyrd Skynyrd. And, laced through it all like nasty slivers of glass waiting to slice the ears, a plethora of Led Zep riffs as blatantly derived as anything one could hear during a typical episode of MTV's Headbangers Ball. Core's "Sex Type Thing" may have sounded more than a little like "Physical Graffiti"-era Zeppelin, but even that song showed some hints of re-invention. The same can't be said this time around.
This is a puzzling change of course from a band that started out with a fairly unique sound, at least as far as guitar-bass-drum set-ups are concerned. Which is not to say that the album is a complete loss. Though "Adhesive" is not the most lyrical profound work, it's a fair ballad as ballads go, thanks mostly to Weilland's surprisingly evocative singing and the soft touch of Robert and Dean DeLeo's stringwork. "And So I Know" isn't bad either, though listening to it one almost can't help thinking of smiley faces, Volkswagen Bugs, lava lamps, and other staples of the Seventies. "Daisy" is an interesting instrumental, but clocking in at only two minutes, it's more of an interesting interlude than a song unto itself, and hence less satisfying. In fact, it isn't until the album's closing track that the Pilots start sounding like themselves again. "Seven Caged Tigers" has an unmistakably world-weary tone to itabout what you'd expect from a band working on the sequal to their second straight multi-platinum hit. "So the answer gets harder," Weilland sings, sounding honestly puzzled by the spectacle of his band's success. "And the truth's getting farther and farther." Loyal fans can only hope it doesn't slip out of sight.