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’.

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‘.

 

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.

Out of Europe: Five From Spain

While those duplicitous, intellectually and morally deficient cockweasels that make up the spearhead of the government’s Brexit movement continue to flounder around like a freshly-neutered dog wondering what the hell he can now lick as the reality of both the consequences and legalities thunder down on them, I thought I’d take a look at the music of Spain.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see a fair bit of Spain and – while there are mixed emotions attached to part of it now – I’ve always loved being there. I’ve always found it a beautifully vibrant and colourful country, especially the Catalan areas I’ve spent time in, and from the Galician north-west to the Canary islands off the coast of Africa, I found warmth in both climate and people. And the food…..

As for the music, let’s go:

Héroes del Silencio – Entre dos tierras

NB: I don’t think the video is supposed to be as funny as it is. They may have been this earnest.

Héroes del Silencio – formed in the 80’s in Zaragoza – were BIG in Europe which, as per, means jack shit in England and they never crossed over. My wife, however, being from Europe ‘proper’ did know of them and dug them out of Spotify last year. One of Rock en Español most successful bands, they played big rock with a serious, capital R from the late 80’s up until 1996 when the singer went his own way. Rock en Español is a catch-all grouping for those ‘rock’ bands that sang in Spanish and precious few achieved success outside of Spanish speaking countries due to lack of promotion. Héroes del Silencio were signed to EMI and the album this track is taken from shifted well over 2 million copies alone. Not too shabby.

Spotify Link

Exquirla – Europa Muda

I’ve blasted this album out of my car and home speakers so much since picking it up earlier this year. Exquirla is the a surprise collaboration between Spanish post-rock band Toundra and flamenco singer Niño de Elche. The two acts met when they were both appearing at a festival in Cadiz (a city I love very much). This surprise collaboration yielded an album of intense post-rock with traditional guitar and flamenco vocals that’s hugely addictive, even if I haven’t got a clue what Senor de Elche is emoting about.

Spotify Link

Audiolepsia – Beatrix

One of the joys of the internet is the degree to which the discovery of new music from places so geographically distant and bands not affiliated with major labels is now possible. I also love the ability that it has created for bands who don’t have or don’t want major backing to get product out there in a grass-roots, DIY style and build a genuine fanbase. It’s meant I’ve been able to discover a huge amount and I found a real groundswell of post-rock / ambient flowing out of Barcelona – perhaps it’s the Catalan element. I can really go down the rabbit hole at times and the discovery of Aloud Music (who work with the equally brilliant Dunk!) is a dangerous one for my bank balance. Veering more toward the melodic end of the genre, along with Astralia, Audiolepsia are one of those bands who’s album Muses has been on steady spin since discover.

Spotify link

Triángulo de Amor Bizarro – De la monarquía a la criptocracia

They take their name from the New Order song Bizarre Love Triangle (but I won’t hold that against them) and were formed in the Galician city of A Coruña (again: another city I’ve visited). Highly praised by press and famous musicians from various quarters they’re renowned for powerful live performances and mix indie, post-punk and shoegaze into one heady combo.

Spotify link

Joaquín Rodrigo – Concierto de Aranjuez II: Adagio

Stepping away from the usual fare on this blog but there is zero possibility of talking Spanish music and not mentioning what is one of my favourite pieces of music.

It’s nothing revolutionary and is probably a very well-known piece yet there is something undeniably beautiful about the Concierto de Aranjuez, it’s one of the finest pieces of Spanish classical music and the Adagio moves me every time. I’ve had the joy of seeing this performed live by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with Rolando Saad on guitar. There’s no video of that particular combo, that’s Rolando Saad in the video, though but the Spotify link is to just that pairing. The moment at which the orchestra fulls into sweep around the 8 1/2 minute mark always gives me goosebumps.

Spotify link

Currently Spinning

Uh oh: it’s been a while since I mumbled about music… on here at least.

So I thought it was time to take a goosey at what’s been pinging around the old noggin of late.

Led Zeppelin – Ramble On

For some reason I’ve been on a real Zep kick of late. Not that you need an excuse to listen to what may be one of the greatest bands of all time but… if you can’t find something to like in Led Zeppelin’s immense back catalog there’s something wrong with you, go see a doctor.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Texas Flood

Much in the same vein as the above… you never need a reason to listen to SRV, more like a reason not to. And there isn’t one.

The Black Crowes – If It Ever Stops Raining

How I’ve gone six years and not posted anything by this band is beyond me. So I recently found myself catching up with the Crowes’ work that I’d missed, including Lost Crowes – a collection of essentially two albums that were canned and stripped for parts on later discs. This one went on to find new legs in By Your Side‘s title track but the great bones of it are here and it seems right now that will never fucking stop raining on this sodding island.

Manic Street Preachers – International Blue

Been a while since I enjoyed a new Manics song… easily a decade. Still, I’ve been really enjoying hearing this one on the radio lately and it certainly stands up well to repeated listens.

Buffalo Tom – Freckles

Quite and Peace has had a lot of spins since arriving on my shelves last month and ‘Freckles’ is a real stand out.

Five From: Death Cab For Cutie

An attempt at a new feature wherein – in an effort to shake off the ‘lapsed’ status of postings – I proffer up five songs from an artist / band. Not a ‘Top Five’ as such more a potted selection should you be so inclined to check said act out….

Hailing from a Bellingham, Washington and undoubtedly influenced by the emo scene in nearby Seattle, Death Cab For Cutie have been putting out records for (gulp) 21 years now.

I got into them, like so many I guess, on the back of their widely acclaimed Transatlanticism. But then I stopped listening after the overexposure of Plans on the back of, I think, it featuring on some of those overly sappy, treacly, cheesier than a cheddar factory US teen-sitcom shows. However, in 2011 my wife surprised me with tickets to a DCFC show. I was expecting a lot of quiet acoustic numbers. Instead it was one of the best live shows I’ve seen – new material (the then-new Codes and Keys album) vastly more upbeat and superior to anything on Plans and songs that I didn’t know that meant I quickly went and picked up Narrow Stairs. The quality of those two albums (and the connection to a great night out) meant that Death Cab went up the play count list. Here’s five of those heavy rotation tunes that don’t sit in Spotify’s Top Five for DCFC:

Why’d You Want To Live Here

Title And Registration

This is the one that first got my attention and I still thoroughly enjoy it and Transatlanticism. That nagging little guitar line… I was quite chuffed when I sussed that one out.

I Will Possess Your Heart

Narrow Stairs is all too often dismissed and this song is immense with its build up of layers and pulsing rhythm – it kills live too.

You Are A Tourist

Viewed in retrospective, Codes and Keys is actually an intense break-up / pre-divorce album. Frontman Ben Gibbard had been married to Zooey Deschanel for a couple of years and was living the healthy life…. everyone labelled it his ‘happy’ album. But then the couple announced their seperation a few months later and lyrics like “If you feel just like a tourist/ In the city you were born/ Then it’s time to go/ And define your destination/ There’s so many different places to call home” take on a different meaning. Either way Codes and Keys is a bloody good album.

Little Wanderer

From their last studio album, Kintsugi. Not their strongest but a good effort and also the last to feature guitarist / occasional songwriter Chris Walla who’d been with the group from the start. With a new album strongly hinted at for this year, I’m looking forward to more.

Currently Listening

Here we are again. Another ‘series’ down and a couple brewing in the pot and time for a look at what (alongside continual listens to Lost In Kiev’s Nuit Noire) my auditory ossicles have been pinging on down the line of late.

The Mono Jacks – 1,000 De Da

This one was sent to my wife last week via our friend in Romania who gave me some ammo for my Out of Europe on that country and I’ve been listening to it and their new album pretty solidly since. My Romanian isn’t strong enough to offer a translation but I’m told it deals with a certain kind of… parental method that a lot of Romanians today can identify with and “represents our inner children yelling for freedom as we each carve our own paths in life”. The Mono Jacks describe themselves as sounding “between alternative rock and post-punk touches”. As the review on the band’s site says: “I’ve seen most of the British bands ploughing this particular furrow, and The Mono Jacks have better songs than pretty much all of them.”

Destroyer – Chinatown

Another example of strange ways to discover music…. I was looking at an album on Amazon a week or two back and down in the “recommended” type carousel I saw Destroyer’s Kapputt at £5 for a double lp. Out of nothing more than curiosity and intrigue after scanning the glowing reviews (numerous album of the year accolades and reviews like “an astonishing world in just nine songs” and “an open love letter to a vanished pop era: it’s unique and warm and beautiful” ) I checked it out on Spotify and was hooked and hit ‘buy’. Why it was so cheap I have no idea, but, to quote another review “a brilliant and accessible album that draws from the lush sounds of the early 1980s but never forgets the importance of songwriting”.

Band of Susans – Elizabeth Stride 1843-1888

Again – different ways of discovering music. I saw a book (I think on Instagram) that I thought might be interesting called ‘Gimme Indie Rock: 500 Essential American Underground Rock Albums 1981–1996.’ I downloaded a sample chapter and while it’s more a case of “author’s favourite 500..” the description of Band of Susan’s Here Comes Success got me intrigued and I’ve had this opening track on a lot since. There’s a really obvious late-80’s Sonic Youth element to it along with *that* guitar sound. This one actually sent me down one of those Wikipedia rabbit holes that lead to the Saucy Jacky postcard (“you’re a saucy one, Jack”). Apparently Leo Fender was a rabid fan – of Band of Susans not Jack the Ripper.

Pearl Jam – Release, 1994 Orpheum Theater, Boston, MA

Because Jim at Music Enthusiast has got me seriously considering delving deeper into a Pearl Jam series and because I need no excuse to listen to Pearl Jam I’ve been spinning the live disc that came with the Vs/Vitalogy box. In terms of Pearl Jam live albums it’s probably the finest ‘official’ release out there.

Bruce Springsteen – I’ll Stand By You Always

Again in preparation for a possible series / longer post… (my notebook is starting to fill up with these and I haven’t even touched on the 100 Essential Albums thing..) back when Springsteen was doing the promo rounds for his book he confirmed the existence of this one as having been written for, and turned down by the producers of that film about kids and magic. At the time he said that it was “very uncharacteristic of something I’d sing myself.” “It was something that I thought would have fit lovely.” Well, despite being locked down for over a decade it emerged this year on a bootleg set called Odds and Sods. Perhaps not suited for a kids movie as such it’s certainly a different take for Bruce and would probably rank quite highly on his ‘movie songs’ list. It comes from the start of a very prolific song-writing period for Bruce and while he currently squats on Broadway in another activity that keeps him from releasing any new material it’s worth a listen for fans.

In terms of where this sits with sessions and musicians…. It’s listed as “copyright June 13, 2001” so my guess is that it could be from the E Street sessions at Thrill Hill East of that spring – between the end of the Reunion Tour and the start of The Rising sessions later that year in Atlanta – that Springsteen considered fruitless but there’s so little on it in terms of ‘band’ sound that it could just as easily be a solo recording.