Earthling – Eddie Vedder takes it ‘solo’

I’m still here. I’m not quite finding my blogging mojo for reasons various but, hey, if there was anything that was gonna stir the juices a bit it was gonna be Pearl Jam related, right? And a solo album from Eddie Vedder that’s neither a soundtrack or sixteen ukulele tunes was always gonna be worth investigating.

First things first – it’s a manage expectations job. It’s not 1994 anymore and those expecting a Vedder solo album to be something that would represent the singer of ‘Not For You’, say, are living in the past with Walter Sobchack, man. I’ll admit I kind held a smidge of a hope for it though. See, while there are three decades of beautiful tradition, 2022’s Eddie Vedder is a different man. Let’s face it: it’s unlikely that he would have made an album of ukulele songs or caught the same wave that inspired Into The Wild straight after writing ‘Leash’. But, as Pearl Jam’s albums in the decades that followed that last great gasp for music have shown, Vedder remains a crafter of fine lyrics and tunes – as exemplified on 2020’s unexpectedly* strong Gigaton – as he matures.

Hearing the manner he’s been able to bring that sense of inner peace while still screaming at external torments – be they political or global – has made for many of Pearl Jam’s finer moments of the last couple of decades. For a band that’s often demonstrated that the sum is greater than the value of its parts, the real question was whether this would work outside of Pearl Jam on a more traditional (read: with full band backing not just four strings) solo album?

First impressions via lead-off single ‘The Long Way’ were promising – nice melody, lot of Tom Petty vibes while sounding like Eddie having fun without trying to sound like Pearl Jam. It even features Benmont Tench on the hammond organ, the first time the Heartbreaker had taken his equipment out of storage for use since the last Heartbreakers’ tour.

Then my anticipation stalled upon hearing ‘The Haves.’ In fact, it fell asleep. It’s a song with a good lyric but it’s straight-forward tack and lack of hook make the five minute run time feel four times as long. It’s not until the last minute or so that Vedder really seems to get into it from a vocal point. ‘Brother the Cloud’ however sent me to the ‘pre-order’ button**: it’s a fine tune that leans into the Pearl Jam sound without feeling like it’s trying to imitate and an inspired lyric from Vedder that’s seemingly about the passing of two people both called Chris:

Oddly for a solo album, there’s not a single Vedder / Vedder credit – all songs apparently born out of jam sessions with a band made up of Josh Klinghoffer, Chad Smith and Andrew Watt (who also produced) with Vedder smashing lyrics out at a clip that he hadn’t for some time. It means that these songs feel airier and have a spring in their step that speak of the speed at which the project came together and reached our ears. It also feels like Vedder had a real blast making this album. There’s no real head-on tackling of weighty issues and Vedder paints with the brighter, more vibrant rock colours that Pearl Jam typically avoids.

Sometimes this works really well – the previously mentioned ‘Long Way’ and ‘Brother the Cloud’ along with ‘Fallout Today’ and opener ‘Invincible’ shine as initial highlights: there’s a looseness and willingness to play about the music, ‘Fallout Today’ adds another entry into Vedder’s strong-women narratives and the multi-tracking of Vedder’s voice in ‘Invincible’ makes a great entry point for the album. According to a recent chat between Vedder and Springsteen it was the first music written and the last lyric completed:

This looser spontaneity gives Earthing a feel of an Eddie Vedder & Friends Rave Up. Despite the co-write credits, it’s clearly Eddie’s show throughout, though. While the ‘Earthlings’ are made up of big-name players they never contribute anything musically that would make you say, for example, ‘man, Chad’s such an awesome drummer, that fill made me need new undies’. It’s a feeling that’s borne out by the choice of guests on the album’s last volley of tunes too. Vedder has said that he approached the tracklist as he would a concert; toward the end you get a little more relaxed and bring out the guests. Much in in the same way as nobody has walked away from a Pearl Jam show saying “fuck, that dude from The Buzzcocks really added to ‘Rockin’ In the Free World’ tonight” nobody could say that the worst Beatle brings anything other than his name to ‘Mrs Mills’. If we’re keeping the same metaphor you’d guess Elton John was hanging around side stage and dragged on to trade vocals with Eddie on ‘Picture’ but managed to sound more like a South Park parody of himself with a song that feels like it should be accompanying some animated film about two animal friends. The real highlight in terms of guests is the fittingly all-too-brief moment in which Vedder accompanies his father on the closing ‘On My Way’:

For those familiar with the history of Vedder’s discovery that the guy he’d thought was his father ‘was nothing but a…’ that fuelled a large part of his and Pearl Jam’s initial angst, it feels like a fittingly emotional way for Vedder to end this album. Putting to bed some of his troubles on an album where he seems to be having more fun than he’s had on record in a long time.

Much like you’d expect from an ‘Eddie Vedder & Friends’ show, Earthling is a lot of fun and at times a damn fine listen. Those moments when Vedder is on form and giving it his all are great. Even when he’s leaning back and his forays into different styles don’t always land – his inherent abilities and unmistakable voice (though the effects of smoking on his voice prevent him breathing as much into a lyric as he once did) mean that even the lesser of these songs still offer a reason to tune in.

But – Elton John aside – what stops Earthling being brilliant is the sound and production, which fails on at least three tracks. It’s flat, sonically, where it could be really interesting – it’s all volume and no nuance or texture and feels out of place. It all sits on the shoulders of ‘super-producer’ Andrew Watt who, despite his fan status, is better known for his work with the likes of, ahem, Justin Bieber, Post Malone, 5 Seconds of Summer and Miley Cyrus. I’m all for experimenting with new producers; Brendan O’ Brien was hardly an established name when Pearl Jam started working with him and the sonic experiments of Binaural, Riot Act and Gigaton yielded glorious results. However, Watt’s approach of pushing everything up loud drowns songs like ‘Rose of Jericho’ and ‘Good and Evil’ when a little nuance and texture could’ve bought them to life, meanwhile the over-processed sound of ‘The Dark’ would be more at home on a song from some X-Factor pop-puppets or John Shanks produced Bon Jovi record (THE HORROR!). It made me want to go back and listen to Gigaton (no bad thing) and hope that the mutterings that Watt will produce the next Pearl Jam album amount to so much promo-cycle air.

How-fucking-ever: the diversity and full-bodied nature of its highlights make Earthling the better of his solo albums. While it’s not the Eddie Vedder solo album we may have expected, in many ways it does a more than admirable job of straddling both the range of his musical lexicon and tastes past and present in a way that his single-theme solo efforts to date failed to do. It captures a once angry young man comfortable in middle-age and having a great time some thirty years down the line from his grimace appearing on the cover of Time magazine. Given how many of his contemporaries are listed as casualties of the ‘scene’ we should be happy that Vedder is both here and that the easy, Eddie-having-fun vibe that fact brings still makes for a blast on repeated – albeit five songs lighter than intended – listens.

*Backspacer and Lightning Bolt had their moments but Gigaton found Pearl Jam embracing a new producer and sounding tighter than a duck’s arse.

**On cd this time as vinyl production is still feeling the impact of supply chain issues coupled with the the unholy revival of a Swedish crap heap and an equally awful album of ‘heartbreak’ karaoke fodder.

Albums of my Years – 1980

What’s this then?

Well: this year will feature my last birthday with a 3 at the start. So, I figured that, given my average posting frequency and to allow a post every week or so, I’d pick an album from each of the years I’ve been on this ride in the theory that this would leave me enough time to complete a 40 post series just as I hit 40.

I’ll be picking one album from each year that’s either a favourite, one that means something to me and has not been covered in these ‘pages’ thus far.

Sound alright? I am, of course, always happy to get feedback or recommendations for anything that I may have missed along the way – especially in those years when I hadn’t yet mastered walking.

So, let’s start from the top…

1980 saw a fair bit going on in the music world:

Paul McCartney kicked off his 1980 in jail in Japan when he was caught with some marijuana on him – they’d kick him out of the country two weeks later.

Don Henley also got in a bit of bother with the rozzers and drugs, albeit some harder substances when police hit the motherload in his house after a naked 16-year-old prostitute(!) had drug-related seizures and they found another 15-year-old girl(!!) tripping balls. He ended up with all kinds of charges which, oddly enough, didn’t end up as lyrical fodder for ‘Boys of Summer’…. ‘you got ya hair combed back and those quaaludes are kickin in, baby.’

Led Zepplin’s powerhouse drummer John Bonham’s wholehearted embrace of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of excess reached its inevitable conclusion and he was found dead by bandmate John Paul Jones – the drummer having choked on his own vomit after downing several pubs worth of vodka. The band would disband a month or two later.

Back to Fab – John Lennon and Yoko Ono got busy recording Double Fantasy which dropped in November. But, just one month later, Lennon was entering the Dakota building when he noticed Mark Chapman standing nearby and nodded at him – presumably recognising him after Chapman had requested Lennon’s autograph earlier in the day. Moments later Chapman fired five shots at John Lennon’s back, from about ten feet away and 1980 drew to a close with 100,000 mourners holding a public vigil in Central Park for the murdered John Lennon.

Bit of an odd one to be born into, really. In terms of album’s released in 1980, it’s slim pickings from my wheelhouse.

Split Enz released the phenomenal True Colours (home to ‘I Got You’ and ‘Nobody Takes Me Seriously’ and a buttload of other crackers)…. The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta dropped in October and it, too, is stuffed with corkers.

The Joe Perry Project released their first album Let the Music Do the Talking which included the stonking title track and a good dose of riff-heavy tunes and some fella from New Jersey released an ep called The River... and a group of young lads from Ireland dropped their debut Boy and promptly vanished into obscurity.

BUT: I can’t choose The River as the ‘1980’ album. As much as it’s my favourite release of the year I’ve already talked about it at length and I don’t want to repeat myself. So.. what does that leave? Scary Monsters? Meh. Sandinista! ? Nah… though ‘Police On My Back’ is a fucking belter!

How about:

Dire Straits –Making Movies

Knopfler and co’s third album, Making Movies dropped on October 17th 1980. The same day as Bruce Springsteen’s The River and just 11 days before I did.

Dire Straits actually ‘borrowed’ both Roy Bittan and Jimmy Iovine from Springsteen for Making Movies. Knoplfer had wanted Iovine as producer after hearing Patti Smith’s ‘Because The Night’ and Iovine helped get The Professor involved. Probably helped that they were pretty much next door – Making Movies was recorded at New York’s The Power Station at the same time as work on The River was wrapping up. – I’ve pondered before if the seeds for, or at least the title of, the Boss’ Tunnel of Love song were planted here, there’s no way he’d not listen to what his producer and piano player had been moonlighting on.. or even listened through the wall with a wine glass?

That oft-maligned trade rag Rolling Stone has this to say of Making Movies: 

“Making Movies is the record on which Mark Knopfler comes out from behind his influences and Dire Straits come out from behind Mark Knopfler. The combination of the star’s lyrical script, his intense vocal performances and the band’s cutting-edge rock & roll soundtrack is breathtaking—everything the first two albums should have been but weren’t. If Making Movies really were a film, it might win a flock of Academy Awards.”

To say I grew up with Dire Straits and Making Movies on in the background would be an understatement. Their love of the band was something that bonded my father and his best friend (my ‘Dutch uncle’) and it was continually played to the point that now, thirty some years later I still know every word on the majority of this album and still enjoy spinning it.

It’s the album that helped the band break out to a wider audience with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ did the business on radio. On yet another Springsteen connection (I know, I know) that beautiful guitar arpeggio? Go listen then go listen to ‘Jungleland‘ and the piano in the first verse. It wasn’t deliberate, Knopfler hit on it by pure chance while trying out a tuning with his National:

There’s nothing wrong with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but my personal favourite is still the first tune on the album, the Tunnel of Love / Carousel Waltz combo. When you combine it with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Skateaway’ I think you’ve got a pretty damn fine Side A there.

Side B isn’t too shabby. Granted ‘Les Boys’ wouldn’t be released today with it’s “Les Boys do cabaret, Les Boys are glad to be gay” lyrics but Knopfler’s guitar work is on form throughout, as with the tres-80s titled ‘Expresso Love’ and the charming ‘Hand in Hand’ which, for my money, points at sounds that would surface more on their next album Love Over Gold:

Still, what saves the album isn’t just what’s on it but what isn’t: ‘Twisting by the Pool’ was recorded during these sessions but was, thankfully, left off.

 

 

 

Watching The Corners

I’m aware that when I’ve muttered about new albums from ‘big’ names – referring, that is, to their importance in my music taste-range – I’ve been pretty negative. There have been more than a few albums released this year that I’ve loved (whether or not I’ll end up doing a Best of 2012 is another thing) so I thought I’d start mentioning a couple of those instead of just slamming new albums.

One of those bands that were always around but I never really acknowledged or paid attention to almost until it was too late, was Dinosaur Jr. By the time I got round to checking out one of their albums it was their comeback disc Beyond. It was being hailed as a ‘return to form’, and people were ecstatic as it was ‘as if they’d never been away’ – except to me they hadn’t really because this was the first time I was listening and knowing who was playing. I played the arse off that album. It absolutely slayed me. So much so that within a pretty short space of time I’d gotten the rest of their stock – my wife even managed to find the otherwise “bastard to locate at a decent price” Without A Sound for me in Paris. Suddenly the buzz around Beyond made sense. It was a phenomenal return to form after the lucklustre release J. had made during the 90’s with other musicians under the name of Dinosaur Jr. Which is odd because I really liked his two efforts with The Fog – so much better than, say, Hand It Over.

dinosaur jr

From that point I’ve been eagerly awaiting new Dino albums (or the recent J. Mascis solo record) and was not disappointed either with Farm or this year’s I Bet On Sky. It’s true that the three albums are all very much similar (even excusing the use of keyboards on opener Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know); 10 or 12 songs, the bulk of which are sung by J and contain either hurried or gently fuzzy rocking leading up to the point at which J can’t hold back any longer and lets loose the guitar solo that continues until the end of the track. And you know what? I bloody love it. The melodies are a world clearer than they were on the bands original trio before the lineup became a rotational club, J’s a lot more confident at the old singing game and his guitar tone is beatific. His phrasing and fluidity mean that when each song breaks it’s more like being wrapped up in a warm blanked of tone. Somehow each time he breaks it sounds different and he finds something new on that guitar neck.

After my wife and I recently dug back into the 90s I was flicking through a book she got me last Christmas. It’s the photo collection Grunge by Michael Lavine and with a bit of text from none other than Thurston Moore. There’s a bit of a love-in with Thurston and J – Thurston (along with his basement and daughter) were in the video for Dinosaur Jr’s Been There All The Time and J played some shit-hot lead on Thurston’s amazeballs solo lp Trees Outside The Academy. Anyway there’s photo of Dinosaur Jr in there and – at the back of the book – a summary of all the bands featured within. Thurston’s summary of Dinosaur Jr reads:

“Awesome heavy melodic power trio from Amhers, Massachusetts…. Gerard Cosloy convinced the band to record an LP fr his Homestead imprint and it, along with its successor, You’re Living All Over Me, released on SST, became indelible blueprints for a generation of extreme yet beautiful guitar love core”

I like that phrase “guitar love core”. While the original trilogy was certainly something and the years in between yielded a few gems too I think the most recent clutch of albums from the band a lot more of a guitar love in. Plus it game on a gorgeous slab of purple vinyl and nice, high-quality gate-fold too.