Reevaluating PEARL JAM Part 7: Binaural

Pearl Jam released Binaural on May 16, 2000. Although it debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200, it was the first Pearl Jam album that would fail to achieve platinum status in the United States.

By the time Pearl Jam had gotten around to releasing their sixth record, Binaural, I was heading into my final year of high school and had fully traveled up my own ass into the magical world of music snobbery. I was a Pavement fan, for fuck’s sake. To me, Pearl Jam didn’t even register. Couple this with their diminishing mainstream popularity, and you’ve got the first PJ record that … doesn’t have a single song on it that I’ve heard before.

My only memories of this record stem from looking at the cover and getting it slightly confused with other albums that featured shitty eyeball art at the time. This is also the period of time when PJ started releasing a ridiculous number of official bootlegs of their live shows. I worked at a record store during this period, and having to keep track of all of the different PJ live albums that we had in stock made me hate these guys for a brand new reason.

Wrong to hold that against them, though. Let’s just hold their music against them. How does Binaural stack up?

Breakerfall – The chances that a Pearl Jam record will open with a song on the rockin’ side are pretty high. This isn’t a bad thing. Some of their best songs wind up as album openers. It does, though, set the listener up to feel kind of underwhelmed when throwing on a new Pearl Jam record. Expect some riffin’! Expect some rockin’ and rollin’! Get ready to Eddie!

“Breakerfall” isn’t a bad song. It just comes off feeling a little bit perfunctory and strangely … tired sounding. Like, Eddie Vedder literally sounds exhausted by the middle of this song. It is, however, competent rock music. Also – and this is saying a lot, coming from me … the bass guitar sounds pretty alright.

You know, for all of my moaning about the way that they always open their records this way, the one time that they didn’t was probably the worst PJ record that I’ve heard. So… stick to what you know, buds.

God’s Dice – Good track. There. I said it. Sounds like a catchier version of No Code‘s “Hail Hail”. There’s almost a hint of The Tragically Hip to this song that I can’t put my finger on. The chorus has a totally reasonable pop-rock hook and the song doesn’t overstay its welcome. This is fine.

Evacuation – Mixed feelings about “Evacuation”. The song’s willingness to be a little weird in terms of chord structure and time-signature is refreshing – and sometimes works. The verses, in particular, are wonky and wonderful. The chorus, with its repeated “Evacu-aaaaaaa-shunnnn” vocal line… is terrible. The bridge feels incongruent to the rest of the material, leaving the track feeling cobbled-together from parts rather than written with purpose. Some good work here, but this song winds up in dud territory.

Light Years – I like the guitar work on this track. The chord progression feels interesting and unconventional. I’m also appreciative of the fact that they could have taken the basic idea for the chorus and turned it into a huge rock anthem, but didn’t. This song is a little long, but there are plenty of interesting ideas and I enjoy the performance. As far as semi-plodding mid-tempo Pearl Jam songs go, this is one of the best I’ve heard.

Nothing as it Seems – Not into this solo guitar work off the top. Also, bass player’s got his fartiest bass out. So this song sounds pretty rough to me. With different production, this might work as a decent dark & moody track. Thing is, this is two 5 minute-plus songs in a row. More like Bi-snore-al, am I right? Hahah. Pretty good. This isn’t a good song.

Thin Air – Entering a new millennium didn’t stop Pearl Jam from putting together the most 1990’s sounding chords imaginable for “Thin Air”. That said, these chords sound pretty great together and the vocal harmonies are really well done. This song doesn’t break any new ground, but dances around pretty enjoyably on the existing ground. A lacklustre bridge, perhaps, but overall this track sounds pretty decent.

Insignificance – This song is actually pretty interesting and the chorus in particular feels like PJ was in the process of learning a few new tricks. The angular guitar figure in the pre-chorus is completely atypical for the band. It is a welcome addition. Beyond this, the chorus’ descending chord progression works for me. Totally reasonable rock song with some solid ideas. Also, this record sounds excellent.

Of The Girl – This album was touted at the time as having some “3D” recording techniques used in its production. “Of The Girl” must have been planned as a showpiece for these techniques, as there are interesting sounds all over the place on it. Unfortunately, all of these interesting sounds fight against each other and fight against the song. The resulting tune sounds half-baked, which is a shame. Another shame: Yet another song topping the 5 minute mark. These songs are too long, P-Jammers!

Grievance – This is definitely a Pearl Jam song. Like much of the Yield album, there are moments here that sound like they oughta be huge sounding, but wind up coming off sounding underpowered. This song doesn’t hang together at all. Just a bunch of parts smushed together. Not the worst PJ song I’ve ever heard, but one of the weaker spots on this record so far.

Rival – This song starts with a stereo recording of a dog growling, which is important, because it proves that they were in a studio with stereo microphones. There. We’ve justified this album’s title. The song that follows the growling is a slice of Pearl Jam fuck-around music that would have fit nicely on No Code. I hate No Code. This is my least favourite Binaural track so far.

Sleight of Hand – While it boasts some interesting syncopated drum & bass work in verses, this song is an atmospheric snooze-fest. The vocals are delivered so monotonously, this may as well be the album’s requisite stab at Eddie Vedder Poetry Slam. I can’t imagine ever sitting through this track again.

Soon Forget – A teeny little sketch of a song. Just Eddie & ukulele. There isn’t much going on here, but the song is sweet and the solo arrangement works for it. If Eddie played this at a coffee house, people would probably all line up to go “Awwww!”

Parting Ways – A really good argument for how good the production is on this album could be made by listening to this song. The sound is wide and rich, bringing in a string section with loads of stereo separation. It really does sound impressive. The song itself is relatively structureless, not featuring a chorus as far as I can tell. It’s pleasant enough, and a reasonable ending to an album. Bonus: The “secret song” is just 20 seconds of what sounds like an automatic playing card shuffling machine.

tumblr_mygmgl9awv1ssvtmto1_400

Verdict: Given that I never hear anyone talk about this record, I’m surprised by how good it is. There aren’t many truly inspired tracks, but I would argue that there actually aren’t many outright embarrassments either. It’s a competent rock record of surprising consistency. The addition of ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron might explain some of the (welcome) exploration of alternate time signatures. Also, there’s a surprisingly small amount of studio fuck-around nonsense.

I actually don’t have many snarky comments to make about this album that I haven’t already levelled at Pearl Jam in general, and I’ll go ahead and make the somewhat controversial statement that this record is more consistent than Vs or Vitalogy, but fails to reach the high points of either of those albums. It will be difficult to rank them.

But I’ll tell you this: It’s better than Ten and it’s a shitload better than No Code.

Up next: 2002’s Riot Act.

Reevaluating PEARL JAM Part 6: Yield

Pearl Jam’s fifth album, Yield, was released on February 3, 1998. It debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 album chart. It was prevented from debuting at #1 by the Titanic Soundtrack. It has been certified platinum by the RIAA.

In 1998, I was heavily interested in what one might consider the “nu-metal” music. As such, I had less time for rock ‘n’ roll that I considered to be softer. I certainly had zero time for a band of Pearl Jam’s ilk, the grandaddies of a music scene that I – along with many other young people – was tiring of. In about a year, I would embrace Radiohead’s entire catalogue and become an absolutely pretentious art-rock kid. So… PJ weren’t really going to have a hope in hell of getting through to me.

The only, and I mean only thing that I remember about Yield was the Todd McFarlane-animated video for “Do The Evolution” with the dancing girl. I’ve recently heard from a friend that Yield is better than Vitalogy. Do I believe him? I’ve never believed him about anything before! Why start now?

Brain of J. – The album starts off well with a reasonably high-octane rocker. Building off of a strong central riff, the song stomps and snorts its way into the history books as one of PJ’s better songs. It rocks along in a similar vein to Vitalogy‘s “Spin The Black Circle”. I’m not sure that I’m quite as fond of this one as I am of either of Vitalogy‘s first two tracks, but it has a great, driving hook in the chorus. A good Pearl Jam song.

Faithfull – This track sounds like it could have fit on Ten, but lacks the polish of that record. Eddie is just a tad flat on the chorus, and it makes me wince every single time. The rockin’ parts are generic default-mode Pearl Jam. This is a pretty lacklustre track, especially this early on in a record.

No Way – This sounds like a boring-er Soundgarden crossed with one of 700 demoes of songs that I recorded to cassette tape when I was learning to play guitar and only knew two chords. The song only sounds more like a boring-er Soundgarden as it drags on. The only part that winds up feeling interesting to me is when it all falls apart and they’re just making noise and feedback.

Given To Fly – This sounds like one of the ballads off of Led Zepplin 4, but played by U2 and sung by a bored stoner. As good as that sounds in theory (and it doesn’t), this doesn’t work out well.

Wishlist – Cee Lo had already released the definitive song about wishing for stuff three years prior, so this song – while inoffensive and pleasant overall – is an unnecessary waste of energy.

Pilate – When I saw this song title, I thought “Holy! Pearl Jam was writing about pilates in 1998! That’s pretty far ahead of the curve!” But then I realized my error and chuckled and that was the most fun I had with this song. It has a chorus in the vein of Vs‘s “Glorified G”, which is neither my favourite or least-favourite Pearl Jam “mode”. Some of the acoustic guitar work on this sounds really nice, but it isn’t a great song.

Do The Evolution – This song could have been amazing. The guitar riffs are great and I really enjoy the songwriting. But the production is so controlled and gutless, it misses the mark entirely. The only element of the recording that sounds as dirty and unhinged as the song calls for winds up being the lead vocal, which has more distortion on it than any guitar on the track. The bridge is a great, cheeky wink of a part. I’m going to have to fall on the side of liking this one, but I do wish that it were recorded differently.

Red Dot – This percussion-heavy slice of fuck-around-ing may herald the official beginning of the shitty half of the record (because every PJ record has one). This is a high water mark for shitty fucking around. Terrible.

M.F.C. – This song is nothing special. Luckily, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Some strange (for PJ) blips and bleeps in here. OK Computer influence?!

Low Light – This is actually a pretty nice example of Pearl Jam’s folkier side… but it’s marred by fretless bass farting all over the place and ruining everyone’s day. This guy – this bass player guy – it’s like he’s trolling me directly. I hate him.

In Hiding – This could easily be one of the longer, more boring tracks off of Vs without me even knowing it. Super generic too-long Pearl Jam mid-tempo mild-rock jammer. Nah.

Push Me, Pull Me – There’s no excuse for bullshit like “Push Me, Pull Me”. This song includes sound FX, Vedder spoken word and turntable scratching. The only way that this track could be worse is if they brought in Anthony Kiedis to “sing” the hook. Just awful. Shakes my faith in music as a medium of expression.

All Those Yesterdays – I generally hate it when PJ tries to do something this off-kilter and calculatedly quirky, but I sort of like the vibe of this one. But thinking about it more seriously, I doubt if I’ll ever listen to it again. After the song ends, there are a few minutes of silence followed by a supremely pointless instrumental track. PJ missed the memo that said “The 90s are ending… knock that shit off, nobody cares about your ‘secret song'”.large

Verdict: I dislike a large swath of this record, but there are definitely some pieces of good material to be found here. It was received as a bit of a “return to form” after No Code, and I can get on board with that. Although, I feel that it’s largely a return to the form prior to Vitalogy, the record that I have liked best. As such, it undoes some of the super cool progress that they were making in terms of my personal opinion of them.

Sorry, Ravi. This record is not better than Vitalogy. But it is better than No Code (which is terrible) and it is better than Ten (which is inexplicably the favourite of many people). I would slot it somewhere around Vs in a ranked list, perhaps even edging Vs out. Which is a statement that will prove to be controversial with a certain dad I know. “Brain of J” and “Do The Evolution” are pretty great, though. So I dunno. It’d be tight.

Update: Just looked at the track list for VsVs is better.

Next week – 2000’s Binaural!

Reevaluating PEARL JAM Part 5: No Code

No Code, album #4 for the ol’ Peeeej, was released in August 1996Although No Code debuted at #1 on the Billboard Chart, it was the first Pearl Jam record that failed to go multi-platinum (receiving a single platinum certification). For more information about my PEARL JAM project, please go ahead and click this

After some busy weeks, I’m now officially back to plumbing the depths of alt-rock’s butthole with this careful and reasoned examination of Pearl Jam’s No Code.

I used to always get this album confused with U2’s Achtung Babybecause the covers of both were a bunch of squares with pictures in them and also I considered the people who owned them to be a bunch of squares with bad taste in them. I sort of enjoy that the album’s title seems to be in place simply to dispel the notion that there’s any point to the cover art. “No, no. This isn’t a secret code. It actually is just a bunch of random garbage.”

That’s the cover art, though. What about the music, maaaaaaaaaan?

Sometimes – Pearl Jam bucks its own conventions by opening No Code with a slow-burn instead of a straight-up rager. “Sometimes” isn’t the worst of PJ’s ponderous moments, but it’s definitely not the strongest stage-setter for the rest of the record. There’s a moment where it feels like this track might tip over into something explosive. I can’t decide whether or not the decision to not push the track to explode is a missed opportunity or a demonstration of maturity and restraint.

Hail, Hail – The core riff to this song is brilliantly directionless and propulsive. The song as a whole, though, is kind of a rambling mess. Whenever it falls off of the main riff, I instantly become disinterested. The main riff itself carries a vocal pattern that is as mumbly as Vedder has managed in his career thus far. Not sure on this one. Pretty mediocre.

Who You Are – Three songs in and it sounds like they’ve built a campfire in the studio and now they’re all just wearing baja sweaters and fucking around. This is a pretty rough attempt at creating a sing-a-long anthem, my friends. It’s no “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”, I’ll tell you that. Next.

In My Tree – Ouch. This is bad. This sounds completely half-baked and Vedder is off-key. It could be a demo, as far as I’m concerned. The inscrutable jumble of a bridge is the high point by far – and I hate the bridge.

Smile –  This song, mercifully, introduces a hook to this record. Unfortunately, it’s wrapped around the world’s most depressing ripoff of Steve Miller’s “The Joker”. Still, thank heaven for small mercies – “Smile” has a chorus that I can enjoy. Best song yet.

Off He Goes – This song pulls off a surprisingly credible imitation of Nebraska-era Springsteen. Easily the best song on the album so far. Well composed with great harmonies. I could stand to hear more material like this from Veddy & Co.

Habit – “Habit” trucks along fairly promisingly as one of the few moments of rock-out bliss on this album. The riffs are chunky and Eddie is growling in a spectacularly haggard fashion. Then they ruin it all in the last minute or so with way too much fucking around. Boy, there’s a lot of fucking around on this record.

Red Mosquito – I have a hard time taking slide guitar seriously, so this song might actually be better than I think it is. This is like Pearl Jam doing Skynyrd and I can’t get into it even for a minute. Also, did the bass guitar jump up in the mix by half on just this one track? Settle down, guy!

Lukin – This song is only a minute long, but it rocks pretty hard and I think it’s alright. The vocals are total spit-fire greatness. More minute-long rockers, please.

Present Tense – This song is endless and tuneless. Holy, this is how not to plant a mellow epic on your album.

Mankind – This is kind of a half-baked “punk” pastiche that feels strangely lifeless. This is total filler garbage. It actually sounds like they reduce the BPM on the click track as the song goes on, but that might just be my own boredom. Boredom powerful enough to bend time & space.

I’m Open – Oh, cool. I was hoping that they would include a drone track that Eddie Vedder could read his unfinished novel overtop of. Jesus fucking christ.

Around The Bend – This sleepy number is a decent capper to the album, and one of the best overall tracks. I don’t love it, but it’s totally pleasant in its subdued way. There’s a sweet nostalgia to it that offsets the languid pace. It’s alright.

540693ba

Verdict: Yikes. This is a fuck-around record, but doesn’t manage to do feel as good as any of the great fuck-around records. There’s actual spoken word on this record. How did they get away with this?!

A handful of high points, but this rivals Ten in being a Pearl Jam record that I’m almost completely uninterested in. After the relative strengths of Vitalogy, this is a real let-down. Do they only get worse from here? I guess I’ve gone this far already, so I may as well just keep going. So, next week: Yield.

 

Reevaluating PEARL JAM Part 4: Vitalogy

PEARL JAM‘s third album, Vitalogy came out in late 1994. Vitalogy was certified 5-times platinum within three months of release. For more information about my PEARL JAM project, please go ahead and click this

An argument could be made that 1994 signalled the beginning of the end for the grunge explosion. While the “alternative” scene was still riding high as the most significant music of the time, the proliferation of copy-cat acts and the dissolution/destruction of some of the groups that had laid the bedrock for the whole fiasco pointed to the whole thing going artistically tits-up at any moment. You could practically smell Lifehouse baking in the oven. This is not to say that great music wasn’t still being made. Some of my favourite records of the 1990s were released in 1994. I wasn’t a Pearl Jam fan, though. What were they up to?

I remember seeing Vitalogy in the CD collections of many, many people when I was growing up. It actually seemed like more people had this record than either of the previous Pearl Jam records. Typical of the way I approach things, though, I maintained my opposition to Pearl Jam and didn’t bother listening to it. But I’m an adult now. So I’ll listen to it, alright?

Last Exit – This song opens in typical Pearl Jam fashion. They absolutely love to include audio of themselves dicking around on their records. When the actual song begins – with a promisingly driving drum pattern – I’m pleasantly surprised. The song that follows is a pretty great little chunk of jagged punk-tinged rock ‘n roll with a chorus that feels unconventional but manages to hook me. The guitar solo section doesn’t devolve into a lame twiddly-twiddly Joe Perry guitar wank, but plays something much more restrained and well-suited to the material. Even the bass guitar is sitting in a nice pocket. This song sounds great. An auspicious opening.

Spin The Black Circle – Maybe being on constant tour for four years knocked something loose in these guys that I had been missing. That, or they just stumbled upon a crate of actual punk records and decided to stop being a lousy cock-rock band dressed in plaid. “Spin the Black Circle” is great. Completely unhinged. Totally surprising from these guys and even more surprising that it was released as the album’s first single. It becomes clear that they weren’t setting out to burn up the pop charts with this record, which is a really good look for them. The song devolves into chaos and dicking around that sounds appropriate and really good. I will listen to this again.

Not For You – The energy comes down here, but after the last two tracks, this is understandable and totally okay. This song has a dirty swagger that works pretty well, and Vedder’s delivery rides the line between tuneful and grating in a way that is unexpectedly compelling. The guitar lines that mark the bridge are super interesting and weird, and the way that it leads into the song’s lowest simmer and then launches into a platform for the vocals to soar into the song’s climax… well, it’s great work. The track overstays its welcome, at nearly six minutes, but I still like it very much. This is already my favourite Pearl Jam record.

Tremor Christ – Another interesting track. Great vocal melody in the verses, although maybe the most EddieVedder that the vox have been up to this point. The chorus is a tad inconsequential, but the song features some nicely wonky guitar work. The end of the song sees the reemergence of wah wah guitar… which has me feeling trepidatious. Don’t ruin this for me, Pearl Jam.

Nothingman – Nothingman isn’t entirely unpleasant. But the song’s title is fairly apt. This isn’t much more than a pretty boring ballad. Not the end of the world, but not to the level of the rest of this album so far. The vocal performance is strangely shaky, like Eddie stayed up late playing video games the night before (probably playing Streets of Rage 3 for Sega Genesis – he seems like a Sega Genesis guy to me). Who knows?!

Whipping – In vibe, “Whipping” feels like a shittier, lower-energy version of the kind of thing that they had just pulled off really well with “Spin the Black Circle”. Not awful, but just sort of an album-track. There’s a pretty unfortunate grunt at the end of the delivery of each “whipping” in the chorus that makes it sound like Eddie is trying to do James Hetfield. Shrug.

Pry, To – As I said earlier, these guys love to dick around in the studio and then put the results onto their records. This is terrible. Why would you do this, Pearl Jam? I guarantee you that the number of times that this “song” has been skipped by people listening to this album – were that number compiled somewhere – would be absolutely staggering. Bad.

Corduroy – Now, that’s more like it. “Corduroy” steadies the ship! Building on this album’s already pretty decent track record of pulling out hooks that are unexpected and unconventional, this song manages to please me in each and every one of its sections. This record sounds great, too. The production is appropriately raw, letting this stuff rock and stay tuneful at the same time. I really, really like this song.

Bugs – If “Corduroy” steadied the ship, “Bugs” shits holes in the ship and it’ll never sail again. This is some of the worst dicking around I’ve ever heard. What a bad idea. This is a real shame.

Satan’s Bed – Like “Whipping”, this sounds derivative of the album’s great opening tracks. It’s not bad in its own right, and I prefer it to the material on much of the first two Pearl Jam albums, but it’s a bit of a let-down. The whipping sounds (strangely missing from “Whipping” – what were they thinking?!) are a little over the top, as is Vedder’s bad acting/moaning.

Better Man – The one track on this album that I was truly familiar with before this writing, I’ll go on record as being a big fan of this song. I’ve always loved it. “Better Man” is Pearl Jam’s best, most interesting ballad. The production is perfect, perhaps at its best before the band enters the song. The organ swelling and dancing around the guitar pattern while Vedder does some of his best work is really good stuff. I’ll probably argue with Jay about this one, because he likes the crappier first two records better than this one, but I’ll repeat: This is Pearl Jam’s best ballad.

Aya Davanita – This is the kind of pointless and silly instrumental track that exactly zero albums need to have.

Immortality – Oh, wait. I know this one too. This song sounds like Pearl Jam got mad at Stone Temple Pilots for ripping them off and decided to get back at them by ripping off “Creep“. Snooze-fest.

Stupidmop (alternately titled “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me”) – This is like the “Stairway to Heaven” of Pearl Jam’s dicking around in the studio songs. An utter waste of time and tape. Wow. So bad.

Stone Gossard, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Dave Abruzzese and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam

The Verdict:
I didn’t predict this happening, but here we are – Vitalogy is a good record and I would listen to it again. There are some truly baffling weak spots, but most of the songs that are actual songs are at least passable, and some of them are downright terrific. It’s as if they said “Okay, we’ll put out one bad record and then one mostly-bad record so that the record company trusts us… then we’ll stuff a sock in our bass player’s mouth and lock him in a steamer trunk somewhere and make the best record of our lives.”

I suppose that Vitalogy is Pearl Jam’s In Utero, if we want to put it in terms of a band that was much, much, much better than they are. It is possible, that I like Pearl Jam. Surely every album after this one just gets better and better. Right? I suppose we’ll find out. When I get the gumption to sit down and listen to No Code, sometime next week.

 

Reevaluating PEARL JAM Part 3: Vs

PEARL JAM‘s follow-up to the hugely successful Ten came out in late 1993. Vs has gone on to sell over 6 million copies to date. For more information about my PEARL JAM project, please go ahead and click this

When Vs came out, Pearl Jam were one of the biggest bands in the world. PEOPLE CARED A LOT. The record was successful, but does it hold up? I mentioned this in my review of Tenbut it holds true for Vs as well – this album was lost on me at the time. I knew the singles (because they were massive hits), but hadn’t ever heard the album in its entirety until tackling this project. Oh boy.

Go – This track starts with what sounds like dicking around, and my first thought was “Oh god, they’re just picking up where Ten left off.” Launching properly into the song, though, “Go”seems pretty great. Right off the top, it hits harder than anything on Ten, and while it still retains some of the chicken-pickin’ riff work that was all over the previous album, there’s an unhinged quality that works for me. The band still seems to have a troubling affinity for wah pedals, but at least now they’re using them to create an ungodly racket. The production on this record is already more listenable than that mess of a debut. A promising start!

Animal – This song sounds kind of generic and boiler-plate-y right off the top, and Vedder doesn’t do the song any favours by doing his mumble-act to open the first verse. The song bucks convention by bringing the chorus down instead of up, which is interesting. The band then totally shits the bed by allowing one of the guitarists to launch into a Joe Perry guitar solo and then Eddie Vedder bee-bop-a-doo-bop’s his way to the finish. My initial optimism is shaken.

Daughter – I’ve heard this song somewhere in the neighbourhood of seven trillion times. It is the definitive proto-Hootie song. Like the two tracks preceding it, though, it sounds better than anything on PJ‘s debut record. A competent soft-pop song. I associate it so heavily with the era, I’m reluctant to attach any judgment of value to it and claim that it’s objective. The sheer number of times I’ve sung the opening lines at people as a joke dictates that I owe this song a debt of gratitude.

Glorified G – I don’t understand what this song is trying to say, but the chorus is hilarious. The “Glorified version of a…” “Pel-i-cuuunnnn” hook is kind of … irresistible. That said, the song is sort of goofy and musically uninteresting. It also features one of Eddie’s embarrassing little spoken-word “skits” in the middle. This track is a curiousity. Kind of a time-capsule of certain kinds of bad ideas.

Dissident – Stone Temple Pilots heard the opening to this song, tried to figure out how to play it and wrote the entire Purple album. Complication: Some of the songs on Purple are better than “Dissident”. It’s a plodding mid-tempo rocker, relying on the repeated guitar line to provide a hook. I would rather listen to “Interstate Love Song”, frankly.

W.M.A. – This song is a bummer. One thing I’ve determined is that I’m stoked about zero percent of the time when this band’s bass player is given the spotlight. The track is fairly formless and contains a guitar solo that is lame and feels interminable. I’m not sure who’s bad idea it was to include weird tribal-style grunting, but it just reeks of a band with too much time on its hands in the studio and nobody telling them to reign in their shitty brainstorms.

Blood – This song is frustrating. It injects the album with a bit of energy and spunk that it desperately needed following the last few tracks. The ramshackle hook and uncharacteristically wild vocals are actually pretty fun. The problem? Everywhere the song isn’t going absolutely nuts, the guitarists are laying down absolutely terrible porn guitar “wocka-wocka” sounds that ruin the whole track. Why? Why would they do this?!

Rearviewmirror – This song is strong – if generic – and has some of the album’s most interesting melodic ideas in the chorus. I have no quarrel with this tune. The album could have used more straight-ahead rockers this well constructed. But no, by all means. Throw in some drum-circle didgeridoo or something, Pearl Jam.

Rats – The bass groove that leads this song is characteristically terrible. A-squeedly-bee-bop-a-doo-bah. Didn’t they already use the ascending chords in the chorus in two other songs already? This is a contender for the album’s worst song.

Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town – I spent this entire song signing “Yoouuuuuu’ve got to hiiiiide your love awayyyyyyyyy.” This is a fine tune. Totally listenable. The bass sounds like it’s farting. I hate this bass player so much.

Leash – This song is track 11, which means that the band probably didn’t think much of it. It’s a fairly standard Pearl Jam rocker. The gang vocals on “drop the leash, we are one” are fun and spirited. Could have used more than that. The instrumental outro is waaaaay too long and the guitar solo could have been lifted from any of the other songs on this album and superimposed onto this track and it would have sounded exactly the song. During the extended outro, there’s a moment where Eddie Vedder mumbles “get out of my fuckin’ face” that made me laugh out loud. Perhaps a comedy record is called for!

Indifference – This may be the only “experimental” track on this record that feels like a success to me. A subdued, smouldering vibe floats around here, making the most of Vedder’s (admittedly strong) vocal work. This is actually a pretty great track to end an album with. One of the better songs on the record.

pearl-jam-1993

The Verdict:
While Vs isn’t exactly the record that I wanted it to be, it’s a step in the right direction and far more enjoyable than Ten. Even when it’s rocking out, Ten feels penned-in and safe. There are moments of actual intensity on Vs that feel really satisfying. There are also moments of intimacy on the more melodic numbers that feel more genuine than anything on the debut.

The band’s openness to experimentation is heartening, but often falls flat. It’s clear that they weren’t really sure of what worked in some cases, and there’s a lot of them simply falling back on old tricks. Some of those old tricks – guitar solos, generic 70s-rock riffs, bad bass grooves – are bad tricks. They’d be better off stripping down to the rather muscular essentials that tracks like “Go” prove that they’re capable of.

I write this as if I’m giving advice to a young band, which is positively demented given that this album was released when I was 11 years old and that these are all 50-year old men now. That being said, I’ll continue dispensing advice. Hey, Pearl Jam. Fire your bass player, or at least force him to use a bass with frets on it. Stop letting your guitarist do a guitar solo in every song. Don’t let Eddie try to act out skits in the middle of songs.

I’m sure that I’ll hear “Daughter” about a million more times before I’m dead, but this has been a fairly productive exercise in that now I realize that there are other songs on Vs that I would also like to hear again before I’m dead. This is not a terrible album. Would listen to much of it again!

Next week: Vitalogy! 

Reevaluating PEARL JAM – Part 2: TEN

Pearl Jam’s “Ten” was released in August of 1992. As of this writing, it has surpassed 10 million copies sold worldwide. This is the first in a series of reviews trying to determine whether or not my dislike of Pearl Jam is unfair. For more background on this project, go ahead and read this.

“Ten”. The Pearl Jam album that I’m most aware of, but don’t recall ever having sat down to listen to in its entirety. For the purposes of this project, I’m going to listen to the 2009 remastered edition (in order to make the album a little bit more palatable to me, as I know how much I hate some of these songs). Here we go.

ONCE – Pearl Jam decides to begin their first record with weird Phil Collins-esque atmospheric percussion and the worst bass-noodling I’ve ever heard. It’s as if they’re saying “Here – allow us to act as a bridge between lousy over-produced 80s corporate rock and lousy over-produced 90s corporate rock”. When the track properly kicks in, the guitars chug along competently and Vedder’s admittedly fiery vocal attack digs in. The chorus of this song still actually carries reasonable punch.

Immediately pre-chorus, Vedder descends into a bee-bop-a-squeedley-bop vocal pattern typified by much of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler’s work. It is conceivable that this PJ song softened up early 1990s audiences to this vocal pattern, paving the way for the massive success of Aerosmith‘s “Get A Grip” album in 1993. That album would go on to spawn mega-hits and three music videos starring Alicia Silverstone acting as a volatile young woman. As I’ve credited these videos for the genesis of my feelings that volatile women are attractive… “Once” by Pearl Jam may have indirectly ruined my life.

Thanks, Pearl Jam. That’s one strike.

EVEN FLOW – I remember this song being a giant hit and thinking that the stage diving in the video was exciting. Listening to it now, I’m struck by how profoundly un-alternative it is. The guitars in this song could all have been cribbed from a Guns N Roses record. The lead-in riff, the chicken-pickin’ guitar work in the verses, the whammy dive-bombs in the chorus – these are all glam rock/cock rock 101. Vedder’s voice is the only piece of that puzzle that doesn’t fit.

Speaking of Vedder’s voice being out of place, what’s up with the bridge section where he’s asking people for money and pretending to be a homeless person? Oh, Eddie.

25 years later, This song is kind of embarrassing.

ALIVE – I have always hated this song, so this isn’t going to be pretty. The quiet moments of this song are where it becomes really apparent how influential this album would become. Vedder’s voice booms like a slightly less-cartoonish Hootie prototype. The 90s were a nightmare for songs that locked into a mid-tempo groove and lasted far too long and “Alive” feels like patient zero. It feels like this song is about to do something interesting for the entire length of the song. It doesn’t happen.

Fast forward to the end where the bass-player does a little squeedly-beedly bass flourish that’s really… something.

WHY GO – It’s at this point that I realize how important this album is in terms of tracing the lineage of most of the bad rock music that would emerge in the decade that followed it. In “Why Go”, we can see the seeds that would go on to germinate into early Silverchair, the vocal work in Creed, Seven Mary Three and Godsmack. This hasn’t been my least favourite listen on the record so far, but “Why Go” seems to have a lot of explaining to do in relation to ruining the rest of the decade for everyone.

BLACK – This song is a conflict of interest for me. I would like to give an honest reading of what I think of it, but given that I have sung this song around campfires while drinking no less than three dozen times, it would be hypocritical to claim that I am at all above loving this song. I respectfully recuse myself.

DoodooDOOdooDOODeeDOOOOOOOOO
DoodooDOOdooDOODeeDOOOOOOOOO
DoodooDOOdooDOODeeDOOOOOOOOO
DoodooDOOdooDOODeeDOOOOOOOOO

JEREMY – I always considered this the Pearl Jam song. The video was unavoidable. The song – taken with the video – seemed like Eddie Vedder was trying to explain away a school massacre. Kind of a weird hill to plant your flag on, if you ask me.

Listening to this song today, it’s easily one of my favourites of this collection. I’m troubled, though, by the fact that it is easy to draw a line between this song and Our Lady Peace‘s first record, where virtually every song sounds like “Jeremy”. In that we have “Jeremy” to thank for the genesis of Our Lady Peace, shouldn’t we be pretty angry about “Jeremy”, regardless of it being a pretty decent song? Hard to say!

Bonus points for “And he hit me with a surprise left; my jaw left hurtin'”, because that’s hilarious work, Eddie.

OCEANS – Sonically, this is listenable. The songwriting is utterly forgettable. I can take it, though.

PORCH – This feels like a throw-away studio track. The skiffle-shuffle guitar work is embarrassing, as are the sheer number of “yeah”s. The mid-section breakdown/guitar solo makes it sound like they have no idea of what to do with themselves. A poor track.

GARDEN – Through this song’s meandering, we find probably the heaviest riff on the whole record, which makes it a noteworthy track. Also noteworthy because it sounds like something like this went down:
“Eddie, do you have lyrics written for this song yet?”
“Yeah, yeah, I do… just let me…”
“Is that a blank page?”
“No, I’m just…”
“Can I see your notebo…” “NO! DON’T TOUCH IT! THIS IS MY PRIVATE NOTEBOOK!”

DEEP – There’s a Steven Tyler scream in this song that made me giggle. There are a few good reasons to use a slide guitar, and this song doesn’t manage to find any of those reasons. We’re really in the dregs of this record now.

RELEASE – It’s difficult not to blame the guitar work on this song for Creed‘s ballads around the turn of the millennium. This song seems like a shapeless parody of an over-blown 90s ballad. That assessment is unfair, because it’s really just laying the groundwork for dozens of other bands to follow suit. But in looking back, it’s often difficult to appreciate that the things that preceded what you may perceive as a completely tired and loathsome trend were not actually tired and loathsome at the time.

So I’ll go easy on it and stop talking. Except about the wah-wah pedal, which this band just seems to be addicted to, like a bunch of shitty 12 year olds.

MASTER/SLAVE – I get it. CDs are new and you have loads of time to play around with on your record. You’re a young band and you’re trying things out. There’s still no excuse for wasting everyone’s time with this horse shit. Terrible way to end an album.

pearl-jam-live-on-stage-1992

The Verdict:
It is very, very difficult to judge this album on its own terms, given that it became the blueprint for countless albums that were terrible – much, much worse than this one. Perhaps what rankles me about this album is how clean, composed and well-played it is. I wanted my rockers to appear that they may disintegrate at any moment, not play their instruments with incredible consistency at a steady pace.

There are some good tunes here, tunes that sound better when heard for what they are now – classic rock – than as what they were sold as upon release – rebellious alt rock. Having heard it now – for the first time – in its entirety, would I consider listening to it on a more regular basis?

Nope!

Will I feel differently about their follow-up, 1993’s VS? We will find out very soon!

Reevaluating PEARL JAM – Part 1

Alternative Rock broke in a major way right around the time of my early adolescence. As such, the whole phenomenon was ridiculously influential on me; the music, the fashion, the attitude – it put a permanent stamp on me. I loved it madly, and the biggest bands of the era – Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and especially Nirvana, were my heroes. And then there was Pearl Jam. Arguably as big (or bigger) at the time than the others, PJ were a group that just didn’t take hold with me. They seemed weaker, somehow. Like my Dad’s music dressed up in my clothes.

fellowkids
Artist’s rendering of the impression that Pearl Jam gave me as a teenager.

Pearl Jam would continue to not win me over for the duration of my youth. I knew a handful of the songs, but I didn’t buy in. Now, 20 years later, my love of Alternative Rock primarily takes the form of quaint nostalgia and the begrudging acceptance that much of what I loved as a teenager has aged in such a way that it comes off as fairly silly at this point. I still love Nirvana, but couldn’t be bothered to listen to Soundgarden, and am essentially embarrassed by Alice in Chains. But what of Pearl Jam? They appear to have endured. Through charting a course of relatively untampered-with creative output and a dedicated touring regimen, PJ have managed to establish themselves as a Rock n’ Roll institution – a venerable gang of grungesters, exuding a workmanlike reliability and everyman charm. Basically, they’ve turned out to be the grunge Bruce Springsteen.

NORWAY/

This realization got me thinking – I had been wrong about Springsteen. I had maintained a loathing for THE BOSS for years before finally seeing him play live and experiencing an instant conversion. I was wrong about THE BOSS. So wrong. Could it be that I’ve been wrong about THE PJAMS as well? I’ve decided that I owed it to myself to find out.

I’ve taken it upon myself to listen to each Pearl Jam studio album – in order – with an open mind and an open heart, and to give my honest assessment about the merits of each. I’m hoping that by the end of this experience, I’ll have a better idea if I’ve judged the band’s work unfairly. I fear that this will culminate in me attending the next Toronto appearance by the band, but I have to take the chance.

We will begin tomorrow, with Pearl Jam’s best-selling and most-famous album, “Ten”. As I’ve decided not to cover any EPs, B-sides or rarities, and this post should have SOME music in it, below you’ll find my favourite (the only good?) Pearl Jam non-album track.

 

Reevaluating PEARL JAM – PART 2: TEN
Reevaluating PEARL JAM Part 3: Vs
Reevaluating PEARL JAM Part 4: Vitalogy
Reevaluating PEARL JAM Part 5: No Code
Reevaluating PEARL JAM Part 6: Yield
Reevaluating PEARL JAM Part 7: Binaural

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑