Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Let the Records Play

Here we are at the end of another (my third to date) Least to Most series.

What’s been learned:

That when I tackle this series on an album by album basis this is a pretty consuming mission when combined with that other thing called ‘life’. And yet I already find myself looking at my shelves and wondering who’s next (it’s not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure).

Pearl Jam are fucking awesome. But then that shouldn’t be a lesson to anyone.

For my money, these blokes were at their finest between 1993-1998.

I still think they have at least one great album in them despite recent evidence.

For those playing along at home, the Least to Most favourite list broke down like this:

10. Backspacer
9. Binaural
8. Lightning Bolt
7. Riot Act
6. Pearl Jam
5. Ten
4. Yield
3. No Code
2. Vs.
1. Vitalogy

That’s today. Well, that’s how I eventually settled the list (after five drafts). Ask me again in a few months that might change. Ask me again when the next studio album eventually drops and it may be all change again.

For my money, if you want a good single, cover-all bases Pearl Jam album you’ll struggle with just one disc but if you get your hands on the Vs. & Vitalogy re-release box you’ll get two of their best and Live at the Orhpeum Theatre which is a fierce, powerful live disc that captured the band live between the two albums and is packed with cuts from Ten and a few rarities too.

Still, for more of what I’d recommend, and as a tip of the hat to Jim over at Music Enthusiast whose playlists are the stuff of curator envy, here’s my Pearl Jam ‘essentials’ playlist wherein I try and cherry pick the best of the band’s ten studio (and one rarities) albums and still end up with sixty tunes. Play in order or play in random but, hopefully, enjoy:

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Vitalogy

“This song is about… uh… people who don’t have taste but they like us anyway. It’s called ‘Not For You'”

If Vs. was the sound of Pearl Jam taking control, Vitalogy, released just a year later, is the sound of the band giving a big middle finger to anyone who hand’t got the message yet. Rougher, rawer and more eclectic than anything they’d either released to date or since with songs born out of jam sessions as the communication between band members started to falter, with “eighty percent of the songs were written 20 minutes before they were recorded” according to Stone Gossard. It’s stripped down, it’s lean and uncompromising and marks the first time Pearl Jam would really start to experiment. It’s rife with hostility and tension aimed both outward and inward as, three albums in, cracks began to show within relationships to the point that, while Gossard thought of quitting, drummer Dave Abbruzzese would actually be let go as sessions wound down.

Again – it shouldn’t be good. It shouldn’t be cohesive but it’s not only good: it’s their finest album yet – in my opinion and this is my Least to Most after all. As 1993 tumbled into 1994, Pearl Jam were hitting their songwriting peak and the songs on Vitalogy bristle with an energy that wouldn’t be matched again for a while and certainly not with the level of consistency found here.

The songs here form the template for all Pearl Jam songs to come – there’s the balls-out angry and heavy, there’s the flexing of creative / experimental muscle, the achingly poignant and the perfect mid-tempo. All summised in one rough-hewn gem of an album.

So – you want the balls-out angry and fast? Take that opening volley of songs:’Last Exit’, ‘Spin the Black Circle’ and ‘Not For You’:

As middle fingers to the label go, Pearl Jam chose ‘Spin the Black Circle’, much to Epic’s dismay, as the first single from Vitalogy. “See this needle, Oh see my hand, Drop, drop, dropping it down, oh so gently, here it comes, touch the flame, turn me up, won’t turn you away” is an homage to vinyl and was supposed to sound completely different – it’s a Stone Gossard riff that Vedder first heard at the wrong pitch: “I had come up with something in my truck with the tape player in my hand, but then I realized it was playing at a superhigh pitch. I turned it down, and it was really slow. I was like ‘Oh, fuck.”

‘Not for You’, meanwhile is as openly blunt and angry about the co-opting of the alternative scene as the band would be – save for the time Jeff Ament spotted Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui (who had released a ‘grunge’ line of clothes) and “I went down and did a fake fashion twirl and went ‘Hey Marc, what do you think of this for the next line?’ ” It’s hard to comprehend now in a way but I guess when Ricky Martin is cast on General Hospital as a clone of you – you’re gonna get pissed off. It also burns through ‘Corduroy’ (perfect mid-tempo) with it’s line “they can buy but can’t put on my clothes”:

Both ‘Not for You’ and ‘Corduroy’ are sole Vedder compositions. Vitalogy – dipping back to those inner band tensions mentioned – marked the first Pearl Jam album where Vedder’s songs would by far outweigh those of the other members. Half of the songs here (you can’t really count ‘Aye Davanita’ or ‘Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me’ as songs) are marked as Vedder / Vedder on the lyrics / music front.

Vedder’s “it wasn’t a hostile takeover” caused issues in the group. Stone Gossard was said to have considered leaving as he was no longer the guy who made the final decisions on tunes and vacated his role as mediator within the group (something which Dave Abbruzzese has credited to his departure). With hindsight Jeff Ament has stated that it was simply a case that Vedder was working harder at writing songs than the rest of the band – McCready would enter rehab to receive treatment for alcohol and cocaine abuse during sessions too. “I still don’t know if he was consciously exerting wanting to take over the band or take the reins or the the power. I think it was more like, ‘Hey, man, I’ve got seven complete songs here. What do you guys have?’ and we only had little riffs or two-parter things.”

Of those Vedder / Vedder songs are the achingly poignant Immortality and, of course, one of the band’s most well known:

I’ve probably heard this song live on the numerous shows I have in my iTunes. These days when it’s played live it’s not really the same song but the original is still an out and out classic especially considering its troubled and lengthy gestation as a Pearl Jam studio song. Vedder, fearing it was too raw and direct in terms of emotion, was never happy with how it had been recorded (the band had first tried getting it on tape for Vs.) and, at one point, came close to giving it to Chrissie Hynde to record instead. As it is he changed the final mix for ‘Betterman’ right at the last.

The creative: perhaps too wary of releasing quite so many obviously strong and high-pedigree songs on one album, Pearl Jam used Vitalogy to drop some of their, frankly, weirdest shit to date too. So, following up the beautiful Ament / Vedder collab, ‘Nothingman’…

… is ‘Pry To’

While what could have been a one-two-punch knockout of ‘Betterman’ and ‘Immortality’ is softened by the slotting of ‘Aye Davanita’ between them – it’s “just screwing around” with chanted non-lyrics that O’Brien looped. Then again, there’s something charming about ‘Bugs’ which Vedder, suffering from poison at the time, plays an off-tune accordion.

Then again, perhaps I’m overthinking it. Maybe they really just did like those interludes. But let’s look at it this way: if Vitalogy had been stripped of those and released as a ten track album comprising of songs like ‘Corduroy’, ‘Betterman’, ‘Nothingman’, ‘Last Exit’, ‘Spin the Black Circle’ etc… even with the lean produciton behind them, there’d have been no real way for them to get away from it or say no so easily.

As it is, glorious rough-hewn warts and all, Vitalogy is my favourite Pearl Jam album.