If image is everything, then the Stone Temple Pilots rule the galaxy and beyond. Take their third album, Tiny Music…Songs From the Vatican Gift Shop — or, at the very least, its packaging. Most pop stars are content to let their fans squint along with the standard coaster-size liner notes, but not the Pilots. The CD booklet of Tiny Music unfolds into a poster slightly larger than the size of a vinyl LP.
Quite a poster it is, too. On one side is an eyeball-grabbing painting of a negligee-clad young woman in a pool flanked by Buddhist, African, and other statues. This is no ordinary woman, of course. The lower half of her body, which is submerged, is that of an animal (a goat?), complete with hooves and hairy limbs. An alligator swims around her, as do Tiny Music’s lyrics and production credits. The colors are vivid and inviting, the image both pleasing to the eye and flat-out grotesque.
Flip the poster, and we find what was once a staple of album art in the LP days: a photo collage of the band at work and play. See singer Scott Weiland (who is beginning to resemble Gordon Lightfoot) make funny faces and emote grimly into a microphone. See STP’s girlyman members make self-mocking muscle-man poses, swim, jam on their instruments, and lose themselves in creative contemplation. One could also spend 10 or 15 minutes examining the various trinkets, ceremonial masks, candles, and religious icons that accompany the photos. (Don’t look for significance in the album’s subtitle, by the way; it’s merely a meaningless, rejected title for one of their earlier records.) Finally, the tray that holds the CD frames an illustration of blue, sparkling water, which echoes the poster and gives the package a unified quality, not unlike a box of Lucky Charms.
It’s easy to be distracted by such banalities; when it comes to the Stone Temple Pilots, there isn’t much else upon which to dwell. Tiny Music finds these former Pearl Jam clones attempting to stretch (note the jazz-bo guitar riffs and two kick-back instrumentals), but it’s for naught. None of it — not the songs driven by pile-driver punk chords, not Weiland’s malleable, ever-morphing voice — has a distinct personality. The band’s attempts at eclecticism result in a particularly bumpy listen. ”Adhesive,” one of several songs that allude to the vagaries of fame, lurches from an open-field airiness to generic grunge, with a trumpet solo tossed in for no particular reason. Like the band itself, the song can’t seem to find its own sound or rhythm.
On their second album, 1994’s Purple, STP managed to fine-tune their derivative Great Plains angst in runaway-train epics like ”Big Empty.” But Tiny Music has only a few moments, like the feverish ”Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart,” that reflect that progress. This is faceless corporate rock — the new boss is merely the old boss, with a goatee.
Speaking of facial hair, Weiland was the most likely person to provide Tiny Music with its depth. Last year, the singer endured a very public bout with drug addiction. He’s not obligated to purge himself in song, of course, but a bit of soul-searching — or some no-nonsense ruminations on the ties between fame, fortune, and flannel — might have lent Tiny Music resonance. As it is, the most Weiland gives us is a scant few elliptical references, like ”I made excuses for a million lies/But all I got was humble kidney pie” (from ”Tumble in the Rough”). Far too often, he proffers bad poetry in place of insight: Not even Gordon Lightfoot would write a line like ”Dead fish don’t swim around in jealous tides.”
In the old days, a surefire sign that a band considered itself overly important (and was thus destined for a downhill slide) was the decision to delete its name from its album covers. (See career denters like Aerosmith’s Draw the Line or George Michael’s Listen Without Prejudice Vol. I) You won’t find Stone Temple Pilots anywhere on the cover of Tiny Music. Then again, the band is nowhere to be found either.