Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Vitalogy

“This song is about… uh… people who don’t have taste but they like us anyway. It’s called ‘Not For You'”

If Vs. was the sound of Pearl Jam taking control, Vitalogy, released just a year later, is the sound of the band giving a big middle finger to anyone who hand’t got the message yet. Rougher, rawer and more eclectic than anything they’d either released to date or since with songs born out of jam sessions as the communication between band members started to falter, with “eighty percent of the songs were written 20 minutes before they were recorded” according to Stone Gossard. It’s stripped down, it’s lean and uncompromising and marks the first time Pearl Jam would really start to experiment. It’s rife with hostility and tension aimed both outward and inward as, three albums in, cracks began to show within relationships to the point that, while Gossard thought of quitting, drummer Dave Abbruzzese would actually be let go as sessions wound down.

Again – it shouldn’t be good. It shouldn’t be cohesive but it’s not only good: it’s their finest album yet – in my opinion and this is my Least to Most after all. As 1993 tumbled into 1994, Pearl Jam were hitting their songwriting peak and the songs on Vitalogy bristle with an energy that wouldn’t be matched again for a while and certainly not with the level of consistency found here.

The songs here form the template for all Pearl Jam songs to come – there’s the balls-out angry and heavy, there’s the flexing of creative / experimental muscle, the achingly poignant and the perfect mid-tempo. All summised in one rough-hewn gem of an album.

So – you want the balls-out angry and fast? Take that opening volley of songs:’Last Exit’, ‘Spin the Black Circle’ and ‘Not For You’:

As middle fingers to the label go, Pearl Jam chose ‘Spin the Black Circle’, much to Epic’s dismay, as the first single from Vitalogy. “See this needle, Oh see my hand, Drop, drop, dropping it down, oh so gently, here it comes, touch the flame, turn me up, won’t turn you away” is an homage to vinyl and was supposed to sound completely different – it’s a Stone Gossard riff that Vedder first heard at the wrong pitch: “I had come up with something in my truck with the tape player in my hand, but then I realized it was playing at a superhigh pitch. I turned it down, and it was really slow. I was like ‘Oh, fuck.”

‘Not for You’, meanwhile is as openly blunt and angry about the co-opting of the alternative scene as the band would be – save for the time Jeff Ament spotted Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui (who had released a ‘grunge’ line of clothes) and “I went down and did a fake fashion twirl and went ‘Hey Marc, what do you think of this for the next line?’ ” It’s hard to comprehend now in a way but I guess when Ricky Martin is cast on General Hospital as a clone of you – you’re gonna get pissed off. It also burns through ‘Corduroy’ (perfect mid-tempo) with it’s line “they can buy but can’t put on my clothes”:

Both ‘Not for You’ and ‘Corduroy’ are sole Vedder compositions. Vitalogy – dipping back to those inner band tensions mentioned – marked the first Pearl Jam album where Vedder’s songs would by far outweigh those of the other members. Half of the songs here (you can’t really count ‘Aye Davanita’ or ‘Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me’ as songs) are marked as Vedder / Vedder on the lyrics / music front.

Vedder’s “it wasn’t a hostile takeover” caused issues in the group. Stone Gossard was said to have considered leaving as he was no longer the guy who made the final decisions on tunes and vacated his role as mediator within the group (something which Dave Abbruzzese has credited to his departure). With hindsight Jeff Ament has stated that it was simply a case that Vedder was working harder at writing songs than the rest of the band – McCready would enter rehab to receive treatment for alcohol and cocaine abuse during sessions too. “I still don’t know if he was consciously exerting wanting to take over the band or take the reins or the the power. I think it was more like, ‘Hey, man, I’ve got seven complete songs here. What do you guys have?’ and we only had little riffs or two-parter things.”

Of those Vedder / Vedder songs are the achingly poignant Immortality and, of course, one of the band’s most well known:

I’ve probably heard this song live on the numerous shows I have in my iTunes. These days when it’s played live it’s not really the same song but the original is still an out and out classic especially considering its troubled and lengthy gestation as a Pearl Jam studio song. Vedder, fearing it was too raw and direct in terms of emotion, was never happy with how it had been recorded (the band had first tried getting it on tape for Vs.) and, at one point, came close to giving it to Chrissie Hynde to record instead. As it is he changed the final mix for ‘Betterman’ right at the last.

The creative: perhaps too wary of releasing quite so many obviously strong and high-pedigree songs on one album, Pearl Jam used Vitalogy to drop some of their, frankly, weirdest shit to date too. So, following up the beautiful Ament / Vedder collab, ‘Nothingman’…

… is ‘Pry To’

While what could have been a one-two-punch knockout of ‘Betterman’ and ‘Immortality’ is softened by the slotting of ‘Aye Davanita’ between them – it’s “just screwing around” with chanted non-lyrics that O’Brien looped. Then again, there’s something charming about ‘Bugs’ which Vedder, suffering from poison at the time, plays an off-tune accordion.

Then again, perhaps I’m overthinking it. Maybe they really just did like those interludes. But let’s look at it this way: if Vitalogy had been stripped of those and released as a ten track album comprising of songs like ‘Corduroy’, ‘Betterman’, ‘Nothingman’, ‘Last Exit’, ‘Spin the Black Circle’ etc… even with the lean produciton behind them, there’d have been no real way for them to get away from it or say no so easily.

As it is, glorious rough-hewn warts and all, Vitalogy is my favourite Pearl Jam album.

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

Currently Listening

Righty ho.

There’s a lot going in my ears at present so I thought I’d drop a few on here while working on a couple of longer pieces and ahead of the inevitable ‘Holy Shitballs OKNOTOK Is Amazing’ post* and share what’s been cropping up regularly in the mix as it were.

Pearl Jam – Of the Girl (Instrumental)

I’m putting together a post about Pearl Jam, specifically their fallow period from 2000-2005 and I think Binaural often gets a bad rap. There’s a lot going on in the songs as this instrumental take of ‘Of The Girl’ from the PJ20 soundtrack shows.

The War On Drugs – Holding On

Because there is a new War On Drugs album dropping this year and this is the first single from it. Shame that the wax looks to be what I’d consider over-priced.

The Appleseed Cast – The Waking of Pertelotte/On Reflection

I don’t think I’ve touched on this band here so far. I can’t get enough of the Low Level Owl albums these days (even if they passed me by first time) and I love, LOVE Josh “Cobra” Baruth’s drumming. These are two seperate tracks that open Volume 1 but are best experienced flowing together as intended .

The Kinks – I’m Not Like Everybody Else

So many great Kinks songs to chose from…. this is a Ray song sung by Dave. It was a b-side to ‘Sunny Afternoon’ but the version I keep listening to was from their final release To The Bone and I first heard it and got hooked via ‘The Sopranos’. **

Fleetwood Mac – Albatross

Because a) this is a great tune to listen to when the sun is shining and b) early / Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac   > Rumours Fleetwood Mac.

*I dropped needle on it once and confirmed I need a new stylus. Until that arrives….

** See also: ‘Living On A Thin Line‘.

….it was a very good year

… to quote Mr Sinatra.

So, after a period of hint dropping, it was confirmed that, in a rare move, Radiohead would be revisiting their past and would mark the 20th anniversary of the game-changing OK Computer.

My copy of OKNotOK 1997 2017 as it’s called (3 LPs featuring three unreleased tracks and eight B-sides, all newly remastered) has been secured in its indies-only blue variant with my new-favourite shop and I’m sure that I’ll be talking more about OK Computer when I’ve dropped needle upon it.

However, the fact that it’s now 20 years since 1997 has seen a few of those nostalgic lists appear on various sites (Spin published a pretty solid 79 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1997 list) and it got me to thinking that, from an alt-rock point of view at least, 1997 was a very strong year for releases. Let’s take a butchers…

Yes, kicking off with the fact that if ’97 saw Britpop killed by Oasis’ abhorrently indulgent and tuneless Be Here Now, then Radiohead’s OK Computer nailed down the coffin. I remember catching the video for ‘Paranoid Android’ on MTV2 and being blown away.

Foo Fighters would release their second (first as a band) album The Colour And The Shape, an album which is still held up as their best by so many* and contains some of their biggest tunes like ‘My Hero’, ‘Monkey Wrench’, ‘Walking After You,’ and, of course that barely-known song ‘Everlong’.

The ‘Everlong’ video was directed by Michel Gondry who also directed the video for Björk’s ‘Joga‘, which features on her album Homogenic which also came out in 1997. Built To Spill used their major label debut to mark a massive stylistic shift and dropped the sublime Perfect From Now On, Portishead released their self-titled album and, while Hand It Over isn’t the best Dinosaur Jr album (it would be the last issued under that name for some time), it features some belters in ‘Nothing’s Goin’ On‘ and ‘I’m Insane’ guaranteeing it gets pretty regular plays from me.

A chap called Elliott Smith released his third album, the beautiful and much-loved Either/Or containing some of the best songs he’d ever produce in his all too-short life.

The post-rock cannon got two very important débuts in 1997. Godspeed You! Black Emperor released their F♯ A♯ ∞ and would go on to become, to me at least, the most important band in the genre. Meanwhile, five blokes from Glasgow in a band called Mogwai released Mogwai Young Team on their way to also becoming a hugely important band in the genre.

Ben Fold Five’s Whatever & Ever, Amen, home to ‘Brick’, ‘Song For The Dumped’ and ‘Battle of Who Could Care Less’ was also released in ’97 and Pavement released Brighten The Corners.

Back into the less ‘alt’ side of things, that fella born Robert Zimmerman made a quick recovery from a life-threatening heart infection despite thinking he’d “be seeing Elvis soon” and dropped, seven years after his previous studio album, the hugely impressive return to form that was Time Out of Mind.

1997 was also the year that I started to get into Aerosmith  released a stonker of an album, even if it would turn out to be their last strong effort to date, in Nine Lives. Look at the evidence: Get A Grip in 1993 was a monster in sales terms but not that much critically speaking and not one I listen to too often. Nine Lives, however, is a powerhouse record of raw sounding rock with some real earthy tones and – for the genre – some pretty eclectic sound and instrumentation. There’s still not one song I’d skip, though I wouldn’t necessarily hold up ‘Hole In My Soul’ as exemplary the rest of the album – ‘Taste of India’, ‘Full Circle’, ‘Ain’t That A Bitch’, the Joe Perry showcase ‘Falling Off’, ‘Somethings Gotta Give…’ ‘Fallen Angels’ – is a classic. Even before they changed the artwork and it shifted like hotcakes thanks to the addition of that asteroid movie song.

There’s also… Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ The Boatman’s Call and, I’m sure, plenty I’m omitting that a look through over such lists will make me go “oh, of course…” but with a lot of strong albums released and the fact that I was earning a regular pay cheque  (weekend work at a supermarket) at this point to fund my growing habit, there’s an awful lot of music in my collection from 1997 that still gets a lot of play.

*I could do a Foo Fighters Least to Most…. The Colour and the Shape battles it out with Wasting Light in my mind for their best to date. Both represent their most consistent and one will have the edge over the other depending on the day.