Soundgarden – “Kickstand”: critical analysis of production elements and the emotional impact of musical performance and sonic attributes

This song was performed by Soundgarden (Chris Cornell, Kim Thayl, Ben Shepherd, Matt Cameron) on their 4th studio release “Superunknown″ in 1994. This album was produced By Michael Beinhorn & Soundgarden, mixed by Brendan O’Brien, and engineered by Jason Corsaro.

This article brings a critical analysis of the multiple aspects that make us connect emotionally to a certain song in the Alternative genre. By understanding the important elements of these highly valued performances and their emotional impact on us as listeners, we might learn what it takes to make a truly valuable musical piece.

I highly recommend reading this article while listening to your copy of the song, then watching the video on the bottom where I play the bass part with ultimate attention to the nuances of timing, articulation and dynamics in Ben Shepherd’s performance.

Critical analysis was performed using Ultimate Ears reference custom in-ear monitors.

1st verse (16 bars)

“Kickstand, you got loose and I threw up
Kickstand, you got the juice to fill my cup
My mother says that it’s alright
My mother says that’s the only life”

The song starts with no intro, with straight full on aggression. The leading kick- flam snare hit in the beginning is one of Matt Cameron’s signature fills. It consists of two hits only but the way Matt is playing it, with the distinct sonic signature (mostly the ringing, aggressive, tone rich snare sound), the distinct flam dynamics and the timing on the micro level between the two hits on the snare is full of personal character and unique expression. This exact kick-snare hit exists in a lot of songs played originally by Matt, like Pearl Jam’s “Unemployable” and Soundgarden’s “Never Named” (with an addition of a closed Hi-hat hit played first), but the beauty of it that you never get tired of hearing it, because it’s always tasteful and full of intention.

The biggest contributors to the aggression are the guitars. I cannot say precisely, but it seems to me that there were two other guitars stacked upon the two basic tracked guitars, creating an outstandingly aggressive wall of sound. Each and every guitar in the stack is voiced differently, with different EQ settings, different overdrive/distortion/fuzz gain settings and maybe even different instruments and amps. The guitars on the right side seem to be more overdriven and dark, while the guitars on the left seem to be relatively less overdriven and bright.

The bass sounds very dark and undefined, to the point it fills the low end of the song but does not have much of hi-mid attack. Notice how smooth the bass sounds on the high register on bar 11 of the verse.

Drum sound:

The kick sounds very focused, with no ring and lots of attack. It also has a lot of punch that cuts through the wall of guitars and heavy bass. It is panned center.

The snare has a lot of ring and tone. It is played aggressively with rim shot and has a good attack. It is panned center.

The toms have lots of stick attack but are not too thin sounding or boxy. They are spread to the left and right but not too wide to make them sound disconnected. They lead the rhythm pattern of the verse and add to the heaviness and aggression.

The cymbals are pretty bright sounding, but do not sound thin. They are spread wider than the toms in the stereo image.

The Hi-hat is panned to almost the left extreme, and sounds like a pretty narrow point, dry and bright, closer than and almost disconnected from the rest of the kit. It holds closing pedal 1/4 notes in the verse.

All drums seem to have no reverb added to them except the natural reverberation of the room.

The vocals, as all other instruments, sound aggressive, overdriven, heavily compressed and bright, to the point of almost being overly sibilant. They sound dry and close, even though the guitars seem to be louder than them.

On the 11th bar of the verse, there is a dry, dark sounding tambourine on the right. Notice that it plays the 1/8th notes with a lot of character, mostly ahead of the beat, adding drive and aggression for two bars, and then stops.

Also on the 11th and 12th bar, the guitars on the left emphasize the 9th chord note over the 1-5-8 power chord, adding dissonance and aggression.

On the last 1/8th note of the 13th bar, one guitar in the left stack plays a high F chord over the C chord that all other guitars and bass are playing. I assume it wasn’t intended, but ultimately shows the beautiful moments of magic that happen when a band plays live. Not only it does not degrade the performance, but even adds to the character and dissonance of this part.

The verse ends with syncopated drum fill that kicks us straight into the chorus, along with an emphasized 9th chord note on the left guitar.

1st chorus (10 bars)

“So do it right
Do it right
Come stand me up
Come stand me up”

The drums are driving the chorus forward with the crash cymbal playing the 1/4 notes, while the tambourine on the right is playing the 1/8th notes and driving the chorus even more forward by playing ahead of the beat, as if it is leading the drums.

On the 5th bar of the chorus, one guitar of the stack on each side is emphasizing the 5th chord notes on a higher octave, while the second guitar in each stack keeps playing the 1-5-8 power chords. Notice that the octave guitar plays the A on the 1st 1/4 note of the bar on an even higher octave, then goes down with a downward glissando to the next note (the syncopated part), and repeats this every time until the end of the chorus.

The on the end of the 4th bar into the 5th bar, a short slap delay with no feedback is added to the vocals. Notice how this delay gets louder on the second “Come stand me up”, adding depth to the vocals and making them sound bigger.

One more thing going in there, is the hi hat playing a syncopated open-close hits on the 6th bar and two open hits on the 7th bar, as if it proceeds the syncopated feel even though the rhythm goes back to being straight. The same pattern is then repeated until the drum fill in the end of the chorus, which prepares us to the second verse.

2nd verse (16 bars)

“Kickstand, I got a saddle made of leather
Kickstand, I got the words to come together
I got the urge to ride your trike
My mother says that’s the only life”

2nd verse is basically a repetition of the first verse. Notice the tambourine on the 11th bar again, now playing even more ahead of the beat, sticking out of the mix and driving forward. Notice that at the last bar of this verse the bass is playing the 1/8th notes aggressively a little ahead of the beat, creating a sense of drive and urgency before the chorus.

2nd Chorus (10 bars)

“So do it right
Do it right
Come stand me up
Come stand me up”

The second chorus is also a repetition of the first one, but with the tambourine playing radically ahead of the beat, driving everything forward even more.

3rd verse (18 bars)

“Kickstand, you got loose and I threw up
Kickstand, you got the juice to fill my cup
My mother says that it’s alright”

In this verse, the vocals, which now sing a different variation of the melody, seem to be even more overdriven and distorted than before. Notice how the slap delay from the chorus gradually goes away during the word “kickstand”, creating even more contrast and movement than if it was cut before the beginning of the word.

On the 3rd and 4th bars, there is a new syncopated dissonant melodic part, played in unison by all guitars and bass. This part emphasizes the major 6th of the chord after a minor 3rd, adding a sense of weirdness while creating an augmented 4th melodic interval. During these two bars, the drums play the 1/8th notes with the ride bell, driving the beat forward. This part goes returns on the 7th and 8th bars, and on the 11th and 12th bars, leading to the end. After the third time of this part, the guitars add another syncopated dissonant chord at the end of each melodic phrase, emphasizing the augmented 4th interval between the minor 3rd and major 6th of the chord in high octave. Also on the last 1/8th note of these bars, there is an open-close Hi-hat hit, supporting the syncopated chord.

The song ends with a repetitive syncopated “stand me up”, starting on bar 17. It repeats three times before the last hit, where all instruments play a half note length downward glissando, followed by a Hi-hat pedal closing.

The last hit seems like it is not timed exactly on a distinct subdivision, but rather felt by the musicians. This make it sound live and kicking.

Feel free to let me know what you think, and if you liked it, don’t hesitate to share…

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