Staind broke through the nu-metal murk in 2001 with Break the Cycle because the band landed upon a rather ingenious formula -- toning down the aggression and turning up the emotion, all the while returning to the Alice in Chains-styled grunge that began the whole alt-metal mania of the '90s. Evidently, American audiences were hungry for big sensitive guys with tattoos crooning ballads, since Break the Cycle and its single, "Been a While," were inescapable throughout 2001, and soon Staind had eclipsed even its mentor, Fred Durst's Limp Bizkit, in popularity, raising expectations for the group's third album, 2003's 14 Shades of Grey. What they've delivered is a record that follows through on the neo-grunge and soul-baring, sensitive journal entries of Break the Cycle. There are plenty of loud guitars here, but the overall sense of aggression has been tempered considerably as Aaron Lewis' thoughts and feelings take the forefront, with the music used as coloring for his emotion. That means there's not much visceral kick in the rhythms, nor are there head-snapping hooks in the riffs, or catchy melodies. Like a metallic variation on emo, where expression trumps any other consideration, Staind is all about how Lewis is feeling -- whether it's about the world, love, his daughter "Zoe Jane," or his idol, "Layne." The tempos, even when fast, let Lewis emote, and he does so with a full-bodied croon, something that sounds particularly jarring when he sings "f***," which he does a lot, often in choruses. The croon, the profanity, and his obsession with documenting his emotions in detail -- an obsession with his feelings on the level of second-wave sensitive '70s singer/songwriters who also reveled in the specificity of their situations -- are in full bloom on 14 Shades of Grey, and they have the net result of either making listeners empathize completely or turning them off completely. That specificity of situation might, in fact, make the audience that connects with this smaller than the legions who loved "It's Been a While" -- particularly because there are no songs with hooks, let alone hooks as undeniable as that -- but those who connect with Staind will likely find this more consistently satisfying than Break the Cycle.
14 Shades of Grey Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine