Alice in Chains for a while were in the habit of releasing an EP before each studio album. This ended after Layne's death, but these two EPs -- 1992's Sap and 1994's Jar of Flies -- represent some of the best work of this pioneering band. Acoustic in nature, these two recordings are crucial to rock fans who need to know more about one of the best bands of the 90's.
I snagged a European import of this set many years ago for less than the price of either of the two EP's separately which was a great score. Although Jar of Flies is the first disc in the set, I will review Sap first as that's what came out first.
Sap, which began as demos for what would become Dirt, is very low key. The opening track "Brother" is sung by Jerry Cantrell with Anne Wilson of Heart on the choruses. Very powerful understated song. Both "Brother" and the next song, "Got Me Wrong" (another standout) were released live on this band's unplugged CD. These songs are followed by "Right Turn" by Alice Mudgarden -- essentiall Alice In Chains with Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Mark Arm of Mudhoney on guest vocals. It is a great contrast: Cornell screaming at the top of his lungs, and Arm down low. Great song. Layne Staley's "Am I Inside" follows, another understated and mellow slow-burner. Everything goes to hell with the final song, the unlisted "Love Song". The band switched instruments for this chaotic joke song, with Sean Kinney on lead vocals. Hilarious track but it must have taken people by surprise.
Jar of Flies was written and recorded spontaneously in a week. When I first heard it I felt like some of these songs were under-written, that they could have used more work. As you listen to it more, it feels more and more complete. Just about every song on Flies is a total winner, but the best thing about it is that you have to give it a chance to grow on you. As a result, it has a longevity that similar albums lack. Here I am still playing it 17 years later and loving it just as much. The lyrics do feel unfinished, particularly Layne's.
"Rotten Apple", one of the best tunes, kicks off the CD. These lyrics really feel unfinished, but who knows what Layne was trying to express at the time. It just feels like the fragment of a lyric. This doesn't change the fact that this slow one is extremely warm yet forboding at the same time. Incredible song, and it is followed by "Nutshell" which is even better. My personal favourite tune. The single "I Stay Away" features strings to emphasize the extremely powerful chorus. "No Excuses" was another single, an almost happy sounding song with some bouncy rolling bass from Mike Inez. The instrumental "Whale and Wasp" is up next, so named because Jerry felt it sounded like whales and wasps talking to each other. That should put you in the ballpark of what this sounds like. Jerry's "Don't Follow" is next, probably the least experimental of the songs. It is a straight acoustic ballad with some nice harmonica. The final song is the messed up, jazzy, "Swing On This", the only song that tends to lose me.
In all these two EP's together create a fantastic listening experience. The cool thing is that although both are acoustic, they are nothing alike. Listen and you will see.