CD Review of The Essential Alice in Chains by Alice in Chains

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The Essential Alice in Chains
starstarstarstarno star Label: Columbia Records
Released: 2006
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April 19, 2002 was indeed a tragic day. I was going about the usual daily duties of a college student when I heard on the news that Alice in Chains lead singer Layne Staley had been found dead of a drug overdose in his Seattle apartment. Adding to the sadness was the fact that he had been dead for two weeks when he was found. Layne had virtually disappeared off the map in his final days. I immediately remembered a passage of my favorite AIC song, “Nutshell”: “If I can’t be my own / I’d feel better dead.” I get goose bumps the size of ski moguls when I hear that song now.

The legacy of music that AIC has left the grunge and hard rock fan is truly a gift. The band, consisting of Staley, guitarist Jerry Cantrell, bassist Mike Inez, and drummer Sean Kinney, expanded and molded the grunge scene to a style all their own. Nirvana was getting the spotlight, but the likes of AIC and Soundgarden played circles around them. From the early days of Facelift and Dirt to Jar of Flies and their poignant and touching Unplugged performance in 1995, AIC never settled for the status quo. Long live the influence of Layne.

The Essential Alice in Chains double-disc does an admirable job of covering the band’s career, but I have a few bones to pick. First off, how in the world did “Down in a Hole” get left off this compilation? Disc one has sixteen songs and run a solid seventy-three minutes, but disc two is only twelve songs and clocks in at only about fifty-six minutes. It could have easily fit in there. It is simply impossible to call this release complete without this tune. Two other notable missing tracks are “Frogs,” the seven minute epic from 1995’s self-titled release, and “Whale and Wasp” from Jar of Flies.

Exceptions aside, the rest of the collection is spot-on. Disc one sports fan favorites “Man in the Box, “ Them Bones,” “Rooster,” and “Angry Chair” while also featuring some of the best old school hijinks (“Sea Of Sorrow,” “Dam That River,” and “Rain When I Die”). Disc two ups the ante with brilliant tracks such as “I Stay Away,” “Would?,” “No Excuses,” and the tear-inducing unplugged performance of “Nutshell." Lesser known tracks like “What the Hell Have I” (from “The Last Action Hero”) and “A Little Bitter” are also given their just due on this disc.

This compilation is basically the fourth “best of” Alice in Chains release to hit the shelves. Your other choices are Music Bank, the four-disc mega box, which would best suit the diehard fan; Nothing Safe, the single disc that will get the job done for the novice fan; and Greatest Hits, which is the most mediocre of the bunch. The Essential is by no means a bad release, but leaving “Down in a Hole” off here is puzzling and frustrating, not to mention several other tracks from AIC’s incredible canon that could have really boosted this package to five-star status.

~Bill Clark