Now, this should be stated with tongue at least halfway wedged into cheek, of course, as, by nature, alternative rock is a style of mainstream music, hence positioning itself for radio, a platform that typically discourages structural expansiveness in favor of strict, verse/chorus concision. It’s like answering who the best rapper is in The Dixie Chicks, kind of. A case in point of what I’m talking about would be Nirvana, who, even in their darkest, most abrasive and combustive days of “Heart-Shaped Box”; “All Apologies”; “Milk it”; “Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”; you name it; still juxtaposed limited segments next to refrains and pretty much did so until they filled the necessary four-minute long length, as an almost invariable rule. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, even Alice in Chains by and large did the same thing, and as a matter of fact even Rage against the Machine, although with this band we probably have the runner up behind LIVE as at least a couple of those tunes on their first album (“Bullet in the Head”; “Township Rebellion”; “Freedom”) had a knack for stretching out, maybe changing tempo for a couple of minutes and in general honing down structural interfaces in a couple instances that were of broader swatches (one segment of a song lasting a couple minutes, that is) than was typical on radio.
I give LIVE the crown over Rage, interestingly enough, by virtue of songs on their commercial breakthrough album, Throwing Copper (1994), and its important opener “The Dam at Otter Creek,” which, in combustive fury and cancerous friction, leaves you at a complete loss for what segment or type of segment is ever going to come next. Now, I’m certainly not on a crusade here to argue that Throwing Copper is a classic album and indeed, that’s part of another point I want to make. This is that, in a way, during Throwing Copper, their most important album commercially, artistically and culturally in the sense of the world NEEDING their brand of melancholy and melodic poignancy, LIVE were caught between their Velvet Underground sense and their Led Zeppelin sense. It was their Velvet Underground sense that spawned “Lightning Crashes,” hence pretty much changing all of our lives and representing the theme song for the ceremony dedicated to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, also earning them dozens of millions in records sold. So another fallacy we’re essentially laying to waste here is that their less heterogeneous and expansive tunes (“Selling the Drama”; “I Alone”; “All over You”) are intrinsically less meaningful, although that generally happens to be the case with the exception of “Lightning Crashes.”
But song structure isn’t something you typically play around with if you don’t know what you’re doing, the way you could with, say, one clumsy key change or temporary shift in meter. Indeed, LIVE in the mid-’90s was a band that had thoroughly paid their dues, having traipsed the New York scene of the late-’80s under the name First Aid Kit and already issued a debut album Mental Jewelry which was uncompromising in its originality and deafness to radio mold. Arguably the result of Kurt Cobain’s death, the band on Throwing Copper just seemed to be operating with an increased focus and sense of urgency. The songwriting was powerful and plangent enough to speak for itself on songs like “Lightning Crashes” and truly, I hadn’t listed this cut under the category of their structurally unorthodox like I would with the authoritative “T.B.D.”; “Pillar of Davidson” and “White, Discussion”; but now that I think about it, it does do that “Better Man” thing of slinking along without percussion for a verse and a half or so, before exploding into full-on grunge rock, all the while repeating the same melodic and rhythmic themes established in or around the tiptoeing first verse.
Let’s be honest, though. Lots of things make Throwing Copper an awkward listen, one of which would obviously be the almost unflagging religious imagery and motif, particularly rampant in prominent singles “Selling the Drama” and “I Alone.” Another I guess would be, well, “Waitress,” as well as, more toward my point, this bizarre identity crisis that made the band flood side b with all of these long, multifarious and curving musical journeys, going Physical Graffiti when they had been going Rubber Soul on side a. But truth be told, neither would be the same without the other and, once you get used to this beast and the indulgent lengths to which the band were going to obtain originality, Throwing Copper can really make for a pretty charming listen, and what I think to be the best album this band ever made, with the ruthless and sneering commercial followup Secret Samadhi a close second .
In fact, this sh** is like something out of a dream, really. I still remember the first time I gave Throwing Copper a full listen, all the way through: ashamedly I must admit it wasn’t until 2010, though I had been a pious devotee of Collective Soul’s self-titled CD as far back as the ’90s, if that’s a related note, or whatever. I got through the singles and then to side b and when it was done I was just like, uh, that was ok but pretty weird… I mean what’s up with “Sh** Towne” where he’s just complaining about his hometown and “Waitress” where he keeps saying “She was a bit**”? This guy needs a psychologist.
The rest seemed to more or less lull me into sleep and really, listening back on “T.B.D.,” the first bastion of what I consider this album’s authoritative trifecta in the enterprise of stretching song structure, it’s easy to hear why. Ed Kowalczyk almost even sings like he’s rocking a baby to sleep, subdued, tranquil and even eerie like the night is, all in within the sophisticated and grooving rhythmic interface the band is administering, professionally, in the background. Give Jerry Harrison ample credit on production mastery, as well, as Chad Gracey’s gentle rim and hat jabs resonate with this entirely dreamlike quality, in a way preluding some of the deliberate, haunting tactics Pearl Jam would wade into on the spatial, excellent Binaural . Now, in particular pertinence to the structure of “T.B.D.,” the climax of the song, or the primary statement that the song attempts to unfurl comes at the three-and-a-half-minute mark, contrasted sharply against the typical verse/chorus number, which would find said point somewhere around 45 seconds to a minute and a half, the first time the tune comes around to the main chorus, that is. In certain special cases, the chorus will be preceded by two prechoruses, so that the first chorus doesn’t come until after the second verse, probably a minute and a half to two minutes into the song. An important exception to this rule, actually, and what’s more concurrent with my present subject matter, would be Natalie Merchant and her work on Tigerlily, what with the extremely broad swatches on centerpiece “I May Know the Word” that leave the first chorus not materializing until about three and a half minutes. Ed Kowalczyk comes in though on “T.B.D.” at three and a half minutes, though, after all that sleepy rhythmic crooning, with basically a bunch of crazy yelling, a disturbing explosion indeed and also an important, roughly congruent precursor to what’s eventually to manifest as the most important moment on this album and within alternative rock, in general, in regards to structure.
On its surface, “Pillar of Davidson” is broad, long-winded verse/chorus grunge rock not completely unlike the vein of “Graze,” which would fall on their powerful followup album Secret Samadhi, with a couple of exceptions. One is the awe-inspiring way the band switch from minor chord in the verse to major in this hypnotic, almost apocryphal chorus with its incessant mention of a “Shepheeeerrrrrrd!” Another is what I’d dub as an annexation, which begins at nigh on five minutes, where most bands would be putting the cap on a song like this. In a way, it resembles an auxiliary verse and chorus, what the band plot onto “Pillar of Davidson” at this point, but differs in the key, haunting way of commencing with the slow, spooky relation of “Ooooold baaaad eyyyyyyes”. Again the binary of minor and major, then, in the ensuing two segments, helps to add to this song’s dreamlike quality and cement it as an important, influential achievement in alternative rock song structure.
This brings me to “White, Discussion,” the true closeur  on Throwing Copper, and a quintessential LIVE song, without question. “White, Discussion” is a song that adheres to a very original yet fairly easy to understand structure, which is, basically, an initial half that sidles along at median volume and intensity before, halfway in, exploding into a mania of frustrated catharsis and confrontation. This would of course be contrasted against the typical verse/chorus format starkly and significantly, as typically the closely rendered choruses, as in “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” represent the song’s opportunity for fomenting into aggressive screaming, and occur at about the one-minute mark, not the three-minute. But it’s like Coolio said, and around this time, no less: “Da** the game if it don’t mean nothin’.” Kowalczyk is constructing here, in fact, an album of political commentary, although he’s often so disguised and polymorphous in how he does it, maybe so that Throwing Copper comes across as something quintessentially musical, rather than some whiny Bikini Kill record. Kowalczyk has racked his brain on what it means to be “white” and rather than a statement of supremacy of that race he’s at an identity crisis over what it means to be white, typified in a sense by the song’s opening lines “I speak of freedom / You speak of the flag”. What he’s finally left with after all this soul searching is the terrible, vituperative peal of “Look where all this talking got us baby! / Look where all this talking got us baby!” Again, as this segment occurs a full three minutes into the song and undeniably represents the song’s climax, the results are something we can look on as an advancement in, or a modification on, structure, if you will, and something that likewise stands as a seminal benchmark in alt-rock and all hard rock to follow, from Queens of the Stone Age to Cage the Elephant to current indie to wherever, for its unique shape and stunning, gripping use of temporal space.
Addenda: “Where Fishes Go”
This is kind of an unrelated note but I am just really wigged out by this “Where Fishes Go” song, which comes from 1999’s The Distance to Here and which I believe the band played first at Woodstock ’99. At that performance, Ed Kowalczyk can be seen shirtless and in a big cowboy hat, almost as if to aesthetically encompass the sweaty, hazy and surreal quality the song has of crawling along lazily but ushering in otherworldly imagery, all along. In general I find The Distance to Here a tad tepid but there’s no denying the achievement of “Where Fishes Go,” which also is another example of a LIVE tune building up tension for a considerable couple minutes and then exploding relatively late in the song, hence further earmarking their claim to alt-rock song structure revolutionaries, or originals, at least. “Where Fishes Go” is a song rife with existential themes, themes of pain, of discomfort, of love and of habitat, mostly, with I think “the sea” representing the afterlife, or the afterlife/beforelife, in toggling, if you prefer, and is meant to by contrast explain why we engulf in these lives we’re in seeking this ephemeral element of “love” and, maybe, if Bjork was correct, ever actually finding it.
 There are then a lot of ironies with this whole mess as Secret Samadhi, as charmingly oblivious to radio mold as it seems to be in its penchant for voluminous grunge rock, still contains a lot of verses and choruses.
 As is common knowledge to many, probably, the title of Binaural is a reference to the production technique used by Tchad Blake of setting up two microphones at strategic places within the studio in order to record everything live.
 Spotify has “Horse” as the final cut here but actually this was originally a “hidden track,” which was basically a mechanism on a CD of placing an additional song on a track with the last true song on the album, but sliding it out one, five or even 20 minutes, so as to create a separation of it from the rest of the album. “Horse,” too, is designed to be a strange experience with a quality of a dream, with its strange imagery of riding “into my mind” and its silly, pastoral subject matter, but “White, Discussion,” no doubt, is meant to stick in your head and represent the ultimate statement this album strives to make.