Least to Most: Pearl Jam – No Code

“It’s a record that is semi-unprofessional. We were just kind of winging it and trying stuff that maybe didn’t quite work… But you listen to it ten years later and go, ‘Fuck! That’s jamming!'”
Stone Gossard

July 12th 1995, in the middle of a heatwave in Chicago (one that accounted for 739 heat-related deaths in five days), Pearl Jam were feeling the itch. The night before they had played a massive 31-song set to 47,000 fans at the city’s Soldier Field and wanted to make the most of the energy from the show (and Vitalogy tour), they entered a studio at Chicago Recording Company to lay down some songs for their next album. No rest for the wicked. Jeff Ament would later admit that “I don’t think we’d quite figured out how to schedule ourselves at that point.” They were there for a week with songs like ‘Off He Goes’ and ‘In My Tree’ coming from those sessions.

Recording proper for No Code picked up in the start of 1996 and marked the start of a tense period for the band. For one thing, Jeff Ament didn’t know that work was underway until three days into sessions and “wasn’t super involved with that record on any level.” Meanwhile there were persistent rumours of a power-struggle within Pearl Jam – that Eddie was taking control of the band over Stone and Jeff with Ament even walking out of sessions on several occasions on what he perceived as Vedder’s stifling of his own writing. Whereas the bass player now says that “really what was happening was that Ed was bringing in complete songs and nobody else was. The cream was floating to the top.”

Vedder was hitting new pay dirt as a songwriter – writing increasingly personal and reflective songs as well as making jumps in his melody and hook writing. ‘Off He Goes’ is actually a song as an apology for his being a shit friend.

A look at the songwriting credits shows that a large chunk of No Code‘s songs are all-Vedder and the singer was behind every lyric with the exception of Stone Gossard’s ‘Mankind’.

Meanwhile the band were still playing shows. Jack Irons pointed out that “It was difficult to tour and play these shows that were two or three hours long and then force ourselves to produce something in a studio,” while Brendan O’Brien (behind the desk for his third Pearl Jam album) would also add that “Ed’s typically the guy who finishes off the songs…But by the end of No Code, he was so burnt, it was so much work for him.”

Why were the band so tired? It could be down to the strain of the Vitalogy tour – this was their first without playing Ticketmaster venues which meant a huge amount of work went into organising every show, something that Gossard stated took the fun out of being in the band. It could be the fact that in 1995 the band, minus Vedder, had backed Neil Young on his Mirror Ball album and European tour. It could also be the fact that this was the band’s fourth album in just five years – No Code and Ten were both released five years apart to the day – and they simply hadn’t stopped since.

BUT. But but but…. No Code is, despite all this, a fucking awesome album and one that is bristling with their finest songs. It’s not a first-listen album. It was the third Pearl Jam album I bought as I’d love ‘Red Mosquito’ so much after hearing it on Live on Two Legs – this was pre-Amazon and when you could only really get what the music shop had in on a given day or order specific titles – and it took me a while to grow to love this album as much as I do but every time I do I hear more and more that blows me away.

The only reason I don’t say out-and-out that this is their finest is that I genuinely feel the sound-quality detracts from these songs. It could be the fact they were deliberately trying to take the commercial edge off (Kurt Cobain and In Utero have a lot to answer for) or – as Brendan O’Brien would point out – the issues and technical hiccups from working at Stone Gossard’s Studio Litho. But the songs sound restrained, even tired – no real surprise. Mike McCready would later say “I think we kind of rushed it a little bit” as the songs were more jam-session than finished but his and Vedder’s ‘Present Tense’ is easily in my Pearl Jam Top Five and always elicits a suitable rapturous response when played live:

Oddly enough, when the band almost re-made No Code with Yield  a couple of years later with a deliberately accessible sound and more sharing of the songwriting, the sound was perfect but the songs weren’t quite as strong.

Speaking of strong, No Code isn’t all experimentation. There’s a volley of some of Pearl Jam’s fiercest rockers on amongst its thirteen tracks with Hail Hail’, ‘Lukin’ and ‘Habit’.

From it’s hushed opener ‘Sometimes’ – compared to the forceful openings of the three previous albums – to the roaring ‘Habit’ and ‘Lukin’ via the tribal rhythms of ‘In My Tree’ and up to the sedate closer ‘Around The Bend’, No Code is Pearl Jam’s most diverse record and one of their strongest collection of songs. If only the sound / mix were as clear as it deserved to be this would be top of this list every day for me.

Blog Tour: Overkill by Vanda Symon

From the PR: “When the body of a young mother is found washed up on the banks of the Mataura River, a small rural community is rocked by her tragic suicide.

But all is not what it seems. Sam Shephard, sole-charge police constable in Mataura, soon discovers the death was no suicide and has to face the realisation that there is a killer in town.

To complicate the situation, the murdered woman was the wife of her former lover. When Sam finds herself on the list of suspects and suspended from duty, she must cast aside her personal feelings and take matters into her own hands. To find the murderer … and clear her name. A taut, atmospheric and page-turning thriller.”

You know, when I sit down to compose these reviews I often struggle with how to start. An overview? A powerful quote? An insight into the author’s life…

Not so with Overkill, no – I know exactly where to start with this little beauty: the beginning. That beginning. Holy crap. I’ve read a fair old chunk of thrillers and a modest village’s library’s worth of fiction and it’s true; the beginning of a book is key – if you can’t hook a reader in the first few page (I disagree with the three word rule, though) why would they take it to the till and read further? The opening prologue of Overkill is one of the most gripping and devastatingly affective I’ve ever read. I can’t think of another book that’s hit me so hard in its first few pages.

After that I had to read on. I couldn’t not. I needed to keep going and I dare anyone to read the prologue and feel otherwise.

It’s not only the beginning though – Overkill delivers on its opening promise in spades. It’s massively addictive and beautifully written; Vanda Symon writes in a style more akin to literary fiction prose and has a real gift.

I tore through this one in a few hits of late night, adrenaline fuelled sittings. Sam Shepard is a great character and I loved the setting and it’s always a joy to discover writers from and stories set in countries I’d not yet ventured and I genuinely look forward to more in the series.

In Overkill Vanda Symon has written something very special: an intense and powerful thriller told with a combination of prose and narrative that elevates her novel head and shoulders above the pack and makes it a serious contender for one of the year’s best reads.

My thanks to Orenda Books for my copy of Overkill and Anne Cater for asking me to take part in the BlogTour.

Page turning, 2018 Part 1

I read a lot last year. I cleared 41 books in total, surpassing my target by 1. So, did I extend my target for this year? No, I’m going for 40 again – it seems like a good target and I don’t think I’d necessarily find more reading time in my days to get another 10 in.

That being said, I’m already off to a strong start to the year with 7 down and 2 on the go at the moment.

Oddly enough, there’s a bit of a theme that ties three of these four – and at least another four on the TBR for the next couple of months – together that wasn’t necessarily intended but Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park was the first of the year and probably set the ball rolling.

Gorky Park was one of those books I’d often see in bookshops and ponder its contents before moving on but, this time, I read the back and took it home. An absolute 5 Star book – well deserving of the attention and praised it received. A crime thriller set in Soviet Union during the Cold War, Gorky Park reads more like literary fiction than your standard thriller and is so thoroughly engrossing and, in Arkady, powered by a great character – I’m genuinely glad that this one evolved into a series of novels and will  be adding the following instalments (along with everything Ellroy’s) to my longer term reading list.

Trying to vary my reading I thought I’d take a stab at a ‘classic’ early on this year and ended up continuing a theme. One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn is set in a Soviet labour camp in the early 1950s and follows the single day of one of the prisoners – Ivan Denisovich. Ivan’s deep into a 10 year sentence for ‘spying’ – he’d escaped his German captors during the war, made it back to his lines and was arrested as a spy. Solzhenitsyn had first-hand experience of the Gulag system and it adds a sense of weight and truth to this novel (if you’re up for a heavier read his Gulag Archipelago is a game-changer). It’s a short but intense read and noteable as it was one of the first accounts of Stalinist repression to have been published (less than 10 years after Old Whiskers’ death).

Of course, there’s always a need for something lighter and, as my Discworld collection slowly grows toward completion, I’ve usually got a Terry Pratchett novel ready to reread for the first time in at least a decade. I had – again – forgotten just how painfully funny The Last Continent is. First published in 1998, that means it had been two decades since I’d last read it and, as I had the briefest of memories of it and remembered nothing of its plot it was akin to reading it for the first time. Pratchett’s parody of Australian culture and media touch-points – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee all get a warm roasting – easily sits as one of his funniest and most accessible reads. The invention of Vegemite and Australian slang, in particular, had me chuckling into the night.

Back in 2016 I read Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin. It’s a great novel, a cold-war thriller set in Berlin as the divide was going up. Another book-shop spotting, this year’s Defectors again finds Mr Kanon setting his work in the cold war, this time – spotting that them yet? – in Moscow. As the title suggests, Defectors tackles the theme of the defections in the 1950s / 60s and, specifically, what came next. A former CIA agent, Frank Weeks slipped the net and escaped to Moscow and, over a decade later, sends word to his brother, Simon, that he – and the Soviet State – wish to publish his memoirs and wants to use Simon’s publishing house to do so.

Leaving aside the twists of the plot for fear of giving anything away, where Defectors excels is in the depiction of life for those former ‘field agents without a field’ – living in a strange suspended state, a  sort of prison within the larger prison of the Soviet Empire. Technically ‘free’ to be yet only allowed to travel to enclosed dacha complexes, use certain stores and continually monitored. Kanon manages to fill his story with sufficiently realistic and historically accurate details to make it ring true without overdoing it and slowing down the momentum – this is a thriller after all. Kanon clearly an author whose back catalogue now warrants investigation.

Up next: more Russian classics, some World War Two diaries and some new novels from Nordic Noir’s godfathers…

A time of wanting but not really knowing…

My lapsed blogger status seems to have become a reality, it would seem. My new role keeping me at “off my tits” busy level. As such I didn’t find opportunity to do a “Best of” “Looking Back at” post for the last year and now that we’re almost nearing the end of January Part 2 it would be pretty pointless.

But there is one album I want to talk about and it kind of bridges a gap between best last year, this year and 1992. I’ll explain…

There were some great re-releases last year. A lot of hype went to Thommy and his  mates’ magnum opus but one of my favourites flew a little under the radar: Buffalo Tom’s  Let Me Come Over – 25th Anniversary Edition. I’ve written of BT before so won’t go too deep on the history of (one of, at least) Boston’s finest but Let Me Come Over was a breakthrough for them in terms of songwriting, contained some of their best songs and – with Tailllights Fade – almost saw them crack through into the mainstream.

Last year’s re-release didn’t add a great deal – there’s no exhaustive combing of the vaults for versions where the guitar was tuned slightly differently or the inclusion of b-sides. Instead there’s a fantastic 17 song live set on the second disc (well, 10 on the vinyl with the full lot on the digital) that sees the three-piece add more power and guitar tone to album (and career) highlights in concert up at the University of London’s student union.

Already one of my favorite albums, the reissued Let Me Come Over got a lot of plays last year, and would usually be the one album I point to as their career-best. But… but BUT: then along comes something new.

In a couple of weeks Buffalo Tom will drop Quiet and Peace. However, as an early backer on Pledge Music, I’ve been able to have this album playing in my car since December and I don’t think a week has gone by where I haven’t listened to it at least once.

I don’t think – judging by the press reviews that are starting to appear – I’m alone in saying that, 25 years after their previous such effort, Buffalo Tom have made another career highlight in Quiet and Peace.

It’s both rousing and reflective, channeling the maturity and seriousness that set them aside from other college rock bands in the early 90s, into a beautifully warm, almost autumnal feel. Sample lyric: “Now my time behind is greater than my time ahead” from ‘All Be Gone’.

When I first go into Buffalo Tom it was on the back of 2000’s Asides From compilation that marked the commencement of a hiatus for the band. It would be seven years until they got it back together. Quiet and Peace is the third album since they reconvened and, not to bag on Three Easy Peices or Skins, it’s easily the best they’ve done since and easily has had more plays than some of their latter post-hiatus records too. There’s a cohesiveness to it (perhaps down to mixing from John Agnello  – Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth, The Hold Steady.. and Buffalo Tom – or Dave Minehan’s production) and the songs sound just that little bit more well-brewed. Or maybe it was just an alignment in the cosmos or something, who knows how it happens but the ten new songs on Quiet and Peace – and the closing over of ‘Only Living Boy In New York City – make for one of Buffalo Tom’s finest collections to date, their new best record released just after celebrating the birthday of their previous one.

There’s precious little I can share in terms of songs or videos from it at the moment but keep an eye out for it in early March – Quiet and Peace is a belter of an album.

 

Away Message – Currently Listening

Believe it or not Tony isn’t at home, please leave a message at the beep….

I’m on holiday at the moment but here’s a little of what’s been spinning in my ears of late…

Am fost la munte și mi-a plăcut – Unde Erai In 1995?

Appropriate on two levels as a) I’m in Romania right now and b) I did just go to the mountains and liked it a lot (am fost la munte și mi-a plăcut) but I discovered this post-rock band from București a little before I left. Their album S-A Rezolvat. Nu Se Poate – released this year – is great. There’s something of The Wall era Floyd about that opening guitar line – and other parts of the album – that I love.

Lost in Kiev – Insomnia 

In “it’s a small world”… I saw a picture of this French group’s album Nuit Noir along with the description ‘dark, looming epic post-rockintertwined with a spoken word narrative’ and new it was for me. I’ve barely stopped listening since. Oddly enough only as I put it here do I also hear some Pink Floyd element in the keyboards too.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Empty Arms

You know when you don’t listen to something for ages and then you hear it and kick yourself for having omitted it from your playlist for so long? This came on in a GBK while we having a burger a while back and, yup, I kicked myself and went home and put SRV back into rotation.

The Hold Steady – Stuck Between Stations

So I’m now up to The Hold Steady’s third and – I think – breakthrough album Boys and Girls in America and it’s fucking awesome. At once it’s a case of kicking myself for not having heard it sooner and feeling like it’s so familiar.

For those about to blog…

So… fellow music blogger Jason Ritchie who runs the The Rockin Chair Blog has a series where he salutes other music bloggers by giving them a quick Q&A. I was more than happy to take part when he asked me and you can read my answers here should you so wish.

The Rockin’ Chair is a place for Jason “to highlight new and old music” with an emphasis on the rock and well worth a follow.

 

Tony Hill pens the excellent ‘Mumbling About’ blog that combines music and books and he has a wide taste in both. Well worth a visit. What inspired you to start writing/blogging about music and books? I’ve been blogging in one way or another for about ten years now. I gave up on the personal stuff […]

via For Those About To Blog…We Salute You: TONY HILL — The Rockin’ Chair