18 Years Ago: Scott Weiland Goes Solo With the Weird and Brilliant ’12 Bar Blues’
In 1998, the first solo album from the late Scott Weiland marked the public return of the troubled former Stone Temple Pilots vocalist, whose penchant for chaos and self-destruction had forced STP into an indefinite hiatus the year before. While the music is thoroughly glam and carnivalesque, the album also continues on where STP’s 1996 full-length, Tiny Music… Songs From The Vatican Gift Shop, left off. Basically, Weiland was free to get fairly weird and wacky on both albums.
Luckily, allowing Weiland to do his "thing" often produced worthwhile results. For as disjointed and random as the ideas might seem on 12 Bar Blues, it's clear there’s an awful lot happening – even just within in the space of a single song. Whirling piano passages, oversaturated noise guitar and the transistor hum of vintage synths all find a home on 12 Bar Blues – an album fueled by fearless experimentation. The progression through the album’s eclectic ideas, the lush layering and the interaction between the broad palette of sounds showcase a keener vision than what Weiland had previously been credited.
In fact, it’s almost mind-boggling to hear how fluidly and competently Weiland moves from one totally different sonic vibe to the next. One moment, he’s building dramatic tension with the acoustic ballad, “Where’s The Man” (which intensifies with progressively loudening drums and guitars), the next moment, an eerie piano solo opens “Lady, Your Roof Brings Me Down" – a quirky waltz with accompanying strings that sound equal parts Johann Strauss and the Beatles’ White Album.
Elsewhere, “Divider” has the Latin ballroom intrigue of a James Bond score while the verses of “Opposite Octave Reaction” could easily pass for something Prince might've written. Weiland’s use of electronica is also quite noteworthy, rooting much of the recordings in a barrage of drum loops and distorted, solid-state crackle before much of the rest of the rock world embraced EDM elements.
Equally impressive is the lengthy list of contributors to the recording, which includes Sheryl Crow (accordion on “Lady, Your Roof Brings Me Down”) Daniel Lanois (synths on “Desperation #5” and guitar on “Barbarella”) and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, whose nimble fingers dance across the keys on “Divider” and “Mockingbird Girl.” Weiland also got into the spirit of musicianship himself, contributing guitar, keyboards, piano, bass, synth bass, beat boxing and drum loops in addition to his myriad vocal tracks.
And while much of 12 Bar Blues was too abstract to ever find a home on mainstream radio in the '90s, there are a few songs where commercial appeal wasn’t entirely thrown out the window. On "Barbarella," melodic verses crash into stunning choruses and "Lady, Your Roof Brings Me Down" appeared on the soundtrack to 1998's Great Expectations. There's also a re-recorded version of “Mockingbird Girl” (originally recorded by Weiland’s side project the Magnificent Bastards for the soundtrack to 1995's Tank Girl), which is dazzling in the way it jumps between sludgy, hyper-distorted guitar and airy, tranquil passages.
Not surprisingly, the album didn’t achieve great commercial success – it marked a pretty big departure from the rock-rooted marketability of STP. Critics, however, were slightly more attuned to the album’s artistry. Rolling Stone's David Fricke wrote that it "isn't really a rock album, or even a pop album. Weiland, out on his own, has simply made an honest album – honest in its confusion, ambition and indulgence."
That sentiment speaks well to the charm of 12 Bar Blues, even 18 years later. It’s an exercise in sincerity, assembled with little care for convention or commerce. Weiland reunited with the other three members of Stone Temple Pilots just a few months after the release of the album to begin work on their back-to-basics 1999 album, No. 4. And while he went on to release two more albums with STP, two with modern rock supergroup Velvet Revolver and another solo album, 2008's "Happy" in Galoshes, there's something about 12 Bar Blues that sets it apart from the rest of Weiland's discography.
The album shows that, after stripping away all personal pandemonium and trappings of rock stardom that defined his public persona, Weiland was a remarkably gifted, nuanced and versatile artist, capable of playing with words and sound the way a painter manipulates color. If there's anything about 12 Bar Blues that's regrettable, it's that Weiland never released another album quite like it.