Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Binaural

“We’d rather challenge our fans and make them listen to our songs than give them something that’s easy to digest. There is a lot of music out there that is very easy to digest but we never wanted to be part of it.”

I have a real soft spot for Binaural: I got into the band a year after Yield so this was both the first Pearl Jam album I bought on day of release – as well as the singles for ‘Nothing As It Seems’ and ‘Light Years’ – and the album they were touring behind when I caught them live.

Not only that but I do genuinely believe that there are some real gems on Binaural that, due to its relative low commercial performance, don’t get the recognition they deserve. So much so that I’ve already blogged about this album in a lot more detail here.

But, for all that, in terms of where it sits in preference levels to the rest of the band’s discography – not all that high. Of the highs – this album has an unimpeachable mid-section of ‘Light Years’, ‘Nothing as it Seems,’ ‘Thin Air’ and ‘Insignificance’ but that section is buffered by some pretty dense sounds.

Some of this was on purpose, with the band’s decision to change things up with Tchad Black (as the band moved away from producer Brendan O’Brien for the first time since Vs) recording many of the album’s songs employ two microphones to create a 3-D stereophonic sound.

On some songs – notably ‘Of The Girl’ this layered, textured sound works wonders. Elsewhere, the sound quality and mixes just don’t feel right. Looking back, even band members have come to regard Binaural as an album marked by distractions and missed opportunities, a lack of focus that meant the album lacked the power it could have had.

Gossard, for his part, feels that they should’ve gotten more out of new drummer Matt Cameron – “It should have devastated in a way that Temple of the Dog devastated”. They just weren’t writing with him in mind. Jeff Ament goes further, believing that in cutting songs like ‘Sad’ and ‘Education’ “we look back and think we didn’t put some of the best songs on it.”

But, it was the band’s first venture into the studio with Matt Cameron and, while he made an immediate contribution to songwriting with ‘Evacuation’ (not one of the album’s strongest) and a few tracks left on the cutting floor, the in-studio chemistry wasn’t quite there. They were working with a new producer for the first time, Mike McCready was battling an addiction to painkillers that saw him absent from many a session and Vedder – also in the middle of a marriage breakdown – was plagued by a case of writer’s block that got so bad he had to be stopped from picking up an instrument and writing more music until he had completed lyrics to those songs already piling up and waiting for them. As the man himself told Spin magazine following the album’s release:

“It’s bad when you have writer’s block in the studio and you’ve got three songs without words and four days left. It pretty much happened on the last record. And the worst part was they were songs that I had written. I had written the music to “Insignificance” and “Grievance”. I just wasn’t happy with what I had so I kept working on it and scrapping it and staying up at night, playing piano melodies to make it be the best thing. And it worked, finally. That causes hell in a relationship, that’s all I’ll tell you”

Unfortunately, none of these are ingredients for a great album.

On the plus side – this meant more opportunity for contributions from other band members than on previous albums with three songs and lyrics written entirely by Gossard  ‘Thin Air’, ‘Of the Girl’ and ‘Rival’ alongside Ament’s ‘God’s Dice’ and ‘Nothing As It Seems’.

Binaural is, in many ways, a missed opportunity. Pearl Jam, for all their ‘year or no’ decisions that lead to a cessation of music videos, a reluctance to give interviews or -for a large chunk of time – playing at Ticket Master rep’d venues,  were still in the album-tour-album-tour-album cycle. It would be a while before they’d learn to take a break and I can’t help but wonder if, had they taken just a little longer between Yield and their next album to attend to their own personal lives and breath a little, if Binaural wouldn’t have been their greatest. The ideas are all here, the parts are all right there with em but the final execution just misses the mark.

But – it’s still very very much worth a listen and is one of the few albums for which I’ve broken my ‘if I already have it on CD I won’t by it on vinyl too’ rule for. Oh, and it also introduced Ukulele Ed with ‘Soon Forget’ – a song that, when he was still a baby, I would sing quietly (minus the uke) as a lullaby to my son at nights and, so, ranks as a real personal favourite.

Highlights: ‘Light Years, Nothing As It Seems, Thin Air, Of the Girl, Grievance, Sleight of Hand, Soon Forget

Not-so highlights: ‘God’s Dice’, ‘Evacuation’.

Only whispers of some quiet conversation

It’s 2018 and a very-much-a-90’s band is enjoying their biggest commercial success for a looong time with a cover of a very-much-an-80’s song all thanks to constant prompting from a twitter account after a fan saw said song on a programme produced by a streaming giant.

I am, of course, talking about Weezer and ‘Africa.’ Having heard the song used on Netflix’ ‘Stranger Things’ (of which I still haven’t been bothered enough to check out), a 15 year-old fan decided it would be a great idea for her favourite band to cover it and started a Twitter account called “@WeezerAfrica” and started messaging the band with tweets like “it’s about time you bless the rains down in Africa” etc.

Oddly, it worked. After trolling her by releasing a cover of ‘Rosanna‘, Rivers & Co dropped a cover of Africa. As covers go it’s alright; nothing new on the original save the addition of some power chords and a little more dancing on the keys. Still it’s a lot of fun and I’m sure I’ll have “do do do de do do dooo” in my head forevermore.

 

If it sounds like it was recorded quickly and without any real effort it’s because it probably was: I genuinely don’t think anyone expected it to turn into the ‘hit’ it has or for it to receive so much attention. Both the radio stations I flick between in the morning made it their record of the week, I’ve seen that the band have been popping on tv shows various and numerous to play the track (even being joined by Toto member Steve Pocaro) and – in a world where streams count toward such things – it’s seen them crack the Hot100 in the States for the first time in a long long time.

While Weezer are definitely in my wheelhouse and collection*, this isn’t a ‘music news’ blog and Toto are far from the variety of music usually covered on these ‘pages’ so: why mention it?

Well I’m here to place a wager. Weezer were due to be dropping their ‘Black’ album (Weezer have a series of self titled albums – their debut, third, sixth and tenth – with the band photographed against a different coloured backdrop and known by their colours) any day now. It had been rumoured for a June release. There’s no sign of it. Now while Weezer themselves might not be so cynical or money-driven (although they have done the music cruise thing) they are signed to a label, a major one at that – Atlantic.

Now I’m here to (cynically) bet that someone at Atlantic Records will be very much aware of how much attention ‘Africa’ has gotten their charges and noted that this ‘whimsical cover’ has gotten far more radio play, streams and downloads than their original compositions have for some time and that either before we get the Black album, or very soon after, we’ll get a Weezer Covers album.

To be fair, the band have a good few available to begin pulling that track list together soon. In between releasing dire albums of their own they recorded a note for note cover of ‘Paranoid Android.’

Not to mention their cover of ‘Unbreak My Heart’ – yes; the Toni Braxton one – from the 2010 odds-and-sods comp Death to False Metal and the numerous covers that pepper their b-sides and bonus tracks including surprisingly good takes on ‘Viva la Vida’ and ‘Are Friends Electric’…So, my bet is that – now that the wider music world is aware of Weezer’s capability with a cover its only a small matter of time before label or band cashes in.

Oh, and if you’re after the definitive cover of ‘Africa’, don’t worry; I’ve got what you need right here.

*Eleven studio albums which, on the Mumbling About scale, have a ‘Very Good, Ok, Absolute Shite’ ratio of 5:3:3.

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Backspacer

“But I am up riding high amongst the waves
Where I can feel like I
Have a soul that has been saved
Where I can feel like I’ve
Put away my early grave”

Let’s kick this off with a reminder of this series’ caveat – this is not a critical ‘worst’ situation and I can well imagine any of these albums being cited as a favourite by others.

In many ways it pains me to start this series off with Backspacer but it has to start somewhere and the band’s 2009 album is probably the least-played of their discography in casa Hill.

Why does it pain me? Like many I was very much hyped to grab this one when it dropped. The build up to it painted a strong picture of a revitalised band about to release an album that could sit amongst their strongest. 2006’s Pearl Jam (or ‘Avocado’) seemed to find Messrs Ament, Cameron, Gossard, McCready and Vedder back on focus and  firing on all cylinders and even the fickle media was back in their corner.

In fact, press leading into the recording dropped even more fuel for anticipation – for the first time since Yield Brendan O’Brien was at the helm. O’Brien had produced Pearl Jam’s cover of ‘Love, Reign o’er Me‘ for the (pretty pants) Adam Sandler film of similar title. They had a blast together and when it came time for a new studio album, the choice was a no-brainer. According to O’Brien, Pearl Jam “were ready to be, for lack of a better word, “produced” again” while Vedder told Rolling Stone “In the past, Brendan would say, ‘It’s a great song, but I think you should do it in a different key,’ and we’d say no. But now that we’ve heard Bruce has listened to his suggestions, I think we will too.”

It all pointed to ‘great’. And there is a lot of great stuff on Backspacer. Take first single ‘The Fixer’ as an example – it’s  pure hook, it’s almost pop-like in its sensibility. It’s fast, immediate and one of their best songs.

It’s also a great example of Pearl Jam’s collective song-writing chops. It takes its basics from a Matt Cameron demo (hence the odd timing signatures) which was worked up by Stone and Mike before Ed then worked on the arrangement ‘to get the parts he needed in the right place’ and tackled the lyrics. As such it’s one of only two tracks on the album with music composed by more than two members – Vedder wrote the lion’s share of Backspacer; all the lyrics and music for five of its eleven tracks.

According to Ament “Whatever wave Ed caught with [his soundtack for] Into the Wild has taken him to different places.” Those sole-Vedder creations areare among Backspacer‘s strongest – ‘Just Breath’ (which takes the opening chord from Into The Wild instrumental ‘Tuolumne’ and builds from there), ‘Unthought Known’, ‘The End’ and ‘Speed of Sound.’

Vedder’s lyrics on Backspacer are markedly more optimistic and politic-free after at least two previous records filled with barbs at the administration*. “I’ve tried, over the years, to be hopeful in the lyrics, and I think that’s going to be easier now,” Ed would tell press – whether that was down to a sense of calm in his personal life or a reflection on the end of the Bush era and the beginning of the Obama administration or both… it’s no bad thing. There’s a real joy and lightness that soars through some of Backspacer‘s finest moments that make it one of Pearl Jam’s easiest and most accessible albums to date.

So with all this good stuff to be said…. the reason Backspacer sits at the Least end of this list?

Essentially  – while this is true of a lot of albums in general – my version of it is a lot shorter than the actual album. There’s a good number of tracks that just don’t linger in the memory and as this is Pearl Jam’s shortest album, that doesn’t leave a whole lot left to spin. On average I’d say there’s five songs on here that are guaranteed a listen every time, possibly six which – on an 11 track album – splits it right down the middle.

There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with those songs but ‘Got Some’, ‘Supersonic’ etc are of the type that Pearl Jam have done better elsewhere in their catalogue and don’t offer sufficient hook to stick and, I’m sure, are cues to head to the bogs during concerts.

As for ‘Johnny Guitar’ – it’s the worst song Pearl Jam have committed to tape if you ask me (and it’s my blog so… ).  Ed was ‘inspired’ by seeing a Johnny Guitar Watson album cover… on the wall of a bathroom. If you ask me there should be a rule for songs about things you see in the crapper and that rule should be: don’t. Just don’t.

Backspacer arrived at an interesting time for Pearl Jam. Reinvigorated by the response to their 2006 album the band were on the cusp of their 20th Anniversary ‘lap of honour’ which had already begun with the re-release of Ten earlier in 2009 and would soon see further re-issues (expanded versions of Vs and Vitalogy) a new live album, a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary and soundtrack and a series of ‘summer’ tours that would focus on the band’s legacy rather than new material. Not that it wasn’t deserved, more that for a time, new music felt more of an afterthought. It would be four years before their next album.

Highlights: ‘The Fixer’, ‘Just Breath,’ ‘Amongst The Waves,’ ‘Unthought Known,’ ‘Speed of Sound,’ ‘Force of Nature.’

Not-so highlights: ‘Johnny Guitar’.

 

*I was very excited about the possibility of a righteously angry Pearl Jam album being the sole positive of a Trump presidency and still am even after ‘Can’t Deny Me‘.

 

Blog Tour: Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR: “PI Varg Veum receives a surprise visit in his office from a woman who introduces herself as his half-sister, and she has a job for him. Her god-daughter, a nineteen-year-old trainee nurse from Haugesund, moved from her bedsit in Bergen two weeks ago. Since then no one has heard anything from her. She didn’t leave an address. She doesn’t answer her phone. And the police refuse to take her case seriously.

Veum’s investigation uncovers a series of carefully covered-up crimes and pent-up hatreds, and the trail leads to a gang of extreme bikers and to a shadowy group, whose dark actions are hidden by the anonymity of the Internet. And then things get personal…

Chilling, shocking and exceptionally gripping, Big Sister reaffirms Gunnar Staalesen as one of the world’s foremost thriller writers.”

When it comes to reading there is no greater pleasure than getting stuck into a new Gunnar Staalesen book.

The problem, mind, is how to review a book like Big Sister without a) simply repeating ‘amazing’ emphatically and b) giving anything away. So I’ll talk, in general terms, about just how much I loved this book.

There is something just so fantastically absorbing about Staalesen’s work that I’m always longing to read more. To me it’s like enjoying a good mug full of coffee, you have to take your time with it and savour every moment before you get the kick. It’s not a fast-paced thriller; Staalesen’s prose is a much calmer affair that lures you in and immerses you in its mystery. A real slow-build but with not a single spare word – it’s the writing of a master at play, really. Richly detailed yet concise, tightly-plotted fiction that effortlessly packs more punch and weight than novels three times its page count.

One of the things I really enjoy about Staalesen’s narrative style is the way in which he – and Veum – casts a wide net out at the start of the story and slowly hauls it in, revealing little ideas and avenues of intrigue, some which lead nowhere but others which lead off into some fascinating places before Veum discovers the particular line of investigation which brings them together and solves the case. As Veum himself says: “when I stumble over some peripheral information during a case, an investigation I’m doing, my experience is that it might well end up having some significance.”

Big Sister is no exception to this – some of the leads he follows reveal some really dark stuff this time round, mind (though anyone familiar with the last three novels would argue that that’s nothing new), but it all slowly and deliberately creates a huge web of connections between the lives of the characters that manages to show just how far-reaching and devastating events that were thought long-since buried can become. It means that when the truth is realised it hits you like a tonne of bricks.

Reading a new Staalesen novel is like catching up with an old friend, getting a glimpse into Varg’s life for a few weeks at a time to see how life is treating Bergen’s almost-only PI. Veum is a refreshingly human character in the genre, flawed (though I don’t think he touched a drop of aquavit in this one) and – particularly as his age advances – vulnerable. It’s impossible not to root for him. It’s great that Big Sister really managed – as the 18th novel in the series – to reveal something new about such an established character and his past and I thoroughly look forward to seeing if that particular thread is picked up on in the next book.

It’s impossible to do a novel like Big Sister justice in a review. I fucking loved it but, then, I’ve loved every novel I’ve read thus far by Staalesen and I really need to get my hands on those novels pre We Shall Inherit The Wind that have been translated into English too. Every time I think I’ve read the best book I will in a year, Orenda drops a new Gunnar Staalesen that jumps straight to the top of the list. As such, my thanks to Karen at Orenda both for my copy and continuing to publish such wonderful fiction and to Anne for inviting me to take part in this blogtour. Always a pleasure, never a chore 😀

 

 

 

Least to Most: Pearl Jam (Intro)

Am I really about to kick off a potentially lengthy series after what has been a year of sporadic posts at best? You bet your bollocks I am.

I’ve been toying with a way to pick up where my earlier posts on Pearl Jam’s ‘lost’ years left off and cover the band’s rise and ‘glory’ years in a way that didn’t simply regurgitate what had been written so many times before – and lining up another candidate for a Least to Most series* so, as the meme asks, why not both?

As per previous and future Least to Most this is not my attempt at a critical “worst to best”,  as this isn’t a site of critique. It’s mumblings of personal thoughts and opinions relating to music. As such I’m going to be running through, in order (though certainly not uninterrupted), my Least to Most Favourite Pearl Jam studio albums.

Of key importance to note with this series is that as a massive Pearl Jam fan, even if they’re among the ‘least’ end of this rundown, it’s a fair bet that there’s usually at least two of these albums in my car or on rotation at a given time.

Let’s spin those black circles…

 

 

 

*Pink Floyd will be up to bat soon… depending on how soon I can a) listen to Saucerful of Secrets and b) decide whether Piper At The Gates of Dawn really counts as a Pink Floyd album.

Spinning the New

Blimey, it’s been a while….

I’d been lost composing a post about the Smashing Pumpkins reunion and how much a twatbadger Billy Corgan was but it ended up becoming a meandering rant about music’s biggest knobheads (especially Pete Townshend) and lost its way.

I’ve  recently made a comment along the lines that there’s been nothing ‘of note’ in terms of new music this year only – looking at my Spotify playlists – to be proven wrong and realise that while we’re not quite halfway through the year, 2018 has seen some pretty decent new music find its way into my jukebox. So, to get back in the swing of posting, here’s a bit of this year’s new music I’ve been enjoying.

Lucy Dacaus – Night Shift

I actually found this one after following those ‘related artists’ trails. I love a good slow build song – it’s fairly documented on this blog – and this is just that (it’s past the four minute mark before it all kicks off!) and makes me think of Jeff Buckley in terms of structure and style. The album it’s taken from – Historian – has been massively well received critically and is a joy to listen to. It’s a deep, intricate and beautifully crafted work that’s the aural equivalent of a good, absorbing novel with so many different pieces coming together into one amazing narrative propelled by a wonderful voice.

Spotify Link

Ben Howard – A Boat To An Island On The Wall 

Talking slow builds… I’ve commented on Ben Howard before and since discovering his music I’ve loved it all. Yet I clearly wasn’t paying any attention as he dropped a new album last week that completely caught me off guard. It’s amazing and ticks so many boxes on my list – mood atmospherics, chilled finger-picked acoustics, thunderous and reverb ridden electrics, complex layers… it’s only a matter of time before it’s on my shelves, it’s already on heavy digital rotation.

Spotify Link

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Shiggy

It’s odd that despite how much I enjoyed Pavement, I never really got into or paid any attention to Stephen Malkmus’ solo work. However, the new Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks album Sparkle Hard is thoroughly enjoyable affair (am I alone in hearing Billy Joel in opener ‘Cast Off’?) and it’s a real thrill to hear him get freaky with his guitar again on ‘Shiggy’.

Spotify Link

Toundra – Toureg

In my Five from Spain post I included Exquirla – the collaboration between a flamenco singer and post-rock band from Spain. Toundra is that thunderous beast and their new album – Vortex – dropped earlier this year. I could’ve put any of its tracks on here – they’re all a meaty slab of the good stuff.

Spotify Link

 

Blog Tour: The Louisiana Republic by Maxim Jakubowski

From the PR: “New York, and the world, have been transformed by an unexplained global catastrophe now known as ‘the Dark’.

Once a modest researcher, (don’t recall if I gave character an actual name; if so, please insert) has now become an involuntary detective.

When he is recruited by her elder sister to find the missing daughter of a local gangster in a city in chaos where anarchy and violence are just a step away, he soon discovers the case is anything but straightforward and compellingly close to home.

Compromising photographs and the ambiguous assistance of a young woman with ties to the criminal gangs lead him to New Orleans, which has seceded from the rest of America in the wake of the Dark.

A perilous journey down the Mississippi river, murderous hit women and sidekicks, and the magic and dangerous glamour of the French Quarter become a perilous road to nowhere and to madness in his quest for the amoral daughter, his own lost love and his sanity.

Will he find the missing women or lose himself?”

Crikey. Where to start with a review on this one.. perhaps I should proffer up the ‘warning’ that accompanied the description of The Louisiana Republic when I was invited to read and review it:

“Please be aware! The novel is quite ‘harsh’ and should be avoided if you are more into the ‘cozy’ area. If you enjoyed Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus, this may be for you! There are strong erotic elements”

Now initially I only got as far as ‘if you enjoyed Epiphany Jones‘ before replying in the positive. I loved that book and I love a book that challenges and takes me out of my comfort zone so I was, of course, interested – it wasn’t the ‘erotic elements’ that got me. Especially when I read the note from the author that he “published 10 novels under a pen name in another genre during the last five years, many of which ended up on the Sunday Times Top 10, but under a female pseudonym (as imposed on the publishers by supermarkets and chains!), so this book is quite important to me, and have a lot to say about it.”

So: does The Louisiana Republic deliver such an intriguing sell? In short: yes, very much so.

In not so short: oh, fuck yes! The Louisiana Republic is a massively addictive book which delivers on so many levels. While there is certainly some heavy and strong stuff in here that would warrant a ‘not for the weak of knee’ it’s not there for shock factor alone and  serves to add both punch and horror in all the right places.

The story itself is set to a familiar narrative – a PI on the search for an elusive truth if only for self-satisfaction – yet Jakubowski throws in plenty of twists and counters to keep you glued as it becomes increasingly complex and multifaceted. There are so many different elements at play that it’s a real delight as things start to come together. In fact I’d go so far as to say that the ploy of using a familiar trope is a very clever sleight of hand on the writer’s part, for what really sets The Louisiana Republic apart and makes it so compelling is setting just that trope against a backdrop as jarring as that created by ‘the Dark’.

Jakubowski’s portrayal of a dystopian near-future, a decade after  the world had been deprived of technology, the internet and electronic data is fantastic. There’s no didactic, heavy-handed or soap-opera style explanations, The Louisiana Republic pulls you into its world and gradually reveals a very realistic, convincing and shocking world where, post-technology, society has nearly (that’s what makes it so believable, I think – the blending of the retained ‘norms’ with the dystopian) broken down – cities divided into different fiefdoms, violence and primitive, base urges satisfied at whim.

It would be impossible to pigeonhole The Louisiana Republic into one genre – it’s got elements of noir, there’s some hard-boiled Chandler-esque grit, deliciously dark humour, plenty of and some mysticism that made me think of Eliade and then there’s the dystopian future element thrown in to add more to the mi along with plenty of boxes ticked in the ‘thriller’ category…. so; shocking thriller? urban noir? dark comedy? dystopian road trip novel?  Brutal gut-punch commentary? It’s all of these and it’s very very bloody good.

My thanks to Anne Cater for inviting me take part in this blogtour and for my copy of The Louisiana Republic – published by Caffeine Nights.