Over and Out

It’s not the easiest thing to go out on a high note, just ask George Constanza. Seinfeld managed it. So did the Sopranos, come to think of it. Some just drag it out too long. The lifestyle and money too good to turn down after syndication kicks in perhaps. Joseph Heller was once told by a reported that he hadn’t written anything since that was as good as Catch-22, to which he responded “who has?”

It’s even trickier for musicians to do so – very few go into sessions with a definitive “this will be the last time” approach, some call it a day following poor reception to a bad album and others leave this mortal coil with their last recorded output barley touching their former dizzying heights.

Were Dylan to meet Elvis tomorrow, for example, I doubt it could be said that he’d left a great final record in Triplicate. At The Drive In and Refused almost managed it – but then they got back together and managed to slap their legacy in the face with a bloody great fish.

I go these lengths to point out that a good final album isn’t all that common as a build up, of course, to sharing my list of Ten Great Final Albums. Displayed below in no particular order but with two qualifying criteria: ‘only’ albums (Jeff Buckley’s Grace for example) don’t count and nothing posthumously released is eligible.

Nirvana – In Utero

Originally it was going to be called I Hate Myself and I Want To Die as a joke. Cobain’s piss take of how he was so often portrayed as “this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time.” In an attempt to distance themselves from the overwhelming popularity of Nevermind and sheer off the sound of Vig’s production that – despite loving it at the time – Cobain would slate publicly as too commercial, Nirvana recorded In Utero with Steve Albini.

As raw and uncompromising an album as a major like Geffen would allow. There’s a lot of talk and mumbling about how the label insisted on having it remixed and polished by Scott Litt (known at the time for work with REM and The Replacements) but the band had already approached Albini to remix it but the producer refused – claiming he’d recorded exactly the ‘fuck you’ ablum Kurt had asked for and wouldn’t released the master tapes to be remixed by someone else. After much back and forth he relented and Scott Litt and Andy Wallace were allowed to work on some of the songs.

In Utero ranks as my favourite Nirvana album and would certainly feature high on my all-time list. ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Scentless Apprentice’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Dumb’…. it’s not only stuffed full of killer tunes but the whole album feels so intense and powerful. The only thing that bugs me about it is that it still showed so much more potential for what was to never come. As a final album, though, it takes some beating.

Chances of a follow-up: None. Well, the surviving members of Nirvana could cut some new material with a different vocalist but then they’d probably chose someone crap like a former Beatle and call it something else entirely.

Sonic Youth – The Eternal

Boy does it pain me to talk about Sonic Youth having a final album. However, The Eternal, released in 2009 and their 15th studio album – is Sonic Youth’s final studio album. To quote from a previous post about them, Sonic Youth were one of the greatest things to blow my ears apart, literally; I’m convinced that the hearing in my right ear has never been the same since I was close to front row and very close to intimate with Thurston Moore’s amps as they performed Daydream Nation in its entirety at Camden’s Round House.

Listening to SY for the first time was like getting a key to a room full of ‘next-level music’. It was music that didn’t give a fuck – pure punk in that respect yet somehow effortlessly cool. No regard for standard tuning. No regard for form and traditional structure. No regard for anything but the feel. And it all made sense. Explosive and experimental guitars that powered through songs that always managed to feel both on the brink of collapse yet tight and in control. A three-decades long career stuffed with ground-breaking work based on the guitar work of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore with vocals from both along those of bass player Kim Gordon. And then, suddenly, it was over as the divorce of Gordon and Moore collapsed amidst rumours of mid-life crisis infidelity on the part of Moore. Their latest album The Eternal very quickly became their final album.

In many ways, even down to the title, it’s a fitting final album. It contains some of their finest songs and showed that, more than 25 years on from their debut EP, they were still evolving and making great music. Songs like ‘Sacred Tricksters’, ‘What We Know’ and ‘Anti-Orgasm’ sit among their best and the album, for all it’s sonic experimentation and guitar freak-outs, is one of their most consistent and accessible as though, no-longer on a major label, they were interested in as many people as possible getting into their songs.

Chances of a follow-up: Very very slim. While drummer Steve Shelley has worked on projects with both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, the acrimonious dissolution of Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage points to Sonic Youth as wrapped up.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

Given the sheer amount of posthumous compilations of ‘previously unreleased’ recordings or ‘intended next albums’ you’d think that Jimi Hendrix spent more time in the studio than he did anything else. However, there were only three studio albums released in his lifetime (all recorded with The Jimi Hendrix experience and released within an 18 month period).

Jimi’s final studio album Elecrtic Ladyland is a stone-cold classic. A double album that contains pure gold. Take Hendrix’ reinvention of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ which was so good it overwhelmed Dylan himself, take ‘Crosstown Traffic’, take ‘House Burning Down’ or take the 15 minute long jam of ‘Voodoo Chile’ with Steve Winwood’s organ whirling away – which itself led into what is easily one of the greatest songs ever put to tape: Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Apparently – the Experience returned to the studio the next day to find cameras rolling for a documentary, rather than try and repeat the magic of the previous night’s jam session, they improvised it on the spot and a monster was born:

Chances of a follow-up: got a shovel?

Band of Susans – Here Comes Success

Band of Susans I got into far too late – some 20 years after they called it a day. Born out of the same New York noise rock scene that gave us Sonic Youth but with a more layered, complex sound that saw them draw comparisons to shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine woven into an experimental mix. The original lineup had three women named Susan and always had just as many guitarists. In their ten year life as a band, with fairly fluid lineups around the three Susans (which eventually became just the one, Susan Stenger) they put out five stonking albums of guitar-centric music that was markedly different to the field in which they were often lumped but never really found as wide an audience as they deserved.

Here Comes Sucess – complete with sarcastic title – is arguably their finest work and one of the best records I’ve discovered in the last year or so. Nine songs that all kick around the seven minute mark. All slow burning, hypnotic worlds that revolve around Stenger’s bass lines with intricate and explosive guitar workouts.

Chances of a follow-up: All members are still active in music in one way or another but given how little attention was paid to the band, their split or – if the low level of monthly listens the band receive on Spotify is any indication – their back catalogue, I’d say none.

Elliott Smith – Figure 8

If I can bring myself to do so there will be a wider-scoping post on Elliott Smith. However…. there was supposed to be a double album. Something to do with record contract obligations with DreamWorks. Smith had graduated to the major label after the success of Either/Or and his exposure via the Goodwill Hunting soundtrack. But he also fell into depression. Following on from Figure 8, Smith went through a troubled period of addiction, paranoia and all kinds of trouble before cleaning up. He had a clearer state of mind, sessions were underway with a good number of tracks recorded and mixed. However, Smith died on October 21, 2003 at the age of 34 from two stab wounds to the chest (which was reported as suicide but officially left open with the question of homicide). As such Figure 8 remains his final recorded statement and it’s a beauty.

Full of lush production,  pop-like song structures that wear their Beatles influence on their sleeve and pretty much every instrument played by Smith, Figure 8 contains some of Elliott’s finest songs from ‘Son of Sam’ to ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’, ‘Easy Way Out’, ‘Pretty Mary K’… A real loss.

 

Chances of a follow-up: soon to be released on St. Peter’s Gates Records.

REM – Collapse Into Now

How do you bow out in style? REM’s the closest any act has gotten to following the Seinfeld route of stopping at the top before things go south. Well, if we ignore Around The Sun that is.  Guitarist Peter Buck has said that, as the band entered the studio to record “We got together, and Michael said, ‘I think you guys will understand. I need to be away from this for a long time.’ And I said, ‘How about forever?’ Michael looked at Mike, and Mike said, ‘Sounds right to me.’ That’s how it was decided.”

Collapse Into Now is a great final album, it’s nothing but strength. Following the all-out single-focus return to form of Accelerate, REM’s final album paints with every brush at their disposal – it has the odd effect of listening to a new album as a greatest hits. All of these songs are new yet there are echoes of their finest work across each. I’ve written a full post on this one before so won’t repeat myself but will point out that I still consistently pull Collapse Into Now off the shelves and don’t skip a single track. ‘Discoverer’, ‘All The Best’, ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’, ‘Oh  My Heart’… all gold. Perhaps, most likely probably, because they knew it was their last, the band put their all into this and created a final body of songs they could be proud of. I’m just glad they didn’t decide to call it a day after Around The Sun.

Chances of a follow-up: I mean…. you can never say never, right. Not while all members are still alive and well and engaged musically in some form… there’s group projects and meetings for the ongoing ‘business’ side of REM’s catalogue but I, sadly, don’t see it happening. I don’t think they have anything to prove and if their hearts aren’t in it…

The Replacements – All Shook Down

The Replacements were already kind of over before All Shook Down. It was supposed to be a Paul Westerberg solo album but before recording could get underway his management talked him into making one last Replacements album from the material.

As such All Shook Down features a few session musicians but not to the point of it not being a Replacements record – there are no additional guitarists or bass players listed so it’s a safe bet to assume that Paul Westerberg and Slim Dunlap handled guitar parts with bass either missing from some songs or handled by Westerberg when Tommy Stinson wasn’t about (Westerberg’s solo albums often did away with bass altogether). Perhaps as a side effect of the material’s original intention, it’s one of the most consistent Replacements albums recorded without a single foray into ‘Lay It Down Clown’ territory.

The album is full of strong songs and I’m sure that if such a solidly great album come sooner in their career they would’ve finally secured the attention / success they deserved. As it is, this collection of tunes such as ‘Merry Go Round’, ‘Sadly Beautiful’, ‘When it Began’ and ‘Someone Take The Wheel’ makes for a fantastic swansong.

Chances of a follow-up: unlikely. Original guitarist Bob Stinson died in 1995, replacement Slim Dunlap suffered a severe stroke in 2012 and could not take part in the reunion shows while drummer Chris Mars has given up on music to focus on his art. The well-deserved lap of honour tours that followed the reunion in 2012 of Westerberg and Stinson yielded an aborted attempt at recording new material with the old ‘just didn’t feel right’ results.

The White Stripes – Icky Thump

Ah the White Stripes… while I’ve got no real time in Jack White these days, there’s no denying that The White Stripes generated a great deal of catchy and solid tunes in their 14 year career together. The tour behind their last album, Icky Thump, was called short in 2007 after Meg began suffering acute anxiety. Quits were called by the duo as a band in 2011 after a period of inactivity.

Oddly, Icky Thump is not only the last White Stripes album but also my favourite. I love the title track, the hook of ‘300 M.P.H Torrential Outpour Blues’, the daftness of ‘Rag and Bone’ and stomp of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told)’. ‘Conquest’ aside, there’s not a song on Icky Thump I don’t enjoy. For my money it’s the strongest entry in their catalogue, a leap on from the already great Get Behind Me Satan and Elephant and I was really hoping they’d continue that trajectory. Ho hum.

Chances of a follow-up: Meh. Jack seems too busy being all kinds of a muppet and Meg… where is Meg?

Nick Drake – Pink Moon

Another career and life cut far too short and another on this list with only three albums left behind. Nick Drake died at just 26 – an overdose of antidepressants that was ruled suicide. He disliked both performing live and giving interviews which helped keep him so under the radar that his albums barely registered during his lifetime; not one of them sold more than 5,000 copies while he still drew breath. His three albums are beautiful, minimal yet deeply affecting records of tender melody and soul that I never tire of and ‘River Man’, ‘Time Has Told Me’ and ‘Place To Be’ would certainly be in the long and short lists of my favourite songs.

There’s no video footage of Nick Drake as an adult – only still photographs. It wasn’t until his albums were released in a box set – Fruit Tree – some five years after his death that the music world began to pay attention. To the point that Drake’s final album – Pink Moon – would be included in Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: “Drake recorded his last album in a couple of nights, delivered the tapes to Island Records and checked himself into a psychiatric ward. If the music were as dark as the lyrics, it might be unlistenable. But Drake’s soothing vocals and unadorned acoustic picking make Moon unfold with supernatural tenderness.”

Chances of a follow-up: I’m running out of pithy comments about resurrection..

Pink Floyd – The Division Bell

Two quotes:

“Pink Floyd is a spent force creatively.” Roger Waters
“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” The Dude, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Man it’s a good thing nobody cares what Roger Waters says as much as he thinks they do. Don’t get me wrong, A Momentary Lapse of Concentration isn’t a great album by any measure but it paved the way forward for a Pink Floyd without that knobhead ordering people around and dictating dreary songs about soldiers and Thatcher. 1994’s Division Bell, though, is a fucking awesome album and ranks in my Top 3 Pink Floyd albums on any day of the week.

Without the legal problems that surrounded the recording of its predecessor, The Division Bell sessions were relaxed and songs were born out of lengthy jams and improvisations with music predominantly coming from Gilmour and Richard Wright – the album would feature his first lead vocal since DSOTM. Which is fitting as The Division Bell, for all its then contemporary touches, is the closest the band had come to sounding like ‘classic’ Floyd since before The Wall. Every time I slip this one into the CD player I find something else to love. The opening trio of songs is unimpeachable, ‘Marooned’ is a great tune, ‘Coming Back to Life’, ‘A Great Day for Freedom’, ‘Lost for Words’ are spot on and underpinned by Gilmour at his finest in terms of both voice and the fluidity and beauty of his playing. Oh, and in ‘High Hopes’ they had the perfect final Pink Floyd song.

Chances of a follow-up: Nah…  While Nick Mason doesn’t consider the band broken up David (never Dave) Gilmour seems content with the odd solo album and colossal tour playing the usual Floyd-heavy quota of tunes to keep him in comfortable retirement. Richard Wright left us in 2008 and Roger Waters has yet to raise sufficient moneys to fund the removal of his head from his own rectum where it’s been stuck since the early 80’s.

 

The poets round here don’t write nothing at all… Springsteen’s Lyrics (Part One)

Throughout my career I’ve been required to wrestle with the written word. Some days “thoughts arrive like butterflies” while on others it’s akin to wading through waist-deep mud with no solid ground in sight.

Perhaps that’s why I appreciate  a great lyric in a song, the knowledge that it doesn’t always come easy and what sounds so beautifully simply more likely than not took a lot of work and refinement. Meanwhile, my love for the written word has also meant that I always seek out those lyrics and love a good ‘story’ song.

Bruce Springsteen has written more songs than it’s possible to count. For every song that has been released on each album there’s a good five or six that didn’t make the cut and, even when they’re released on archival products such as Tracks, The Promise or The Ties That Bind, there are still countless others that remain locked in vaults.

From a songwriting point of view I’d rank Springsteen as one the greatest in terms of both qaulity and consistency – certainly equal to Dylan and, while he has just wrapped up his equivalent to a Vegas residency, Bruce has yet to resort to churning out nothing but albums of cover songs. His lyrics have tackled everything from the circus to war, New York to front line in Iraq , love, birth, death, cunnilingus and lobbing it up the wrong’ un.

So, I thought it was time to put together a list of my favourite Springsteen songs from a lyrical perspective. This is Part One with Two (and the Spotify playlist) to follow as time allows. While not necessarily my favourite Springsteen songs full stop, from a lyrical point of view, these take some beating. In no particular order….

The Wall

“I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry”

Asking if Springsteen’s got any good ‘Nam songs is like wondering whether a bear defecates in wooded areas. From ‘Lost in the Flood’ to the tubthumping ‘Born In The USA’, you could easily make a great compilation album of his songs that use Vietnam as a touch stone, but for me the most poignant lyric is to be found on an album that’s otherwise stuffed with re-heated leftovers, melodies with stapled-on effects and Tom Morello wankfests. Yup; I’m talking about High Hopes. ‘The Wall’ is one of the most personal and affecting of Springsteen’s many Vietnam songs as Bruce – against minimal musical backdrop, sings a ‘short prayer’ inspired by the memory of his friend Walter Chichon, who taught guitar to Springsteen but would die in the Vietnam War at around the age of 19.

The deeper I get into Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War series the more I understand just how horrifying and wide-reaching it was and just why Springsteen – and others – found it such a source for lyrics and stories.

As such, the more I listen the more the line “I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry” just kicks me each time. When parents like Carol Crocker say how they chose to have their sons buried at Arlington because she ‘feared that if he had been buried closer to home, she would claw her way into his grave to once again “feel his warmth.”‘ it’s hard to fathom that much pain and loss but, hey, McNamara says he’s sorry… “apology and forgiveness have no place here at all.”

Blood Brothers

“The world came chargin’ up the hill and we were women and men”

Springsteen wrote ‘Blood Brothers’ on the eve of working with the E Street Band again for the Greatest Hits album and it’s just full of great lines. He’s stated that it’s filled with ‘the ambivalence and deep affection of revisiting a relationship spanning twenty-five years’.  For me the lyrics feel like an acceptance of life’s inevitable changes, the trade off that’s required between fantasy and reality, of  how ‘the hardness of this world, slowly grinds your dreams away’, and ‘we lose ourselves in work to do and bills to pay’.

Yet it’s an optimistic song too, one of togetherness that was fitting for the band’s reunion and as a final song – some five years later – on their reunion tour, it’s almost like it became the story of the band’s friendship: “I’ll keep movin’ though the dark with you in my heart, my blood brother.”

The River

“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse”

The River, while an extension of the themes explored on Darkness on the Edge of Town,  marked a big change in Springsteen’s song writing: “my first attempt to write about the commitments of home and marriage.” While given a hard kick up the arse by the rockers, the album’s story songs are huge: ‘Point Blank’, ‘Stolen Car’, ‘Wreck on the Highway’… but ‘The River’ is just an out and out classic and one who’s lyrics are just so ridiculously well written it stands as his benchmark ‘story’ song for me.

Springsteen took his inspiration from reality – the crash of the construction industry in the late 1970’s and the impact it had on his sister and her family: “I watched my brother-in-law lose his good-paying job and work hard to survive without complaint”. This was the song that sold Springsteen to me when I first heard it on Greatest Hits, at the time I would’ve been reading Steinbeck for school and it felt like an extension of that classic American literature style story telling.  Springsteen had hit a rich vein for songwriting inspiration and would continue to tap into it with great results for the rest of his career.

Long Time Coming

“Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world kids, it’d be that your mistakes would be your own”

Dating back to the Ghost of Tom Joad era, ‘Long Time Comin’ is one of the standout tracks on 2005’s Devils and Dust album. The song marks the first use of the word ‘fuck’ on any of his records (let’s not talk about ‘Reno’ here) in what is a great song about redemption that bounds along and is shot through with great, joy-infused lines – including a sly nod to his own past with “it’s me and you Rosie” – but it’s the “if I had one wish in this god forsaken world…” line about not passing your own baggage on that stands out for me.

Bruce felt so strongly about it that it was selected for the ‘soundtrack’ album to his autobiography Chapter and Verse and would – during his his Broadway show – explain that it was inspired by a visit from his father just before the birth of Bruce’s first child “to warn me of the mistakes that he had made and to warn me not to make them with my own children, to release them from the chains…  that they may be free to make their own choices and live their own lives.”

Racing in the Street

“Some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece”

What I really enjoy with Springsteen’s ‘archival’ releases like Tracks and The Promise is listening to earlier takes of songs and tracks that didn’t make the cut at the time and hearing him try out different lyrics, evolving them, seeing if they fit in this song, then that and then, finally, they appear fully polished on the album version.

‘Racing In The Street’ is one of the greatest songs on the best Springsteen albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town. I love the “give up living” but if you listen to the ’78 version of the song on The Promise, it’s not there. That great line doesn’t appear anywhere in ‘draft’ form, I get the impression it arrived like a bolt of lightning and really moves the song into a different place.

American Skin (41 Shots)

“If an officer stops you promise me you’ll always be polite, that you’ll never ever run away, promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”

“I had the title and a few stray lines, an idea for a song about American identity, sitting in my workbook for six months…” It would, as with The Rising, take a tragedy to spur Bruce into writing a powerful song that would reaffirm his place as a songwriter able to tap into the public consciousness again. While the reunion tour had seen new songs like ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ and even ‘Further On Up The Road’ show that Springsteen still had new songs up his sleeve, ‘American Skin’ was the one that showed he could still take a step back and then come up with something unexpectedly hard-hitting in its lyrical content and relevance. The lyrics are hard-hitting without being exploitative and remain evocative with repeated listens, best heard delivered live and never really captured effectively in the studio as the genie had already been let out of the bottle.

Born To Run

“Beyond the Palace hemipowered drones scream down the boulevard”

A first-person love letter to a girl called Wendy. A song about busting out and making a break “on a last chance power drive”. It’s a refined, more direct blast of power than Springsteen’s previous work. It’s got the same passion but there’s a sense of dread and more urgency in the need to escape than on, say, ‘Rosalita’,  but, for me, the album and song still contains as many evocative lines as those on its predecessor and there’s just something about that line… I mean, how many other rock songs or radio hits have used a phrase like ‘hemipowered drones’?

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

“Windows are for cheaters/ Chimneys for the poor/ Closets are for hangers/ Winners use the door”

Before there was ‘Born To Run’ there was ‘Rosalita’ and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is just full of Bruce’s poetry in full swing. Shorn from the inhibitions of his debut and flowing wonderfully throughout, it’s tough to pick out anything specific but I love the humour of this, Springsteen’s autobiographical ‘getting out of town’ preview for his next album, and the poetry in…

Wild Billy’s Circus Story

“The runway lies ahead like a great false dawn”

‘Circus Story’ is stuffed to the rims with great lines. It’s a “black comedy” of a song in which Springsteen uses his memories of the circuses that would visit Freehold during his childhood to paint a romantic picture of “the seduction and loneliness of a life outside the margins of everyday life” like that of a musician on the road, say.

Atlantic City:

“Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay”

For all the power and fun of The River‘s rockers, Springsteen’s next move would be to veer toward the more serious side of his song-writing, to tap further into those characters and ideas established in its story songs.

With Nebraska, Springsteen would create songs written quickly and recorded (as demos) with minimal musical backing. There’s a direct line between the sense of misfortune stories on The River and Nebraska – the young couple  who escape to Atlantic City only to continue to struggle and, in the line “with you forever I’ll stay” a continuation of Springsteen’s exploration of marriage and commitment that would thread through into Tunnel of Love‘s documentation of his own, an album which I think this lyric would be equally at home on,

Turning Pages: 50 Great Reads

So we’ve entered that time of the year known as ‘List Season’.

I don’t think I can honestly drop a ‘Best of 2018’ list this year as I’ve only given a handful of new albums a real deep listen and most of my reads this year were not published in 2018 so it would be a case of shuffling those into an arbitrary order. Plus – who gives a flip.

However… an ALL TIME list… now that’s something that’s always worth sitting up and paying attention to in between wrapping up gifts and eating your own body weight in Christmas dinner, right?

Well, William over at a1000mistakes recently dropped two such lists – 50 Great Reads and a Top 50 Movies. I don’t think I could get a list of 50 films together but books… that I can do.

So, without further preamble, here are my 50 favourite books /reads in no order other than alphabetical – though if it’s in bold it’s in the Top 10. This is also limited to fiction or I’d have been here all day:

Wasted Morning – Gabriela Adameșteanu

How to Be Brave – Louise Beech 

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin-  Louis de Bernières

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernières

Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov*

Confessions – Jaume Cabré

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

White Noise – Don DeLillo

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

LA Confidential – James Ellroy

Perfidia  – James Ellroy

Alone In Berlin – Hans Fallada

Iron Gustav – Hans Fallada

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks 

Hell at the Breach – Tom Franklin

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

The Diary of a Nobody – George & Wheedon Grossmith

Epiphany Jones – Michael Grothaus

The Good Soldier Svejk – Jaroslav Hašek

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

The President’s Last Love – Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin – Andrey Kurkov

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

The Life of Pi – Yann Martell

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Dr Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

Pyramids – Terry Pratchett

Men at Arms – Terry Pratchett

See You Tomorrow – Tore Renberg

The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

For Two Thousand Years – Mihail Sebastian

Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith

Perfume – Patrick Süskind

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

Where Roses Never Die – Gunnar Staalesen

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Pereira Maintains – Antonio Tabucchi

The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz

Jihadi: A Love Story – Yusuf Toropov

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

The Man Who Died – Antti Tuomainen 

Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne

Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughter House 5 – Kurt Vonnegut

Memoirs of Hadrian – Marguerite Yourcenar

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

*Master and Margarita is, in all likelihood, my favourite read full stop. However, as with all translated fiction, finding the translation is crucial and can make or break a book. The Penguin edition published in 2006 with the blue cover is the best I’ve found and the fact that this was the version given to me as a gift by my wife one day in Oxford after she expressed disbelief that I’d not yet read it only helps ensure it’ll not be toppled from the top of this list.

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 – Ten

“It all just fell together. No one really compromised toward each other at all. It was kind of a phenomenon, in a way. We’d all played music for six, seven, eight years and been in different bands, and we were feeling something that we’d never really felt before, with all the honesty and the way it was all coming out.”

Here we go then – the one where it all started. It would be somewhat redundant to try and offer one of my semi-reviews of such a well known and covered album so this one’s more about my relationship with Ten.

First, though; a quick, potted history on how Pearl Jam and Ten came to be…. On March 16th 1989 Andrew Wood was found in a comatose state by his girlfriend after od’ing on heroin. A prominent figure on the nascent Seattle music scene, Wood was the lead singer of Mother Love Bone a band which he’d formed with a drummer called Regan Hagar and two other blokes called Jeff Amend and Stone Gossard – both already established figures on the ‘scene’ thanks to their former band Green River, a band that could quite credibly claim to be the first ‘grunge’ band. Mother Love Bone had earlier signed to PolyGram and were awaiting the release of their album Apple. Three days after Wood’s overdose he was removed from life support and was shortly pronounced dead.

Wood’s death was a blow to the scene. In a way it was the first turning point and the wake up call to the reality of drug abuse that it hadn’t yet experienced -but that’s a different post. Gossard and Ament were devastated. Stone ducked out of sight and began writing harder edged music and began jamming with local guitarist Mike McCready who, in turn, realised they were on to something and encouraged Stone to reconnect with Jeff Ament. The three put together an eight song instrumental demo tape – with McCready’s former bandmate Chris Friel drumming on a couple and Matt Cameron, in a strange twist of fate, on the rest – to send out to find a permanent drummer and singer.

In the late summer of 1990, Ament and Gossard travelled to LA and gave a copy of their demo to Jack Irons hoping the former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer would join their band. Irons couldn’t – he’d just signed up to a tour with another band in the name of guaranteed income for his just-about-to-start family but agreed to pass it on to any singers he knew. Turns out he knew a guy called Eddie Vedder who could hold a note…

Ten and Nevermind (released a month after Pearl Jam’s debut) became cultural phenomenons and ushered in a wave of commercial success and radio airplay that had been hitherto unknown to alternative rock and represented the breaking of the damn for the ‘grunge’ scene. It’s sold more than 13 million copies and remains the band’s calling card – their most commercially successful album and, in many case, the only album by the band that some people own.

And… I can’t blame those people for whom Ten represents the sole Pearl Jam marker in their collection. I mean – take a look at that mid-section: ‘Even Flow’, ‘Alive’, ‘Why Go’, Black’, ‘Jeremy’, ‘Oceans’ in one six-song burst. As debuts go, Ten is up there with the finest.

It’s one of hell of an addictive entry drug. I vividly remember my first taste in what was either late ’98 or early ’99. I’d tried to buy Yield not long after it came out based on a shite load of good reviews I’d read but the shop didn’t have the actual CD in – this was one of those places that displayed the cases which you’d take to the till and pay for before they pulled the disc from a little cardboard sleeve behind the counter in an effort to reduce theft – and bought OK Computer instead and had that avenue of sound opened up instead. But, sometime later, during my first year at Uni I dropped into a now long gone local independent called Ricard’s Records and picked up Ten and Live on Two Legs (again based on reviews). Both would serve as great entry drugs but it was Ten I first slipped into my car’s CD player that day and sat there hooked as the brief interlude of ‘Master/Slave’ gave way to the force of ‘Once’. That power, the dynamics and then Vedder’s voice! By the time I got to Pearl Jam I’d already had the misfortune to hear all the imitators before hearing the dude that stated that way of singing. And what was he singing? ‘I admit it’? ‘I am livid’? The inlay offered no real help.

I listened to it three times before letting it move on to the next tune and already knew I had a new favourite song. I’d later discover that ‘Once’ formed part of the Momma-Son trilogy with ‘Footsteps’ and ‘Alive’ – the three songs that Vedder put lyrics and vocals to from Jeff and Stone’s demo and that it, the middle of the trilogy, was about a man’s descent into madness and becoming a serial killer. All I knew then was that it fucking rocked my speakers out and I had it cranked up enough to pick up the “You think I got my eyes closed but I’m lookin’ at you the whole fuckin’ time…” mumble in the break down.  Then there’s ‘Even Flow’… I mean yeah sure now I’ve heard it more times than I care to but hearing that for the first time.. and ‘Jeremy’, I mean, shit; this is the good stuff:

Not to mention ‘Black’ – the ballad that every ballad they’d later put out would be benchmarked against. I remember hearing that and just… you know it all connects. Yes there’s a degree of angst/cliche to all that early Pearl Jam and Seattle stuff that doesn’t necessarily age well but then, just seven years or so removed from its release, it still sounded fresh and genuine. It’s one of those things that warmed Kurt Cobain to them, eventually; Vedder really fucking means it. He’s not going through the motions.

But beyond those clutch of songs that everyone knows and still receive regular radio play closing on three decades on – the deep cuts on Ten are the best – ‘Oceans’, ‘Garden’ and ‘Release’ are what sealed the deal for me. The whole father-son thing was a big thing for Vedder in those early Pearl Jam records and it was all over this one: “Oh dear Dad, can you see me now?  I am myself, like you somehow. I’ll wait up in the dark, for you to speak to me. I’ll open up.. Release Meeee… Release meeeeeee” I mean yeah you could eat the angst with a spoon but – again – the force in that performance.

I fell headlong into consuming as much of this new-to-me band as I could and it all starts with Ten.  So…. why is it not at number one for me or higher up this list? Essentially: I don’t think Ten is representative of the band. The diversity and experimentation that would be the highlights of their studio albums hadn’t yet really began and while they’d played a fair few shows by the point they recorded the dynamic and tightness of the band wasn’t 100% there.

Not only that but I think the production and mix of Ten robs the songs of a lot of their punch. It’s all sort of lost in a kind of wash. In my digital ‘shelves’ I’ve got a boot labelled “First Week Rehearsal Demos” and, accuracy of the label aside, the versions of the same songs on that are a lot rawer and more powerful. Even Eddie’s vocals sound a little odd on the finished Ten compared to both demos and early live shows… even compared to his tracks on Temple of the Dog‘s ‘Hunger Strike’.

The band themselves obviously weren’t that keen on the final sound – they wouldn’t work with Rick Parashar on their next album and their next, long term producer Brendan O’Brien would be pestered by Jeff Ament to remix Ten for years before finally doing so in 2009, as Jeff stated: “somewhere in the late nineties, I found a rough mix tape of Ten. I played it on cassette and that’s when I started saying, ‘we have to remix Ten.’ It would usually happen after we’d been in a club or something, and we’d hear a song from it. It was like “Ugh! This is killing me!” At one point, I told Brendan I’d pay him to just do a version for me so if I had to listen to a song to relearn it or whatever, I’d hear the proper version.”

Essentially, very soon after recording, the songs from Ten took on a new harder, faster sound than what was captured and it very soon ceased to be a reflection of the band Pearl Jam were on their way to becoming. So, as much as I love Ten as the entry point into a long-lasting love of the band and the songs on it are faultless – it’s the live versions of those songs and O’Brien’s remix that I reach for more than my battered cd of the original studio album.

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.”