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 – 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