This album is a little bit of a cheat because it’s actually an EP but bear with me as I think Jar of Flies is 1) really good and 2) is worth having a conversation about.
Released in January of 1994, I would actually get a copy of Jar of Flies until later in the year. I know I got it for an occasion but I’m not sure which occasion it was, it may have been as a celebration that I finished the school year. What I am sure of is that it wasn’t the Alice in Chains album I wanted. At the time, Dirt was right up my alley. Instead, I got Jar of Flies… which wasn’t even an album. It only had seven songs on it and someone had told me that it was pretty much their unplugged album.
Regardless, I wasn’t one to look down on gift music, so I popped the CD into my player and gave it a spin.
Out of the speakers came some of the best material of the Alice in Chains discography.
The unfortunate thing is that Jar of Flies, to me at least, kind of represents what might have been if the band hadn’t been thrown off track.
While Jar of Flies is definitely an EP, it’s also not entirely unplugged. There is a good mix of electric and loud tracks mixed in with some quiet, introspective number. The EP opens with “Rotten Apple”, a dark track that you come to expect from Alice in Chains but not quite as heavy as a lot of the material from Dirt.
“Rotten Apple” is followed by “Nutshell,” a track that I don’t think gets enough love from outside of Alice in Chains fans. Part of what made Alice in Chains so good and so special was the vocals that came out of Layne Staley. In the world of rock music, there was no one who sounded anything like him at the time and, to be perfectly frank, everyone who has tried to sound like Layne since hasn’t gotten close. On “Nutshell,” you just get everything you loved about Staley’s vocals in one track. The power that was in that man’s voice that came out of an unassuming body was just fantastic.
“I Stay Away,” kind of combines the styles of the two songs and while it is very much Alice in Chains, it sounds different, especially with the flourishes strings that are added. “No Excuses” is interesting because it’s probably the most radio-friendly song that Alice in Chains ever did. I remember that one or two of the radio stations my Mom listened to had the song in regular rotation for a few months. This is followed by “Whale and the Wasp,” an interesting instrumental track that kind of ties all the different sounds that the EP featured together.
“Don’t Follow,” is without a doubt, my favorite Alice in Chains track. I’m a sucker for a good ballad and good harmonies. In a weird way, this is Alice in Chains cowboy track, if that makes any sense. I always picture this song being played in front of a campfire as Alice in Chains got off the trail and let their horses rest for the night.
Please note, that’s just how I visualize it, to my knowledge, Alice in Chains never worked as cowboys.
Finally, you have “Swing on This,” a weird jazzy, experimental (for Alice in Chains anyways), track that shows that even when the band was experimenting and being playful, something interesting can come out of it.
In a weird way, Jar of Flies kind of does an interesting thing of capturing the weirdness that was the year of 1994’s music. 1994 would go on to be the start of the end for grunge as Kurt Cobain would commit suicide in April but alternative music would have a banner and diverse year. 1994 would bring us a wide variety of alternative music. In the same month that Jar of Flies was released, we also got Tori Amos’s Under the Pink. February would herald the arrival of Green Day with the release of Dookie as well as Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. 1994 was the year of Nine Inch Nail’s The Downward Spiral, Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Beck’s Mellow Gold, Let Love in from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Weezer’s “Blue” album, Beastie Boys’ Ill Communication, and Definitely Maybe from Oasis.
It was an amazing and varied year for musical releases but yet Jar of Flies always seems to stand out a little for me. Maybe it’s because Alice in Chains wouldn’t hit that level of experimentation again while Layne was alive. Maybe It’s because I know what comes next in the career of the band that Jar of Flies shines. While I have no personal knowledge of what the band was really like at this period, Jar of Flies seems optimistic. The world is in their hands and they have so many different directions they can go. After Jar of Flies, it just seems like it’s a slow fall to Staley’s death.
The band has recovered and made some solid records but for whatever reason, Jar of Flies is still my favorite.