Least to Most: Pearl Jam – “I’m already cut up and half dead”

Ok – I’m halfway through my run down of Pearl Jam’s ten studio albums so this feels like a suitable place to take a knee and have a look at those albums that bear the band’s name but wouldn’t feature in the list: the live and compilation volumes.

For those who have been playing along at home, those studio albums covered thus far:

10. Backspacer
9. Binaural
8. Lightning Bolt
7. Riot Act
6. Pearl Jam

Compilations

Now in terms of ‘Best Of’s and ‘Greatest Hits’ type releases this is going to be a real quick and succinct round up: there’s only one. Rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991–2003) is a two-disc, contractual requirement, set that splits the band’s output into ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ volumes. I’m not too sure what the criteria for each of these is though as I would’ve pegged ‘Given To Fly’ and ‘Breath’ as being every bit as ‘up’ as ‘Corduroy’ but hey ho. As an introduction to Pearl Jam and for a good go-to in the car it’s pretty ideal and, in amongst the more well known songs are a few surprised inclusions while the presence of ‘Man of the Hour’ and ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ make for a solid compilation. It’s perhaps telling though that the vast bulk of this compilation (all but 5 of the 33 ) – . What’s more of note is that in the 15 years since the period this compilation covers there’s been just 3 studio albums  vs the 7 released in the 12 years it covers. Bloody slackers.

Live

Still, while we, as Pearl Jam fans, are in a relatively barren period for new studio material the band has become one the best live acts still regularly hitting the road and manages near-Springsteen length sets of ever-changing set lists. In the nearly three decades that separate their current tour and their first show at Seattle’s Off Ramp on October 22, 1990 their show has evolved from tight, intense performances to marathon like sets that run the gamut of tempos and mood with surprises and deep cuts thrown in among those ‘classic’ songs that were once the only songs they had in their repertoire.

So – does one of the most incredible live acts still in the game have a the appropriate incredible live album? Well, no, not really. Since their decision* to put out ‘Official Bootlegs’ of every show since 2000** there are approximately 18,000 live Pearl Jam albums out there….. not quite but almost. The bootlegs are perhaps the only way to get a real, highs, lows, warts and all document of a Pearl Jam show but unless you want to get lost in among them all there’s no real way to identify what will make one better than the other. For my money you can take you pick from any of the band’s 2006 tour and you’ll be hitting gold – peak performance and sets mixed with then-new material, classics and deep cuts.

However, in terms of the general, non-self released  front there’s still a good choice out there. Live on Two Legs was the band’s first such album and captured them on their 1998 tour in support of Yield – it’s probably the best one out there if you’re looking for a single-disc intro to the band I’d recommend it over the Rearviewmirror greatest hits set: there’s no ‘Alive’ or ‘Jeremy’ but you’ll get ‘Red Mosquito’, ‘Untitled’ and a ripping take on Neil Young’s ‘Fuckin’ Up’.

As part of their PJ20 celebrations, the band tried to recapture the success of their first live disc with another general-release live album – Live On Ten Legs. A little less tightly focused, this one compiles performances from their 2003–2010 world tours and, while the band are still undeniably tight and in charge, there’s a little more of a grab-bag feel to this one. The same could also be said of last year’s Let’s Play Two. Released as a ‘live’ album to coincide with the DVD of the same name, this one feels like a real missed opportunity – the band’s shows at Wrigley Field in 2016 had some really strong setlists but here Danny Clinch (who helmed the DVD) seems to have selected the weaker cuts and has structured it in such a way as to lose any real sense of flow or continuity. Still – there’s a great take on ‘Release’ and any show that opens with ‘Low Light’ gets a thumbs up from me.

Of course, if you want to go the full Live/1975–85  route then Live at the Gorge 05/06 – it’s a seven-disc document of the band’s three shows at the venue in 2005 and 2006. There’s a few repeats, of course, but there’s a lot of solid gold here and plenty of deep cuts.

If you want to get a good feel for Pearl Jam live – it’s got to be Live On Two Legs. However – if you’ve  got a little bit more time then you can’t go wrong with Live at Benaroya Hall. This two-disc set was recorded at the end of 2003 is a predominantly acoustic set (though Mike McCready often forgets that) which captures the band in a beautifully intimate setting and is packed with great takes on the well known, the lesser known and a few then-unreleased takes.

Odds and Sods

Pearl Jam’s b-sides were the stuff of legend. I remember, when I first got into the band, discussing songs like ‘Footsteps’ and ‘Hard to Imagine’ like they were lost gems. The band’s b-sides and rarities compilation Lost Dogs dropped in 2003 contains is a pretty decent collection of these. There’s the older classics already mentioned along with ‘Wash’ and ‘Alone’ along with newer cuts saved from the studio floor like ‘Down’ and ‘Otherside’. Those newer cuts – ‘Fatal’ is highlighted as producer Tchad Blake’s favourite from the Binaural sessions – serve more like the missing pieces that could have turned luke-warm albums into scorchers while some – ‘Sweet Lew’ and ‘Gremmie Out of Control’ – feel like padding and are really only for completists. As much as I give this one a regular spin, there’s a single disc’s worth of pure gold here amongst some ‘meh’.

But I’m omitting one thing. For the best of all of these – live cuts, studio solidity and rare deep stuff, one compilation is worth investment: Pearl Jam Twenty. Essentially a soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe film of the same name, Pearl Jam Twenty is a great listen. Predominantly a collection of live tunes, it combines more recent recordings with a take on ‘Alive’ from a show in 1990 when the band were still called Mookie Blaylock, a scorching ‘Blood’ from ’95 and early demos for tunes like ‘Nothing as it Seems’ and ‘Given to Fly’ to give a really strong, full-picture document of the band as it rounded off it’s second decade in business and remains on heavy rotation.

*An attempt to provide fans with a lower-priced, higher-quality recording of a show compared to the many bootlegs that were doing the rounds may not sound like the most business-savvy idea but they’ve shifted about 4 million of the things since 2000 – which is about 4 million copies shifted than Riot Act,

**Notable exceptions to the rule include the Roskilde Festival in which nine fans lost their lives.

 

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam

“It’s the same everyday and the wave won’t break
Tell you to pray, while the devil’s on their shoulder”
World Wide Suicide

During the tour for Riot Act Pearl Jam began to take a lot of flack and boos for daring to play ‘Bu$hleaguer’. At Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, the reaction was particularly adverse but the band persevered and were emboldened by the reaction. As Jeff Ament said “I actually walked off stage and felt great. That was a brand-new experience. Killer. We got booed standing up for something we wholeheartedly believed in.” So much so, in fact, that Pearl Jam joined Bruce Springsteen, REM and a host of other bands on the Vote for Change Tour in 2004 in support of John Kerry’s Presidential run and, for a brief moment, it looked like the tide may turn against Bush.

However, come November 3, 2004, Vedder “didn’t get out of bed. However, while I couldn’t get myself out of bed, I heard that Springsteen on that day was making a call to someone he makes records with, saying ‘I have to make a record.'” When Vedder and Pearl Jam did get to the studio a few weeks later the tunes came out on fire: ‘Life Wasted’, ‘Comatose’, ‘Severed Hand’ and what would become ‘World Wide Suicide’ all came from the bands first sessions for their eighth studio album.

And yet… while there were a good dozen songs being worked up, it began to be clear to the band that, by early 2005, the album wasn’t on track to be ready by the end of the year.  “I think that came from the guys affording me the extra time to write, and my needing more time to write,” Vedder would later recall. There was also the fact that Vedder had a child during the process. So, for the first time in their history, Pearl Jam broke the album-tour-album-tour cycle and headed out on the road for a series of shows with no new music to promote. Realising that simply playing shows without the onus of promoting an album could prove a lot of fun, the shows from this tour sound like a band at its peak and they’d continue this practice in years to come. “We were separating the touring aspect of the band from the recording process. We could go out, be Pearl Jam, and tour.”

New songs would be debuted – ‘Gone’ was first played in Atlantic City the day after it had been written -and honed as well as written – Mike McCready demoed one of his finest songs, ‘Inside Job,’ on Vedder’s tape machine in South America – during the 2005 tour and the shows from this tour are well worth checking out.

When recording sessions got back under way and the new material began taking shape from the 25 songs written, it became clear that this was a very targeted album with Vedder’s lyrics aimed squarely at voicing his disgust at the Bush administration “through telling stories… an observation of modern reality rather than editorializing, which we’ve seen plenty of these days.”

It also started to look like album eight was turning into that divisive rock staple – A Concept Album. It was only sequencing that prevented it: “We tried one [sequence], and it just absolutely didn’t work. That was the one that told a story…. You could have tied it all in with a bit of narration… It was interesting to think, ‘Severed Hand’ – is that the same kid who ends up being the army reservist?”

When Pearl Jam released their eighth album in May 2006 it didn’t have a title – “In the end, we thought there was enough there with the title of the songs, so to put another title on the album would have seemed pretentious. So, really, it’s actually Nothing by Pearl Jam.” The album that fans would refer to as Avocado* was released on J Records – still a major, Sony-owned label (probably why it’s proven impossible to find videos to embed in this one, those litigious bastards) – and was their second produced by Adam Kasper. It’s their most aggressive, straight-ahead record since Vs, represented something of a comeback in terms of both quality and commercial appeal, launched a tour that I would argue captured the band at their absolute peak and – much like Vote for Change Tour alumni Springsteen’s ‘Bush album’ Magic – is a real late-career gem.

‘Life Wasted’, ‘World Wide Suicide’, ‘Comatose’ and ‘Severed Hand’ make for as hard a hitting opening series of tracks as the band have ever put to tape and bristle with a raw edge and determination that had been missing from the band for a couple of albums at this point. As Gossard said: “It doesn’t sound slick or that we polished it for too long. That’s the main thing, really, politics aside. The song just has some energy in it.”

 

Elsewhere on Pearl Jam, ‘Parachutes’ has a No Code vibe to it and it, along with ‘Come Back’ – the album’s sole ballad -and ‘Gone’ deal with more general, universal themes. Personally I love a huge amount of this album and think it’s the last consistently solid album the band have made to date – there’s not a song here that I’ll skip when playing and I still crank it up loud.

Granted; the diversity that made some of their earlier albums so compelling is missing, but the force and energy that enthuse this baker’s dozen of songs is undeniable. There’s a real ‘classic’ feel to this album and the tour that followed showed just how seamlessly these songs blend with the strongest elements of their back catalogue. Of the many Pearl Jam bootlegs in my collection, a good six or seven are from the 2006 tour and represent some of their finest shows – especially the five shows in Italy that would be captured on the Immagine in Cornice DVD and the Turin concert that featured the new album played through in its entirety.

I remember when Pearl Jam first dropped, having the distinct impression that it would be a ‘grower’. That’s definitely true. In the ten years plus that have passed since its release this album has certainly grown on me with every listen and new details appear with each investigation. I’m not sure why I don’t rank this one higher in the list – perhaps it is the lack of diversity in the sound. Then again: I’ve recently been spinning the 2017 remaster which was remixed by Brendan O’Brien which adds a significant amount of extra heft to the sound… but then I’m basing this on original versions otherwise I’d need to go back to the drawing board.

Highlights: ‘Life Wasted’, ‘World Wide Suicide,’ ‘Severed Hand,’ ‘Army Reserve,’ ‘Inside Job’.

*Mike McCready: “That symbolizes just kind of … Ed’s at the end of the process and said, ‘for all I care right now, we’ve done such a good job on this record, and we’re kind of tired from it. Let’s throw an avocado on the cover.’ I think that’s what happened, and our art director goes, ‘hey, that’s not a bad idea.’ I think we were watching the Super Bowl, and we had some guacamole or something.”

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Riot Act

“Take the reigns, steer us toward the clear…”

A lot can happen in two years. I’ve written on the time between Binaural and Riot Act before but, to summarise: nine fans were killed during the band’s performance at the 2000 Roskilde Festival – an abrupt full stop which found Pearl Jam questioning if they could continue, friend and fellow ‘grunge’ icon Layne Staley died, Eddie Vedder went through a divorce and, external to the band, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Bush administration shifted America’s landscape drastically.

Ahead of their first show following Roskilde, Eddie Vedder sat alone in his hotel room writing a song to “reassure myself that this is going to be all right.” ‘I Am Mine’, as Matt Cameron said, “has all the elements this band is known for: strong lyrics, strong hook, and a good sense of melody. It wasn’t a really tough decision to have that be the starting point for the record.”

Following the Binaural tour cycle, Pearl Jam took a short break – Matt Cameron’s Wellwater Conspiracy dropped it’s third album, Stone Gossard released the first ‘solo’ album from a Pearl Jam member (which he was in New York promoting on 9/11) and Vedder – having played five shows with Neil Finn and other musicians (later captured on the worth-checking-out Seven Worlds Collide) – disappeared off the grid for a year on a remote Hawaiian island where he connected with Boom Gaspar who was playing B3 at a musician’s wake. The two hooked up again a few days later and very quickly wrote an eleven minute tune that would become another key album track, ‘Love Boat Captain’.

When it came time to recording their new album, Pearl Jam chose to do so with Adam Kasper (who’s credits to that point included two albums for Foo Fighters, a Queens of the Stone Age album amongst others) at the suggestion of Matt Cameron as Kasper had also produced Soundgarden’s last album, Down on the Upside.

The resulting album is one of the lost gems in Pearl Jam’s catalogue. Riot Act has still – 16 years on – shifted less copies than Vs did in its first week alone. I know Pearl Jam fans who don’t know more than the couple of tunes that remain in modern setlists. As I’ve argued before and will continue to do so – they’re missing out. Stronger than BinauralRiot Act benefits from Vedder having banished his writer’s block and having a much broader and emotional range of subjects to draw on and, frankly, get angry about -though Vedder has said that “If you think about it, it’s all very confusing and overwhelming to try to grasp it and put it all down.”

The album kicks off with ‘Can’t Keep’ – a tune that Vedder had played on the ukulele during a couple of solo shows (and would record as such on his own Ukulele Songs a few years later) that Gossard heard and enthused would be “killer” with the full band treatment and became a slow-burning thumper with buzzing, treated guitars that feels like a No Code song and leads into what is now a quite rare thing: a full band composition, ‘Save You’.

With lyrics that tackle addiction and the pain and frustration of seeing a close friend waste their life, ‘Save You’ is Mike McCready’s only writing credit on Riot Act and came about when he was sitting down with Stone Gossard (who contributed a fair bit song-writing wise) and “had two ideas, and one idea I worked really hard on and thought it was totally great and then I played it for him, and he goes, ‘Well, that’s not…well that’s okay. You got anything else?’ And so, the other thing I had was the “Save You” riff, and he goes, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ Ya know, so it’s…I was really built up to wanting to play this other song, and uh, nobody seemed to be very excited about it…”

‘Save You’ leans into the relentless, hard-edged rock sound that would blend seamlessly alongside tracks from Vitalogy as would the propulsive-beat driven ‘Green Disease.’ ‘Thumbing My Way’, meanwhile, is an acoustic ballad that showcases a change in direction for Vedder’s writing and is a clear signpost for what was to come with Into The Wild while ‘You Are’ is a personal favourite. Born out of expirmenting with a new drum machine that Matt Cameron had gotten hold of, it’s another great example of the band taking one member’s ideas and creating something memorable.

It would be impossible to talk about Riot Act without giving at least a passing mention to ‘Bu$hleaguer’. A dark, weaving satirical swipe, this was Pearl Jam at their most unambiguous politically and – while not much touched since – would regularly draw boos and jeers from certain clusters of the crowd when played live. Though even before the record was released there was no way to think Pearl Jam were Bush supporters so you’ve gotta wonder about the ‘shock’ it created.

Riot Act could very easily have been Pearl Jam’s greatest record. Reinvigorated and with a wealth of inspiration to draw on, there are some fantastic tunes on their seventh album (and there’s not many bands you can say that about). But… they should’ve taken a break. They sound a little tired and songs like ‘Ghost’ and ‘Help Help’ even sound tired. As much as I love the majority of Riot Act there are still 5 of its 15 songs I’ll skip more than listen through to and while that’s still a pretty signal to noise ratio (to borrow a phrase), when stacked against other works – it means it doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have done.

The odd thing is that had you cut those 5 songs and thrown in the ‘B’ sides recorded during these sessions – ‘Down’, ‘Undone’, and the brilliant ‘Otherside’ instead then Riot Act would have been one of their greatest albums.

However, there’s a sense of finality about Riot Act. In many ways it marks the end of a chapter for Pearl Jam – it would be four years before they’d release another album and, with Riot Act they completed their ‘studio’ obligations to Sony Music’s Epic Records with whom they had signed as Mookie Blaylock ahead of recording their debut Ten and, following their next tour, would take a much-needed break.

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt

“It’s a fragile thing, this life we lead
If I think too much I can get over-
Whelmed by the grace
By which we live our lives with death over our shoulders”
Sirens

Four years seperated the release of Backspacer and Lightning Bolt, Pearl Jam’s tenth (and, currently, most recent) studio album. A band that used to release an album every 18 months or so like clockwork had learnt to slow down and catch their breath between releases and tours.

In those four years the band was far from idle. There were re-releases / expanded editions of Vs and Vitalogy, a live album and the whole Pearl Jam Twenty celebration / lap of honour that included a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary, book, compilation (all very very good), two day festival and tour.

Oh – and a plethora of solo activity: Jeff Ament formed RNDM with Joseph Arthur and released and album as did his other side-project Tres Mts, Stone Gossard dropped a couple of Brad albums, Matt Cameron slipped back onto the drum seat for a little-known Seattle band called Soundgarden’s reunion, Mike McCready got in on a Mad Season reunion-of-sorts and formed Walking Papers with Duff McKagan (yes, that Duff McKagan) and even Eddie dropped a solo album, again ‘of sorts’, with Ukulele Songs (which is fine depending on your appetite for half an hour of Eddie and his uke).

Why do I mention all these solo projects in a review of a Pearl Jam band album, I don’t hear you ask. Well, for all the claims that these side projects help the band members bring more into album sessions and that may have been true in the 90’s when the band had couldn’t stand up for ideas falling out of their arses, I think it’s now the opposite case. When sessions for Lightning Bolt were delayed and interrupted by these commitments and solo tours I can’t help but feel that creative and energy levels were actually drained than recharged and the band’s tenth studio album kind suffered as a result.

But does that matter? Let’s face it: Pearl Jam are in a pretty unique position that few bands or acts reach. Twenty-two years into their life as a band they’re one of the greatest live draws still regularly touring, can sell out arenas, stadiums and ball-parks across the globe, their place and legacy are sealed and were – in 2013 and now – at the point where as long as their new album didn’t stink the place up like Pepé Le Pew and contained a good few songs to mix into the live set, will continue to be able to do so for years to come and keep their legacy intact even if it’s unlikely to bring any new fans into the fold.

Sill “everyone’s a critic looking back up the river” as the first words that ushered in Lightning Bolt point out and there’s a lot of strong material and a willingness to experiment and push boundaries within these forty-seven minutes that show Pearl Jam aren’t quite ready to rest on their laurels and are still trying to push their songwriting forward.

Lyrically, these are some of Vedder’s most accessible and direct, an extension of the approach begun on Backspacer (“For years, it was playing word games and expressing those emotions, but doing it in such a way that was cryptic and where Mark Arm from Mudhoney would still have some modicum of respect for me. But nowadays, it’s more like sitting down and writing a song, and whatever comes out, comes out.”) and musically it’s a lot more diverse than their previous album, with Stone Gossard referring to  “a slight return to some of the more sort of peculiar things we did, say, between No Code and Binaural.”

I really dig a huge chunk of Lightning Bolt and love that diversity in their sound, aptly beefed up by the physicality of Brendan O’Brien production. Take ‘Pendulum’ – how often to you get to hear Mike McCready using a bow on his guitar? – for a good start:

It’s a dark, broody beast that really doesn’t feel like the ‘by the numbers’ Pearl Jam you’d expect of a band this far into their recording career and works great live. It was a Gossard add Jeff Ament composition that even they didn’t expect Eddie to latch on to and work up into a band song. While we’re in the mid-section, ‘Pendulum’ is preceded by another Ament & Gossard composition and highlight, ‘Infallible’, whose groove and progression are like noting else in the PJ catalog and I love the directions the melody veers off in, with near-Beatles like passages :

A lot of attention pre and post release was given to ‘Sirens’ with due course. It’s one of the band’s finest. From a musical point of view, it’s a Mike McCready compostion (which I can never have enough of) inspired after attending a stop on Roger Waters’ ‘The Wall’ tour and wanting “to write something that would have a Pink Floyd type feel”. You can tell pretty much exactly which song he was cribbing from but when paired with Vedder’s most open and direct lyrics it’s elevated beyond ‘power ballad’ territory to a yearning ode on the fear of life’s fragility and our own mortality.

Of course, there are some more expected leanings on Lightning Bolt. ‘Mind Your Manners’ is a ripping, Dead Kennedys inspired rocker that finds Vedder back in angry mode and plays to their strengths, as does ‘Let The Records Play’ which threads a ‘power of spinning vinyl’ theme around a tasty Stone Gossard (this is very much a record for Stone fans) riff with great results.

Instead of a couple, Lightning Bolt produced a good half dozen songs that really add to Pearl Jam’s setlist (even if they’re not the ones that Ed scrawls onto a piece of paper ahead of a show) and any PJ playlist – including the one which will follow this series*. However, there are a few that don’t make the cut.

I still haven’t really clicked with ‘My Father’s Son’ and while ‘Lightning Bolt’ and ‘Getaway’, for example, are fine songs they don’t particularly add anything to pull this album further up in terms of its ‘go to’ placement in the band’s overall catalogue.

Vedder said of the writing that they’re continually trying to ” make not just the best Pearl Jam record, but just the best record.” While Lightning Bolt may not be the one, it is stronger than you’d expect of a band’s tenth album and finds the band not only playing to their strengths but still pushing in unexpected directions. As long as they continue trying to do so it’s worth checking in and always worth getting to a Pearl Jam show when they come to town.

Oh, and in terms of album closers, though, they went with a beauty on Lightning Bolt with ‘Future Days’.

Highlights: ‘Mind Your Manners’, ‘Sirens,’ ‘Infallible,’ ‘Pendulum,’ ‘Let The Records Play,’ Yellow Moon,’ ‘Future Days’.

Not-so highlights: ‘My Father’s Son, ‘Sleeping By Myself’.

*At this rate that may be a Christmas special

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.