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 – 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 – VS

It wasn’t intended or planned but  – Pearl Jam’s Vs. was actually released 25 years ago today on October 19th, 1993. Crikey.

Back in 1993 in those wonderful days when a certain orange idiot was merely an occasional media presence and music news came periodically rather than by-the-second with inside access and selfies and… yep, I’m coming up on a birthday too so am feeling a sense of reminisce for those days of my youth when this was what new music sounded like.

To say I love Vs. would be a solid bet. It’s at number 2 on this list, today. Tomorrow it could be number 1. So here are lot of reasons why I think Vs is just the mutt’s nuts.

It was huge but in the lexicon of Pearl Jam’s discography and longevity is now something of a forgotten album, falling between the cracks between Ten and the shift in gears and stepping back from the spotlight that Vitalogy (yes, spoiler alert, more on which to follow) and wars with Ticketmaster would herald. At the time of release it set a new record for most copies of an album sold in its first week (950,378) and would hold that for five years*.

Dave Abbruzzesse is all over this album. Dave Abbruzzesse was an odd fit in terms of personality but an unimpeachable drummer for Pearl Jam. At a time when Eddie was struggling with the onslaught of fame and trying to step back and the band seemed at their most painfully angsty/earnest, Dave Abbruzzesse just wanted to enjoy the success. A Rolling Stone profile written that year, the drummer would point out that “when I was younger and I heard about a band selling a million records, I thought the band would get together and jump up and down for at least a minute,” he says with a wide-open East Texas laugh, “and just go, ‘Wow, I can’t believe it.’ But it doesn’t happen that way [in this band]. Me, I flip out. I jump up and down by myself.”

At the time this wasn’t where messrs Vedder, Ament, Gossard and McCready were. Well, definitely no Ed Vedd who was painfully serious at the time. It’s hard to judge, of course, because I’ve never written an album that sells millions of copies within a year, but I think the judgement of peers for doing so (Fugazi, Cobain** etc) perhaps made the band afraid of lightening up and desperate to appear more serious. For my money, Abbruzzesse’s inability to not smile and appear an amiable chap in band photos stopped the band disappearing up it’s own bum at the time.

As a drummer he was an immense tour de force and his drumming is what pushes Vs. along and is missing from these songs when performed live. Oh, and he also wrote the music for ‘Go’:

Go is about Eddie’s truck – well, apparently. While it sounds like it’s probably about something more serious, the lyrics were apparently written about Vedder’s truck – the band were making serious money but not spending or living like ‘rock stars’ – which he would often sleep in an effort to stay feeling ‘hungry’ and would often stall and threaten to quit.

Vs. is one of their most on target / consistent albums to date. The aforementioned Rolling Stone article, written before the album’s name was decided, stated that “Pearl Jam is the band’s turf statement, a personal declaration of the importance of music over idolatry.” Vs feels like a mission statement. It’s the most straight-ahead and consistent of tone album in their catalogue, rivaled, oddly enough, only by Pearl Jam. From the opener ‘Go’ via ‘Animal’, ‘Blood’ and ‘Leash’ to the closing ‘Inidfference’, there’s little deviance in style and minimal experimentation, a lot of fierce rockers and aggression thrown in. And every song is strong.

There’s barely a break in pace between the opening salvo of ‘Go’ and ‘Animal’ – save for the acoustic driven ‘Daughter’ which is hardly a slow song, and ‘Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In A Small Town’ (the very title of which is an outright joke at the band’s own habit of one-word song titles) – which makes ‘Indifference’ so much more of a powerful closer.

It was the beginning of saying “no” for part of Pearl Jam’s mission statement and way of coping with the assault of getting so big so fast was to push back. They began to saying no and taking control in an effort to prolong the band’s lifespan. The video for ‘Jeremy’ had become so ubiquitous at the time that the band, particularly Ament, were fighting hard against their songs being remembered only as a video. Having drawn the line at allowing a video for ‘Black’, they  started realising they could say no to requests. Requests like ‘can you raise Eddie’s vocals?’, ‘can you choose a director for a video?’ ‘can we schedule an interview with…?’ would be met with ‘no’s and ‘not really’s from here on in and Vs. feels like an aggressive stab at forging a new path.

Collaboration rules, or at least it did at the time of Vs. Only two of the twelve cuts on Vs. are sole Vedder compositions. Much like Ten before it, most of Vs was written as a collaborative effort with Vedder providing the lyrics. Perhaps this is why so many of the songs are as strong as they are: tighter than a duck’s arse after touring behind Ten and brimming with ideas, most of the songs on the album were born out of jam sessions with as much recorded live as possible. As Stone Gossard pointed out:  “I think we allowed things to develop in a more natural, band-oriented sort of way, rather than me bringing in a bunch of stuff that was already arranged.” It feels organic and it feels like a real band album and benefits from a lot more involvement in songwriting from Mike McCready too, take ‘Glorified G’:

‘Glorified G’ is a direct mocking of Dave Abbruzzesse but he dominates it nonetheless. ‘Glorified G’ – based on a McCready riff – was another song born out of a collaborative jam session but it’s anti-gun stance was born out of Vedder’s reaction to Dave’s ownership: “I was at a band rehearsal and just started writing down these things the guys were talking about. The band were having this conversation and I just took down the dialogue. One of the band members had just bought a gun. It was the drummer, actually. Ask him about it.”

So, if you asked Dave he’d have said: “I told our manager that I just bought a coupla guns and he told Jeff, and at rehearsal Jeff kinda blurted it out. And Eddie went, ‘Whaaaat, you bought a GUN?’ And I said, ‘In fact, I bought two,’ which ended up as the opening line of the song. I think it’s fair to say Eddie was pretty outraged.”

The odd thing is that this song rocks because of Abbruzzesse’s power. Even live – check out the performance on the Live at the Orpheum that accompanied the rerelease of this album and Vitalogy – he’s ON. Whether Vedder’s angered swipe at him either motivated him to play harder out of ‘fuck you too’ or he was just too easy going to really give a fuck we’ll never really know.

It is rammed with some of their best and most well-loved songs. Seriously, take a look at that track list and see how well received songs like ‘Go’, ‘Animal,’ ‘Blood,’ ‘Immortality’ are when they’re played live and you’ll see that the songs on Vs. are many a fan’s favourite. I just wish they’d bust out ‘Leash’ more.

‘Rearviewmirror’ – every single second of it. Live, now, it’s become something else and verses are often missed but ‘Rearviewmirror’ is one of Pearl Jam’s finest songs. Ridiculously catchy for a song supposedly about suicide it’s driven along by a hugely proppulsive riff from Vedder and, again Abbruzzesse’s drumming. Plus, as an added bonus you can hear Dave throwing his sticks against the wall at the end of the song as he grew increasingly frustrated by producer Brendan O’Brien’s (this was his first time producing a Pearl Jam record) constant pressure on him. There’s also a story that he ended up punching a hole in his snare drum and throwing it off a cliff. It’s worth it, though:

There’s a lot to love about Vs. and I can’t find anything to fault it on. If you’re nitpicking you might, in the same way as you would with Pearl Jam,  bemoan the lack of experimentation or single-focus on this one but the songs here are just so tight, confident and strong that you could only really do so for as long as it takes for ‘Go’ to give way to ‘Animal’.

*Technically it still holds that record as from 1998 (when it was broken by Garth Brooks) SoundScan started counting first week sales as opposed to first five days but that’s a technicality.

**Yes, Nirvana sold a tonne of records too but he famously decried Pearl Jam’s music as commercial / jock music

 

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Yield

“There was probably a middle period where we didn’t write so much. The middle records. Maybe the third record, I think I was just writing a bunch of songs on guitar myself. But now it’s, like, a total collective. It’s all of us in there with our hammers and claws, banging it out.”
Eddie Vedder

There’s so much to love about Pearl Jam’s fifth studio album, Yield. As Vedder was keen to point out at the time of the album’s release – it marked a return to a more collaborative approach to songwriting that had been missing (though not perhaps to the degree as that opening quote suggests) from the band’s previous two albums. In fact, Yield features only two songs solely written by Vedder, making it their most collaborative effort since Vs and one that would only later be matched by Pearl Jam.

So what changed? “I remember there being a stressful conversation, bordering on an argument…. we had to tun a corner on people relating to whatever they wrote as being a song, and not just a riff. It had to have space. It had to have to allow another part, which might potentially be an important part.” It took a while, from Vedder’s point of view, but by the time of Yield, drummer Jack Irons noticed a a movement toward having everybody participate more.” Ed’s call for more complete ideas to be bought to the table – I’m guessing that penning a fifth album in six years was starting to feel daunting- meant that for the first time on a Pearl Jam album (with the exception of No Code‘s ‘Mankind’) the “all lyrics by Eddie Vedder” label was missing: Gossard and Amend both contributed two songs apiece with music and lyrics, including one of my favourite Pearl Jam songs, ‘Low Light’ – a Jeff Ament composition:

All this means that the album has a real blend of styles yet remains one of their most cohesive and accessible albums. Partly, if not totally looking at the couple that followed sound-wise, to the decision to ultimately get Brendan O’Brien involved again. Well… turns out it wasn’t their decision and that’s something else I love about this album.

When they wound down touring behind No Code and began writing the material for their next album (they’d still not mastered taking a break) the guys knew they wanted the album to be more accessible but wanted to produce it themselves. Turned out O’Brien wasn’t impressed – “I remember getting on a conference call… they said they were going to make the next record a little more listener friendly. But then they said ‘We want to try it on our own and maybe bring you in at the end to help us finish it am mix it’. And I said ‘What?! Listen! I helped you on this last record. I went through all that with you guys to get to this. And now you’re telling me you want to make a more commercial-sounding record without my help? You’re out of your mind!”

So enraged was O’Brien that he demanded they tell him in person why they thought it was a good idea to go it alone, got on a plane to Seattle the next day. They sat round a kitchen table, talked it out and then started working. He wouldn’t go home for a few weeks. Perhaps like that it sounds a bit arrogant but there’s no denying the band had done their best work with O’Brien and he deserved a shot, not only that but the band were also glad of his involvement: “I’m very glad Brendan flew up. I’m glad we didn’t produce Yield ourselves… to have someone you respect that has equal or better ears than you. I don’t know if we would have had that perspective at the time,” Mike McCready would later recall.

For his involvement – McCready’s songs on Yield included one of Pearl Jam’s finest moments, a tune that the album almost centres around:

Coming out of a dark time in his life and, feeling that it was behind him, was penning tunes that “were kind of celebratory. ‘Given to Fly’ musically was kind of that statement. That’s why there’s all the peaks and valleys in it.” It, and Vedder’s ‘Wishlist’ is one of the band’s most beloved songs. It’s also one that I would sing as a lullaby to my son when he was just a baby – the fact that he’s at school now as I write this makes me treasure this song all the more and only highlights how personal my connection to this batch of songs is. It’s a funny old thing, music, and how much it can tie itself to your memories.

Back to the ‘so many things to love’ – for some reason the birth of this song itself makes me smile: McCready had some studio time booked with a mutual friend and invited Vedder to join (“It looked like a boring ‘Hard Copy’ that night, so I dediced to go in the studio”) and ‘Wishlisht’ “popped out” – originally twice as long with a lot more ‘wishes’ but it’s a real example of the organic way in which so much of Yield seems to have come about.

In a way, Yield is an album of ends and beginnings. This was the band’s last album of the 90’s and feels like it contains some of the last vestiges of their earlier ‘rough / raw’ edges like the tough ‘Brain of J’ and ‘Pilate’ and the blistering ‘Do The Evolution’ that marked the band’s return to offering a music video for the first time since a clip had been made for ‘Oceans’ – Jeff Ament had said at the time “Ten years from now, I don’t want people to remember our songs as videos.” That being said, the band themselves didn’t appear in the video:

‘Do The Evolution’ came about in the same way as ‘Wishlist’ – though with guitarist Stone Gossard finding Vedder in the studio with no weekend plans and wanting something on the album that was a little more rock other than ‘Brain of J’ – itself a holdover from 1995.

It was also the band’s last album with Brendan O’Brien for a while – he wouldn’t get the call to sit behind the big desk for another ten years – and the last with drummer Jack Irons. Having quietly battled a bipolar condition since his midtwenties, the drummer had since said good bye to his medications and found that touring wasn’t going to work with his approach to getting healthy naturally after suffering through a ‘major manic episode’ during the Australian tour to promote Yield: “I stuck to my guns, but, unfortunately, that meant not being in Pearl Jam anymore. It wasn’t that simple. I was really not well.”

So, some seven / eight years after drumming on the demo tape that was sent to Vedder and a little under a year since Soundgarden split, Matt Cameron got asked “what are you doing this summer?”, learnt 80 songs in under two weeks and took up residence on Pearl Jam’s drum seat.

I think Jack Irons is an often underrated drummer for Pearl Jam. Perhaps overlooked as a place-holder between their BIG TWO: Dave Abbruzzese and Matt Cameron. Not only was he an amazing referral service in slipping Vedder the original demo tape but he had a real propulsive drum sound as well as a real interest in experimenting and pushing the envelope – what he would call his ‘weird suff’. But check out the drums throughout No Code and Yield and there’s a very distinct difference in styles that drives those tunes on in a different direction:

The somewhat reluctant return to the music video format that ‘Do The Evolution’ marked and the determined embrace of a more accessible sound seemed to look like some of the angst that the band had carried with them since their initial era was beginning to thaw and so, Yield also feels like the ushering in of the new ‘mature’ Pearl Jam that we know today. Hell, tired of the slog that was the No Code tour the promotion of Yield would mark the band’s return to full scale touring and use of Ticketmaster. It was as though the band had started to feel more like reaching out after spending so long saying ‘no’.

It worked: ‘Given To Fly’ was a prominent feature on the radio (it topped what those crazy Americans call the ‘Mainstream Rock Charts’ for six weeks) with second single ‘Wishlist’ faring strong too. Yield tore up the charts when it was released and while it didn’t hit the top spot it beat No Code in first-week sales and the subsequent tour was such a success that the band capture it on their first – and still finest – live album Live On Two Legs.

There’s nothing to find fault in on Yield – although I don’t have as much fondness for ‘Red Dot’ and ‘Push Me / Pull Me’ as I do the rest of the album. I also love the fact that, having seemed to push the bulk of their Ten audience away for so long, that by the time the band finally released the commercial sounding album that audience had been waiting for,  it had stopped listening. This was one for those that had stayed in touch. Here they sound free – as though for the first time they’ve shaken off the cloud of trying not to make an album that sounds like Ten 2.

Why is this number four and not number one? We’re now at the point where there’s really nothing between these albums and, on any given day, I could just as easily proclaim Yield Pearl Jam’s finest album – especially if I’d just listened to it. But, when I drew up the list for this series, it sits here and that feels pretty ok still.

Highlights – All of it.

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