Soul Asylum - Grave Dancer's Union

My first-ever music festival had one of those absolutely bizarre and random lineups that could’ve only existed at a mid-’90s alt-rock radio-station fest. Better Than Ezra. Primus. Bush. Reunited new wave reggae band General Public, who I remember being awesome. Mike Watt and Tony Bennett, during the extremely brief moment where both of them were alternative rock stars. (That whole Tony Bennett thing still makes no sense, but I bought in completely.) Tripping Daisy and Archers of Loaf and Hum on the outdoor side stage. (Of those three, I only saw Tripping Daisy.) Shudder To Think, playing their ironic meditation on stadium-rock in an actual stadium. PJ Harvey, on her To Bring You My Love tour, giving what’s still probably one of the 20 best performances I’ve ever seen, even though she was dodging crowd-hurled beach balls the whole time. Courtney Love, who wandered out unannounced, played two Hole songs unaccompanied, dove into the crowd, got her dress ripped, kicked some guy in the face, and then called said guy an asshole once the security guards fished her out and placed her back onstage. (When this happened, the entire stadium crowd crushed forward, briefly convincing a 15-year-old me that I was about to suffocate and die, that one of those British soccer-stadium mass deaths was imminent. I saw footage of that particular stage-dive on VH1 ’90s-rock documentaries for years afterward.) The evening’s ostensible headliners were the Ramones, whose all-out pummel made absolutely no sense in an echoing stadium. But a pretty huge chunk of the crowd was already on their way out by the time the Ramones took the stage, since the evening’s big draw had already finished things up. And that big draw, weirdly enough, was Soul Asylum.

This was the 1995 HFStival at RFK Stadium in D.C., and it was a couple of years after Soul Asylum had their big Buzz Bin breakout. The band had already moved on to their pretty-shitty follow-up album, the one with the single where Dave Pirner wails, “Frustraaated Incorporaaaated” like that’s not the dumbest shit ever. And I honestly don’t remember much about their set other than the fact that Pirner played trumpet at one point and the rumor that he’d gotten into a backstage fistfight with Primus’s Les Claypool. (Primus had a single called “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver”; Pirner was dating Winona Ryder.) But Soul Asylum still deserved the headlining spot; they were, in a weird sort of way, one of the bands of the moment, and the singles from Grave Dancer’s Union, the album that turns 20 tomorrow, had never exactly left radio rotation.

Grave Dancer’s Union took almost a year to pick up steam after its release, but it turned into a triple-platinum juggernaut with an absolute death-grip over the HFS playlist. And it’s weird to imagine how Soul Asylum got to that point. In the years before Grave Dancer’s Union, they’d been the great third-wheel also-rans of the Minneapolis punk scene, existing deep in the shadow of the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. (Minneapolis people loved them, which explains how Pirner ended up on the Hold Steady’s Boys & Girls In America, but it was a bit funny, just now, to read in the Spin review of Grave Dancer’s Union that Soul Asylum where one of the most underrated bands of the ’80s.) Both of those bigger bands had fucked up their major-label shots and imploded by 1992, and Soul Asylum, it turned out, would get to be about 10 times more popular than both of them put together. The band had just been dropped from A&M, their own major label, but they somehow ended up on Columbia. And Grave Dancer’s Union sounds like a band giving it their last shot, giving everything they’ve got to the idea that things will all work out if they can just get this one song onto the radio.

Radio, of course, was realigning its whole shit at the moment, reeling in the twin gargantuan successes of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and letting all kinds of weird shit onto its playlists. But there was nothing challenging about plenty of the stuff that blew up on modern rock radio in the years immediately after Nevermind: Counting Crows, World Party, Spin Doctors, Cracker, Belly. Soul Asylum had a serious punk-rock pedigree, but Grave Dancer’s Union, while it has a bit of Westerberg in its DNA, was way more Tom Petty or John Mellencamp. The album was pure glossy roots-rock chug, and if it came out today, most of it could probably pass for Nashville pop-country. There are exceptions: The fake Jane’s Addiction of “April Fool,” the starry-eyed hippie psych of “The Sun Maid.” But you can’t tell me that, say, Brad Paisley wouldn’t be completely at home singing “Runaway Train.” You could throw the “Black Gold” video into CMT rotation right now.

And that’s what’s funny about the album’s success, and the success of a whole lot of other albums like it. Pop culture has come to remember grunge as a force that blew the doors open, but that’s not quite what happened. Instead, it made it easier to slip through the door if your rock band’s singer had enough soulful longing in his or her (but mostly his) voice. We didn’t get more Nirvanas; we got more Soul Asylums. And honestly, that was fine. Grave Dancer’s Union is a good album. Those radio singles were pure crack. They had their moment, and it was good.

Comments (39)
  1. Wow, and I thought you guys were joking with “Dirt”

  2. Bonus! – Weird Al purposely jacked the Black Gold melody and verse structure for “The Night That Santa Went Crazy.”

  3. Guys… I’m starting to get a sneaking suspicion that all the albums released in ’92 might be turning 20 this year.

  4. I saw Soul Asylum with Spin Doctors and Screaming Trees in the early ’90s. In retrospect that was a pretty random show, but it made complete sense at the time.

    This album is decent, but I haven’t listened to it since the ’90s. The Screaming Trees still rule though.

  5. seriously?

  6. Not afraid to admit that Soul Asylum was long one of my favorite bands. The two albums after GDU were pretty middling to awful with a few decent tracks, but the two A&M albums before GDU (Hang Time and …And The Horse They Rode In On) were killer. I have mixed feelings about GDU nowadays. I pretty much have to skip “Runaway Train”, not because I hate it, but it just got so damned overplayed.

  7. I have all the old albums but “GDU” was definitely a lot more immediate. “Somebody To Shove” is just a great power pop song. Overall it’s a solid album for the time period. There are some duds on it(“The Sun Maid” in particular) but I think everyone was kind of pulling for the band to kind of break through anyway. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that Pirner had the looks of a grunge pin up boy. To me, the irony was “Let Your Dim Light Shine” was not a bad follow up(a lot better than “Candy From A Stranger”) . It had the same elements as “GDU” and some good songs that stood on their own. I always thought there was a lot of backlash after Dave started dating Ryder. That may be why the album was panned by the masses.

  8. but theyre still around arent they? i heard there was even a new album….

  9. Grunge was a force that blew doors open.

    For Creed.

  10. Another album turned 20 this week. It was called Automatic for the People, it sold 18 million copies and is generally considered one of the best records ever made. Can we commemorate that instead please?

  11. This album has a bunch of great songs and the closer, Sun Maid, still puts its fingers through my soul’s hair. I praise the ‘Gum for talking about this record, since it would be quite easy to fall into some modern hater bullshit and say it’s not cool anymore.

    Funny how Tom made the CMT reference…I guess I never really thought about it at the time, but yeah it’s got some of that. I don’t know about Brad Paisely, though…nothing on the record was that twangy.

    If this album sounded exactly the same but had Wilco (who I love) written on the cover, there’d be a lot less negativity in the comment section.

  12. qué porquería

  13. How about Helmet’s “Meantime” or Quicksand’s “Slip”. Those should turn 20 this year.

  14. I can really only do about half of the somebody to shove video. 1. because its pretty bad. 2. because it looks like axl roses body was invaded by eddie vedder…in all the wrong ways

  15. If ‘The Rolling Spin Stone’ declared them one of the most important overlooked 80s bands after the release of Grave Dancers Union; why have I never heard any of that music. Why haven’t my friends ever showed me any? I did like Grave Dancers Union in high school I even bought the tape.

  16. “But there was nothing challenging about plenty of the stuff that blew up on modern rock radio in the years immediately after Nevermind: Counting Crows, World Party, Spin Doctors, Cracker, Belly.”

    I think it’s about time that you back up for a moment to take back that nasty thing you said about Belly. The rest of the sentence is fine.

  17. Black Crowes – Shake your money maker!

  18. It’s interesting that Soul Asylum predicted their breakout year in a song called “Never Really Been” from their quite excellent sophomore record, Made to Be Broken: “And where will we be/in 1993?” A shame it didn’t last–I mean, at least for Dave & co.

  19. In response to the remark deeming the song ‘Frustrated Incorporated’ as hideous material, as epically shitty…. These guys probably didn’t write the songs to be critiqued by a Liberal Arts college graduate for any manner of analysis. I personally do not care what books Pirner read during the making of the album or how literate he was/is.

    Have you seen these guys play shows lately? Go see them at one of their shows, then provide us with a report. Go interview Pirner. Request an interview with Pirner. Ask him about why he would use such a poor song title.

    Did you listen to the Sound Opinions featuring Japandroids in the past few weeks? The singer took issue w Derogaitis publicly, even if not necessarily warranted, regarding some of the bands origins out of Vancouver? I think your pulpit with this article………drat! (Dan Murphy just left the band. Go read the Message Boards at, effective Oct 9, 2012).

    What joy do you get out of writing that a particular band sucks? Is such a piece considered ‘exceptional’? You are not exposing anything about Soul Asylum? Are you suggesting that their radio play is unmerited? You are simply picking on a band that got radio play. And Billy Corgan is dead-on to suggest that Pavement went to the cash register on the run of shows they did 2 years ago, the cash register, just like the Pixies. No new material, just playing the old stuff and cashing it in. Shall we criticize Pavement next, Tom? I love them all, but I am sure there is shittyness in there to be found among those three bands, and written about.

    Is the purpose to deem a band shitty? That is the focus of your life right now, to determine the level of crap in bands past and present? Doesn’t come across as very noble.

    Tom, a tastemaker, you are not. You are simply developing a resume for your next writing gig after Stereogum. By the way, what is the Bandcamp address for your band(s)? Publish it for the readers. We ask to listen. We may actually enjoy, after all.

    • Song’s called “Misery.”

      Also, mad.

    • Where did he say they suck? The whole article is about the fact that Soul Asylum are a good band with killer singles that weirdly managed to blow the fuck up in light of the state of the industry back in ’92. That song mentioned as epically shitty is epically shitty. One line does not negate the rest of the writeup.

  20. I never really got this band, or their popularity. But I never had anything against this band or their popularity, either. I do remember thinking at one point that if I NEVER heard Runaway Train again I’d be perfectly OK with that. Again, not a bad song, just got played to DEATH.

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