Pages turning, 2018 Part Deux

It’s been a while since I put one of these review wrap ups together. To be honest I’ve barely read anything. I’ve been so busy watching the E! Network, protesting against the EU and for a hard Brex… nah I can’t. I’ve read a shite load this year. We’re halfway through the year and I’m pretty much on track to complete the (not seriously so) challenge I set of 40 books again.

Given that it’s been a while since I’ve done a wrap-up of my recent reads this is something of a ‘bumper’ edition, grab a coffee….

Forest of the Hanged by Liviu Rebreanu. was gifted to me by my wife and is a book I read in two hits: I needed to take a break as the first half was very intense and perhaps caught me at the wrong time… an echo of the black dog means I’m not always able to process books that deal with certain themes. However, once I got back to it I was hooked. Liviu Rebreanu based, at least partly, this First World War novel on the experience of his brother who was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army but was hanged for espionage and desertion in 1917. What starts as a very heavy exploration of a reaction to death becomes an insanely good exploration on the themes of identity, faith and, of course, how ordinary people change in the face of the extraordinary.A

At the start of the year I read Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith and loved every page. I was keen to read more of his Arkady novels but, for some reason, they don’t seem as readily available – at least not the second, Polar Star, and I don’t want to read out of sequence. But The Girl From Venice is a ‘stand alone’ novel from Martin Cruz Smith that seemed right up my alley: a tense, literary thriller set in the Second World War as the German army pulls out of Italy? Sign me up. This is a great little novel – I say ‘little’, it’s about 300 pages depending on your format but I powered through this – that’s definitely worth a read.

Håkan Nesser was among the first ‘nordic noir’ authors I read, a few years ago now, and The Inspector and the Silence is only the second of his that I’ve read – though, in sequence, it places before the only other in the Van Veeteren series, The Unlucky Lottery. That’s not because I didn’t enjoy that novel – far from it – more a case that Nesser’s novels don’t seem to be as widely distributed, nor do they pop up so often in the used book stores whose shelves I rummage. A little of a tougher and more disturbing subject matter sits at the heart of the deceptively calm The Inspector and the Silence than my previous outing with Van Veeteren (who barely appeared in The Unlucky Lotter) yet there’s something compelling and satisfying about reading these slower-paced and intricately plotted thrillers – much like the work of Gunnar Staalesen – that means I do need to keep an eye out for more by Nesser. Thankfully, I’ve got one sitting on my shelf waiting its turn.

Of course, when it comes to complex and intricately plotted beasts, there’s nothing like a slab of James Ellroy. Thankfully it’s been so long since I saw the film that the entire plot of L.A Confidential was new to me when I picked up the novel – I’m trying to make my way through Ellroy’s works in semi-order with the L.A Quartet then the Underworld USA trilogy, hopefully before the next in his Second L.A Quartet, This Storm, is published in paperback. There really is nobody that can write anything as hard-hitting, absorbing and thorough as Ellroy. There was a point, about a third of the way in that I was still inclined to think that The Big Nowhere had a couple of inches on this one but then it kicked up a notch – and that’s the thing about Ellroy, he writes these massive novels that keep ratcheting it up and blowing everything wide open when other authors would be looking to stitch it all up for conclusion. This series keeps getting better, on to White Jazz.

Of course; I don’t only read books that are part of a series, but… while we’re on the subject of crime novels and series that keep getting better…  I’m now almost up to date with the Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series (I think he took a few years off) having also demolished Police. While it’s often considered in line with the airport boilers, Nesbo’s writing and, in particular, the Harry Hole series has been continually evolving and moving in broader strokes with every novel – bringing in political turpitude, social commentary and further-reaching character arcs along into each ‘stand alone’ novel in the series.

I’m also continuing to grow my Terry Pratchett collection and re-read the Discworld series, with recent additions Wyrd Sisters and Jingo having scratched that itch in the best way possible.

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

Blog Tour: Dead of Night by Michael Stanley

From the PR: “When freelance journalist, Crystal Nguyen, heads to South Africa, she thinks she’ll be researching an article on rhino-horn smuggling for National Geographic, but within a week she’s been hunting poachers, hunted by their bosses, and then arrested in connection with a murder. And everyone is after a briefcase full of money that she doesn’t want, but can’t get rid of…

Fleeing South Africa, she goes undercover in Vietnam, trying to discover the truth before she’s exposed by the local mafia. Discovering the plot behind the money is only half the battle. Now she must convince the South African authorities to take action before it’s too late, both for the rhinos and for her. She has a powerful story to tell, if she survives long enough to tell it…

Fast-paced, relevant and chilling, Dead of Night is a stunning new thriller from Michael Stanley, author of the award-winning Detective Kubu series, introducing an intriguing new protagonist, while exposing one of the most vicious conflicts on the African continent…”

This is not the novel I was expecting when I ripped open the padded envelope and found the new Michael Stanley (writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) book inside. For, you see, Michael Stanley are the authors behind Detective Kubu – one of my favourite characters – and I was honestly expecting another in that series.

In a recent guest post on Have Books Will Read as part of this blogtour, the authors explained that the “features that make a series rich – the history and backstory of the main character – also constrain what one can do and where one can go…. We wanted to try something different – a different style of book with a completely different protagonist.”

So, what about Dead of Night? Well, put simply, it’s fucking awesome. It’s a hard-hitting, thoroughly engrossing thriller that rips along at a pace and rhythm completely different to the aforementioned Kubu series and demonstrates just how talented a writing team and adept at different writing styles messers Sears and Trollip are.

The novel’s protagonist, Crystal Nguyen – or Crys – makes for a compelling lead – tough and determined yet vulnerable and relatable. The story is one of my favourite of the year so far – what starts of as a search for a missing journalist and a story on rhino poaching soon becomes a fast paced thriller that delves into political corruption, social issues in South Africa and human morality with a volley of fast-paced and occasionally brutal action scenes.

The levels of complexity and connections in the plot and the fact that such a strong story is rooted in a very real and believable situation make for a real page turner. For me, it’s that combination of fact – rhino hunting and the fight against the poachers is a very violent and deadly fight – and, strong, engrossing fiction that ensures that Dead of Night is compelling and lends it some real clout.

I thoroughly recommend Dead of Night – thanks again to Orenda for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blogtour, check out the other stops below.

 

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’.

Only whispers of some quiet conversation

It’s 2018 and a very-much-a-90’s band is enjoying their biggest commercial success for a looong time with a cover of a very-much-an-80’s song all thanks to constant prompting from a twitter account after a fan saw said song on a programme produced by a streaming giant.

I am, of course, talking about Weezer and ‘Africa.’ Having heard the song used on Netflix’ ‘Stranger Things’ (of which I still haven’t been bothered enough to check out), a 15 year-old fan decided it would be a great idea for her favourite band to cover it and started a Twitter account called “@WeezerAfrica” and started messaging the band with tweets like “it’s about time you bless the rains down in Africa” etc.

Oddly, it worked. After trolling her by releasing a cover of ‘Rosanna‘, Rivers & Co dropped a cover of Africa. As covers go it’s alright; nothing new on the original save the addition of some power chords and a little more dancing on the keys. Still it’s a lot of fun and I’m sure I’ll have “do do do de do do dooo” in my head forevermore.

 

If it sounds like it was recorded quickly and without any real effort it’s because it probably was: I genuinely don’t think anyone expected it to turn into the ‘hit’ it has or for it to receive so much attention. Both the radio stations I flick between in the morning made it their record of the week, I’ve seen that the band have been popping on tv shows various and numerous to play the track (even being joined by Toto member Steve Pocaro) and – in a world where streams count toward such things – it’s seen them crack the Hot100 in the States for the first time in a long long time.

While Weezer are definitely in my wheelhouse and collection*, this isn’t a ‘music news’ blog and Toto are far from the variety of music usually covered on these ‘pages’ so: why mention it?

Well I’m here to place a wager. Weezer were due to be dropping their ‘Black’ album (Weezer have a series of self titled albums – their debut, third, sixth and tenth – with the band photographed against a different coloured backdrop and known by their colours) any day now. It had been rumoured for a June release. There’s no sign of it. Now while Weezer themselves might not be so cynical or money-driven (although they have done the music cruise thing) they are signed to a label, a major one at that – Atlantic.

Now I’m here to (cynically) bet that someone at Atlantic Records will be very much aware of how much attention ‘Africa’ has gotten their charges and noted that this ‘whimsical cover’ has gotten far more radio play, streams and downloads than their original compositions have for some time and that either before we get the Black album, or very soon after, we’ll get a Weezer Covers album.

To be fair, the band have a good few available to begin pulling that track list together soon. In between releasing dire albums of their own they recorded a note for note cover of ‘Paranoid Android.’

Not to mention their cover of ‘Unbreak My Heart’ – yes; the Toni Braxton one – from the 2010 odds-and-sods comp Death to False Metal and the numerous covers that pepper their b-sides and bonus tracks including surprisingly good takes on ‘Viva la Vida’ and ‘Are Friends Electric’…So, my bet is that – now that the wider music world is aware of Weezer’s capability with a cover its only a small matter of time before label or band cashes in.

Oh, and if you’re after the definitive cover of ‘Africa’, don’t worry; I’ve got what you need right here.

*Eleven studio albums which, on the Mumbling About scale, have a ‘Very Good, Ok, Absolute Shite’ ratio of 5:3:3.

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‘.