Alice in Chain's second EP, Jar of Flies, is an enigma in my personal hierarchy of the band's discography, in that while it is far from their heaviest work, it is unquestionably my favourite. There are a myriad of personal reasons that inform this declaration (young-adult angst, mostly); but its an impeccable album in its own regard, with brilliant songwriting (almost) all the way through. There's something remarkably pure about this album, possibly thanks to the circumstances of its recordings (the band supposedly wrote and recorded the entire EP in a week, while living in the studio after being evicted from their shared apartment after the Dirt tour).
Much like Sap, the songs feel more personal here; less about the wallowing in the mud and more about wondering where you are, and where life's taking you. To a young nineteen-year-old who was going through the aforementioned angst (not looking for sympathy, honest), a lot of this album rang true on a few levels. The stripped-down arrangements, dominated by acoustic guitars, evoke a more reflective side of a band that seemed to have a lot to reflect on, not the least of which being newfound critical acclaim after the release of Dirt.
The band isn't afraid to experiment beyond the acoustic arrangements here, either. "Rotten Apple" showcases one of guitarist Jerry Cantrell's best solos, played through a talk-box; "I Stay Away" and "Whale & Wasp" both feature strings, with the latter having the honour of being the band's only instrumental piece. All the songs here are unique and manage to differentiate themselves in bold ways, which is all the more remarkable with the EP being - for all intents and purposes - an impromptu jam session. The level of craft on display here is incredible, and its made even more so when considering it was done such a short time. The fact that something so beautiful and completely integral to a band's ouevre as a song like "Nutshell" appears here is astounding.
"No Excuses" is arguably the centrepiece of the EP's concentrated genius. All four members are at their A-game here, with an incredible rhythm section consisting of Sean Kinney and Mike Inez (replacing the late Mike Starr on bass) supporting Cantrell and late vocalist's Layne Staley's impeccable harmonies. Once again, the guitar is nothing to scoff at, with Cantrell's playing absolutely shimmering during the verse, all building to an incredibly memorable solo. The song is more upbeat than AiC has ever sounded before and since then, a stark contrast with the remainder of the disc yet never feeling out of place.
The same can't be said about my only real slight against the album, that being the final track, "Swing On This". A bluesy track ushered in with a walking bass line, there's nothing inherently bad about it. In fact, its just the kind of off-kilter track, with a chorus that reminds me a bit of Dirt's "Hate to Feel", that really characterized some of AiC's deeper cuts. That said, I feel like it doesn't flow very organically from the rest of the album. The first six songs form such a cohesive picture that "Swing On This" comes off as jarring. Some will certainly disagree, but for myself, its the only reason why I would refrain from calling Jar of Flies perfect.
Last song woes aside, however, Jar of Flies remains an introspective, honest, and unpretentious work from a band that had worldwide acclaim at its fingertips. To take the time away from superstardom and and bare it all on a work so genuine is nothing short of remarkable, and I recommend everyone give it a listen. No excuses.
Verdict: Epic Win [9.5/10] (Take me home)