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