Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Riot Act

“Take the reigns, steer us toward the clear…”

A lot can happen in two years. I’ve written on the time between Binaural and Riot Act before but, to summarise: nine fans were killed during the band’s performance at the 2000 Roskilde Festival – an abrupt full stop which found Pearl Jam questioning if they could continue, friend and fellow ‘grunge’ icon Layne Staley died, Eddie Vedder went through a divorce and, external to the band, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Bush administration shifted America’s landscape drastically.

Ahead of their first show following Roskilde, Eddie Vedder sat alone in his hotel room writing a song to “reassure myself that this is going to be all right.” ‘I Am Mine’, as Matt Cameron said, “has all the elements this band is known for: strong lyrics, strong hook, and a good sense of melody. It wasn’t a really tough decision to have that be the starting point for the record.”

Following the Binaural tour cycle, Pearl Jam took a short break – Matt Cameron’s Wellwater Conspiracy dropped it’s third album, Stone Gossard released the first ‘solo’ album from a Pearl Jam member (which he was in New York promoting on 9/11) and Vedder – having played five shows with Neil Finn and other musicians (later captured on the worth-checking-out Seven Worlds Collide) – disappeared off the grid for a year on a remote Hawaiian island where he connected with Boom Gaspar who was playing B3 at a musician’s wake. The two hooked up again a few days later and very quickly wrote an eleven minute tune that would become another key album track, ‘Love Boat Captain’.

When it came time to recording their new album, Pearl Jam chose to do so with Adam Kasper (who’s credits to that point included two albums for Foo Fighters, a Queens of the Stone Age album amongst others) at the suggestion of Matt Cameron as Kasper had also produced Soundgarden’s last album, Down on the Upside.

The resulting album is one of the lost gems in Pearl Jam’s catalogue. Riot Act has still – 16 years on – shifted less copies than Vs did in its first week alone. I know Pearl Jam fans who don’t know more than the couple of tunes that remain in modern setlists. As I’ve argued before and will continue to do so – they’re missing out. Stronger than BinauralRiot Act benefits from Vedder having banished his writer’s block and having a much broader and emotional range of subjects to draw on and, frankly, get angry about -though Vedder has said that “If you think about it, it’s all very confusing and overwhelming to try to grasp it and put it all down.”

The album kicks off with ‘Can’t Keep’ – a tune that Vedder had played on the ukulele during a couple of solo shows (and would record as such on his own Ukulele Songs a few years later) that Gossard heard and enthused would be “killer” with the full band treatment and became a slow-burning thumper with buzzing, treated guitars that feels like a No Code song and leads into what is now a quite rare thing: a full band composition, ‘Save You’.

With lyrics that tackle addiction and the pain and frustration of seeing a close friend waste their life, ‘Save You’ is Mike McCready’s only writing credit on Riot Act and came about when he was sitting down with Stone Gossard (who contributed a fair bit song-writing wise) and “had two ideas, and one idea I worked really hard on and thought it was totally great and then I played it for him, and he goes, ‘Well, that’s not…well that’s okay. You got anything else?’ And so, the other thing I had was the “Save You” riff, and he goes, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ Ya know, so it’s…I was really built up to wanting to play this other song, and uh, nobody seemed to be very excited about it…”

‘Save You’ leans into the relentless, hard-edged rock sound that would blend seamlessly alongside tracks from Vitalogy as would the propulsive-beat driven ‘Green Disease.’ ‘Thumbing My Way’, meanwhile, is an acoustic ballad that showcases a change in direction for Vedder’s writing and is a clear signpost for what was to come with Into The Wild while ‘You Are’ is a personal favourite. Born out of expirmenting with a new drum machine that Matt Cameron had gotten hold of, it’s another great example of the band taking one member’s ideas and creating something memorable.

It would be impossible to talk about Riot Act without giving at least a passing mention to ‘Bu$hleaguer’. A dark, weaving satirical swipe, this was Pearl Jam at their most unambiguous politically and – while not much touched since – would regularly draw boos and jeers from certain clusters of the crowd when played live. Though even before the record was released there was no way to think Pearl Jam were Bush supporters so you’ve gotta wonder about the ‘shock’ it created.

Riot Act could very easily have been Pearl Jam’s greatest record. Reinvigorated and with a wealth of inspiration to draw on, there are some fantastic tunes on their seventh album (and there’s not many bands you can say that about). But… they should’ve taken a break. They sound a little tired and songs like ‘Ghost’ and ‘Help Help’ even sound tired. As much as I love the majority of Riot Act there are still 5 of its 15 songs I’ll skip more than listen through to and while that’s still a pretty signal to noise ratio (to borrow a phrase), when stacked against other works – it means it doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have done.

The odd thing is that had you cut those 5 songs and thrown in the ‘B’ sides recorded during these sessions – ‘Down’, ‘Undone’, and the brilliant ‘Otherside’ instead then Riot Act would have been one of their greatest albums.

However, there’s a sense of finality about Riot Act. In many ways it marks the end of a chapter for Pearl Jam – it would be four years before they’d release another album and, with Riot Act they completed their ‘studio’ obligations to Sony Music’s Epic Records with whom they had signed as Mookie Blaylock ahead of recording their debut Ten and, following their next tour, would take a much-needed break.

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt

“It’s a fragile thing, this life we lead
If I think too much I can get over-
Whelmed by the grace
By which we live our lives with death over our shoulders”
Sirens

Four years seperated the release of Backspacer and Lightning Bolt, Pearl Jam’s tenth (and, currently, most recent) studio album. A band that used to release an album every 18 months or so like clockwork had learnt to slow down and catch their breath between releases and tours.

In those four years the band was far from idle. There were re-releases / expanded editions of Vs and Vitalogy, a live album and the whole Pearl Jam Twenty celebration / lap of honour that included a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary, book, compilation (all very very good), two day festival and tour.

Oh – and a plethora of solo activity: Jeff Ament formed RNDM with Joseph Arthur and released and album as did his other side-project Tres Mts, Stone Gossard dropped a couple of Brad albums, Matt Cameron slipped back onto the drum seat for a little-known Seattle band called Soundgarden’s reunion, Mike McCready got in on a Mad Season reunion-of-sorts and formed Walking Papers with Duff McKagan (yes, that Duff McKagan) and even Eddie dropped a solo album, again ‘of sorts’, with Ukulele Songs (which is fine depending on your appetite for half an hour of Eddie and his uke).

Why do I mention all these solo projects in a review of a Pearl Jam band album, I don’t hear you ask. Well, for all the claims that these side projects help the band members bring more into album sessions and that may have been true in the 90’s when the band had couldn’t stand up for ideas falling out of their arses, I think it’s now the opposite case. When sessions for Lightning Bolt were delayed and interrupted by these commitments and solo tours I can’t help but feel that creative and energy levels were actually drained than recharged and the band’s tenth studio album kind suffered as a result.

But does that matter? Let’s face it: Pearl Jam are in a pretty unique position that few bands or acts reach. Twenty-two years into their life as a band they’re one of the greatest live draws still regularly touring, can sell out arenas, stadiums and ball-parks across the globe, their place and legacy are sealed and were – in 2013 and now – at the point where as long as their new album didn’t stink the place up like Pepé Le Pew and contained a good few songs to mix into the live set, will continue to be able to do so for years to come and keep their legacy intact even if it’s unlikely to bring any new fans into the fold.

Sill “everyone’s a critic looking back up the river” as the first words that ushered in Lightning Bolt point out and there’s a lot of strong material and a willingness to experiment and push boundaries within these forty-seven minutes that show Pearl Jam aren’t quite ready to rest on their laurels and are still trying to push their songwriting forward.

Lyrically, these are some of Vedder’s most accessible and direct, an extension of the approach begun on Backspacer (“For years, it was playing word games and expressing those emotions, but doing it in such a way that was cryptic and where Mark Arm from Mudhoney would still have some modicum of respect for me. But nowadays, it’s more like sitting down and writing a song, and whatever comes out, comes out.”) and musically it’s a lot more diverse than their previous album, with Stone Gossard referring to  “a slight return to some of the more sort of peculiar things we did, say, between No Code and Binaural.”

I really dig a huge chunk of Lightning Bolt and love that diversity in their sound, aptly beefed up by the physicality of Brendan O’Brien production. Take ‘Pendulum’ – how often to you get to hear Mike McCready using a bow on his guitar? – for a good start:

It’s a dark, broody beast that really doesn’t feel like the ‘by the numbers’ Pearl Jam you’d expect of a band this far into their recording career and works great live. It was a Gossard add Jeff Ament composition that even they didn’t expect Eddie to latch on to and work up into a band song. While we’re in the mid-section, ‘Pendulum’ is preceded by another Ament & Gossard composition and highlight, ‘Infallible’, whose groove and progression are like noting else in the PJ catalog and I love the directions the melody veers off in, with near-Beatles like passages :

A lot of attention pre and post release was given to ‘Sirens’ with due course. It’s one of the band’s finest. From a musical point of view, it’s a Mike McCready compostion (which I can never have enough of) inspired after attending a stop on Roger Waters’ ‘The Wall’ tour and wanting “to write something that would have a Pink Floyd type feel”. You can tell pretty much exactly which song he was cribbing from but when paired with Vedder’s most open and direct lyrics it’s elevated beyond ‘power ballad’ territory to a yearning ode on the fear of life’s fragility and our own mortality.

Of course, there are some more expected leanings on Lightning Bolt. ‘Mind Your Manners’ is a ripping, Dead Kennedys inspired rocker that finds Vedder back in angry mode and plays to their strengths, as does ‘Let The Records Play’ which threads a ‘power of spinning vinyl’ theme around a tasty Stone Gossard (this is very much a record for Stone fans) riff with great results.

Instead of a couple, Lightning Bolt produced a good half dozen songs that really add to Pearl Jam’s setlist (even if they’re not the ones that Ed scrawls onto a piece of paper ahead of a show) and any PJ playlist – including the one which will follow this series*. However, there are a few that don’t make the cut.

I still haven’t really clicked with ‘My Father’s Son’ and while ‘Lightning Bolt’ and ‘Getaway’, for example, are fine songs they don’t particularly add anything to pull this album further up in terms of its ‘go to’ placement in the band’s overall catalogue.

Vedder said of the writing that they’re continually trying to ” make not just the best Pearl Jam record, but just the best record.” While Lightning Bolt may not be the one, it is stronger than you’d expect of a band’s tenth album and finds the band not only playing to their strengths but still pushing in unexpected directions. As long as they continue trying to do so it’s worth checking in and always worth getting to a Pearl Jam show when they come to town.

Oh, and in terms of album closers, though, they went with a beauty on Lightning Bolt with ‘Future Days’.

Highlights: ‘Mind Your Manners’, ‘Sirens,’ ‘Infallible,’ ‘Pendulum,’ ‘Let The Records Play,’ Yellow Moon,’ ‘Future Days’.

Not-so highlights: ‘My Father’s Son, ‘Sleeping By Myself’.

*At this rate that may be a Christmas special

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Binaural

“We’d rather challenge our fans and make them listen to our songs than give them something that’s easy to digest. There is a lot of music out there that is very easy to digest but we never wanted to be part of it.”

I have a real soft spot for Binaural: I got into the band a year after Yield so this was both the first Pearl Jam album I bought on day of release – as well as the singles for ‘Nothing As It Seems’ and ‘Light Years’ – and the album they were touring behind when I caught them live.

Not only that but I do genuinely believe that there are some real gems on Binaural that, due to its relative low commercial performance, don’t get the recognition they deserve. So much so that I’ve already blogged about this album in a lot more detail here.

But, for all that, in terms of where it sits in preference levels to the rest of the band’s discography – not all that high. Of the highs – this album has an unimpeachable mid-section of ‘Light Years’, ‘Nothing as it Seems,’ ‘Thin Air’ and ‘Insignificance’ but that section is buffered by some pretty dense sounds.

Some of this was on purpose, with the band’s decision to change things up with Tchad Black (as the band moved away from producer Brendan O’Brien for the first time since Vs) recording many of the album’s songs employ two microphones to create a 3-D stereophonic sound.

On some songs – notably ‘Of The Girl’ this layered, textured sound works wonders. Elsewhere, the sound quality and mixes just don’t feel right. Looking back, even band members have come to regard Binaural as an album marked by distractions and missed opportunities, a lack of focus that meant the album lacked the power it could have had.

Gossard, for his part, feels that they should’ve gotten more out of new drummer Matt Cameron – “It should have devastated in a way that Temple of the Dog devastated”. They just weren’t writing with him in mind. Jeff Ament goes further, believing that in cutting songs like ‘Sad’ and ‘Education’ “we look back and think we didn’t put some of the best songs on it.”

But, it was the band’s first venture into the studio with Matt Cameron and, while he made an immediate contribution to songwriting with ‘Evacuation’ (not one of the album’s strongest) and a few tracks left on the cutting floor, the in-studio chemistry wasn’t quite there. They were working with a new producer for the first time, Mike McCready was battling an addiction to painkillers that saw him absent from many a session and Vedder – also in the middle of a marriage breakdown – was plagued by a case of writer’s block that got so bad he had to be stopped from picking up an instrument and writing more music until he had completed lyrics to those songs already piling up and waiting for them. As the man himself told Spin magazine following the album’s release:

“It’s bad when you have writer’s block in the studio and you’ve got three songs without words and four days left. It pretty much happened on the last record. And the worst part was they were songs that I had written. I had written the music to “Insignificance” and “Grievance”. I just wasn’t happy with what I had so I kept working on it and scrapping it and staying up at night, playing piano melodies to make it be the best thing. And it worked, finally. That causes hell in a relationship, that’s all I’ll tell you”

Unfortunately, none of these are ingredients for a great album.

On the plus side – this meant more opportunity for contributions from other band members than on previous albums with three songs and lyrics written entirely by Gossard  ‘Thin Air’, ‘Of the Girl’ and ‘Rival’ alongside Ament’s ‘God’s Dice’ and ‘Nothing As It Seems’.

Binaural is, in many ways, a missed opportunity. Pearl Jam, for all their ‘year or no’ decisions that lead to a cessation of music videos, a reluctance to give interviews or -for a large chunk of time – playing at Ticket Master rep’d venues,  were still in the album-tour-album-tour-album cycle. It would be a while before they’d learn to take a break and I can’t help but wonder if, had they taken just a little longer between Yield and their next album to attend to their own personal lives and breath a little, if Binaural wouldn’t have been their greatest. The ideas are all here, the parts are all right there with em but the final execution just misses the mark.

But – it’s still very very much worth a listen and is one of the few albums for which I’ve broken my ‘if I already have it on CD I won’t by it on vinyl too’ rule for. Oh, and it also introduced Ukulele Ed with ‘Soon Forget’ – a song that, when he was still a baby, I would sing quietly (minus the uke) as a lullaby to my son at nights and, so, ranks as a real personal favourite.

Highlights: ‘Light Years, Nothing As It Seems, Thin Air, Of the Girl, Grievance, Sleight of Hand, Soon Forget

Not-so highlights: ‘God’s Dice’, ‘Evacuation’.

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Backspacer

“But I am up riding high amongst the waves
Where I can feel like I
Have a soul that has been saved
Where I can feel like I’ve
Put away my early grave”

Let’s kick this off with a reminder of this series’ caveat – this is not a critical ‘worst’ situation and I can well imagine any of these albums being cited as a favourite by others.

In many ways it pains me to start this series off with Backspacer but it has to start somewhere and the band’s 2009 album is probably the least-played of their discography in casa Hill.

Why does it pain me? Like many I was very much hyped to grab this one when it dropped. The build up to it painted a strong picture of a revitalised band about to release an album that could sit amongst their strongest. 2006’s Pearl Jam (or ‘Avocado’) seemed to find Messrs Ament, Cameron, Gossard, McCready and Vedder back on focus and  firing on all cylinders and even the fickle media was back in their corner.

In fact, press leading into the recording dropped even more fuel for anticipation – for the first time since Yield Brendan O’Brien was at the helm. O’Brien had produced Pearl Jam’s cover of ‘Love, Reign o’er Me‘ for the (pretty pants) Adam Sandler film of similar title. They had a blast together and when it came time for a new studio album, the choice was a no-brainer. According to O’Brien, Pearl Jam “were ready to be, for lack of a better word, “produced” again” while Vedder told Rolling Stone “In the past, Brendan would say, ‘It’s a great song, but I think you should do it in a different key,’ and we’d say no. But now that we’ve heard Bruce has listened to his suggestions, I think we will too.”

It all pointed to ‘great’. And there is a lot of great stuff on Backspacer. Take first single ‘The Fixer’ as an example – it’s  pure hook, it’s almost pop-like in its sensibility. It’s fast, immediate and one of their best songs.

It’s also a great example of Pearl Jam’s collective song-writing chops. It takes its basics from a Matt Cameron demo (hence the odd timing signatures) which was worked up by Stone and Mike before Ed then worked on the arrangement ‘to get the parts he needed in the right place’ and tackled the lyrics. As such it’s one of only two tracks on the album with music composed by more than two members – Vedder wrote the lion’s share of Backspacer; all the lyrics and music for five of its eleven tracks.

According to Ament “Whatever wave Ed caught with [his soundtack for] Into the Wild has taken him to different places.” Those sole-Vedder creations areare among Backspacer‘s strongest – ‘Just Breath’ (which takes the opening chord from Into The Wild instrumental ‘Tuolumne’ and builds from there), ‘Unthought Known’, ‘The End’ and ‘Speed of Sound.’

Vedder’s lyrics on Backspacer are markedly more optimistic and politic-free after at least two previous records filled with barbs at the administration*. “I’ve tried, over the years, to be hopeful in the lyrics, and I think that’s going to be easier now,” Ed would tell press – whether that was down to a sense of calm in his personal life or a reflection on the end of the Bush era and the beginning of the Obama administration or both… it’s no bad thing. There’s a real joy and lightness that soars through some of Backspacer‘s finest moments that make it one of Pearl Jam’s easiest and most accessible albums to date.

So with all this good stuff to be said…. the reason Backspacer sits at the Least end of this list?

Essentially  – while this is true of a lot of albums in general – my version of it is a lot shorter than the actual album. There’s a good number of tracks that just don’t linger in the memory and as this is Pearl Jam’s shortest album, that doesn’t leave a whole lot left to spin. On average I’d say there’s five songs on here that are guaranteed a listen every time, possibly six which – on an 11 track album – splits it right down the middle.

There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with those songs but ‘Got Some’, ‘Supersonic’ etc are of the type that Pearl Jam have done better elsewhere in their catalogue and don’t offer sufficient hook to stick and, I’m sure, are cues to head to the bogs during concerts.

As for ‘Johnny Guitar’ – it’s the worst song Pearl Jam have committed to tape if you ask me (and it’s my blog so… ).  Ed was ‘inspired’ by seeing a Johnny Guitar Watson album cover… on the wall of a bathroom. If you ask me there should be a rule for songs about things you see in the crapper and that rule should be: don’t. Just don’t.

Backspacer arrived at an interesting time for Pearl Jam. Reinvigorated by the response to their 2006 album the band were on the cusp of their 20th Anniversary ‘lap of honour’ which had already begun with the re-release of Ten earlier in 2009 and would soon see further re-issues (expanded versions of Vs and Vitalogy) a new live album, a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary and soundtrack and a series of ‘summer’ tours that would focus on the band’s legacy rather than new material. Not that it wasn’t deserved, more that for a time, new music felt more of an afterthought. It would be four years before their next album.

Highlights: ‘The Fixer’, ‘Just Breath,’ ‘Amongst The Waves,’ ‘Unthought Known,’ ‘Speed of Sound,’ ‘Force of Nature.’

Not-so highlights: ‘Johnny Guitar’.

 

*I was very excited about the possibility of a righteously angry Pearl Jam album being the sole positive of a Trump presidency and still am even after ‘Can’t Deny Me‘.

 

Least to Most: Pearl Jam (Intro)

Am I really about to kick off a potentially lengthy series after what has been a year of sporadic posts at best? You bet your bollocks I am.

I’ve been toying with a way to pick up where my earlier posts on Pearl Jam’s ‘lost’ years left off and cover the band’s rise and ‘glory’ years in a way that didn’t simply regurgitate what had been written so many times before – and lining up another candidate for a Least to Most series* so, as the meme asks, why not both?

As per previous and future Least to Most this is not my attempt at a critical “worst to best”,  as this isn’t a site of critique. It’s mumblings of personal thoughts and opinions relating to music. As such I’m going to be running through, in order (though certainly not uninterrupted), my Least to Most Favourite Pearl Jam studio albums.

Of key importance to note with this series is that as a massive Pearl Jam fan, even if they’re among the ‘least’ end of this rundown, it’s a fair bet that there’s usually at least two of these albums in my car or on rotation at a given time.

Let’s spin those black circles…

 

 

 

*Pink Floyd will be up to bat soon… depending on how soon I can a) listen to Saucerful of Secrets and b) decide whether Piper At The Gates of Dawn really counts as a Pink Floyd album.

Currently Listening

Here we are again. Another ‘series’ down and a couple brewing in the pot and time for a look at what (alongside continual listens to Lost In Kiev’s Nuit Noire) my auditory ossicles have been pinging on down the line of late.

The Mono Jacks – 1,000 De Da

This one was sent to my wife last week via our friend in Romania who gave me some ammo for my Out of Europe on that country and I’ve been listening to it and their new album pretty solidly since. My Romanian isn’t strong enough to offer a translation but I’m told it deals with a certain kind of… parental method that a lot of Romanians today can identify with and “represents our inner children yelling for freedom as we each carve our own paths in life”. The Mono Jacks describe themselves as sounding “between alternative rock and post-punk touches”. As the review on the band’s site says: “I’ve seen most of the British bands ploughing this particular furrow, and The Mono Jacks have better songs than pretty much all of them.”

Destroyer – Chinatown

Another example of strange ways to discover music…. I was looking at an album on Amazon a week or two back and down in the “recommended” type carousel I saw Destroyer’s Kapputt at £5 for a double lp. Out of nothing more than curiosity and intrigue after scanning the glowing reviews (numerous album of the year accolades and reviews like “an astonishing world in just nine songs” and “an open love letter to a vanished pop era: it’s unique and warm and beautiful” ) I checked it out on Spotify and was hooked and hit ‘buy’. Why it was so cheap I have no idea, but, to quote another review “a brilliant and accessible album that draws from the lush sounds of the early 1980s but never forgets the importance of songwriting”.

Band of Susans – Elizabeth Stride 1843-1888

Again – different ways of discovering music. I saw a book (I think on Instagram) that I thought might be interesting called ‘Gimme Indie Rock: 500 Essential American Underground Rock Albums 1981–1996.’ I downloaded a sample chapter and while it’s more a case of “author’s favourite 500..” the description of Band of Susan’s Here Comes Success got me intrigued and I’ve had this opening track on a lot since. There’s a really obvious late-80’s Sonic Youth element to it along with *that* guitar sound. This one actually sent me down one of those Wikipedia rabbit holes that lead to the Saucy Jacky postcard (“you’re a saucy one, Jack”). Apparently Leo Fender was a rabid fan – of Band of Susans not Jack the Ripper.

Pearl Jam – Release, 1994 Orpheum Theater, Boston, MA

Because Jim at Music Enthusiast has got me seriously considering delving deeper into a Pearl Jam series and because I need no excuse to listen to Pearl Jam I’ve been spinning the live disc that came with the Vs/Vitalogy box. In terms of Pearl Jam live albums it’s probably the finest ‘official’ release out there.

Bruce Springsteen – I’ll Stand By You Always

Again in preparation for a possible series / longer post… (my notebook is starting to fill up with these and I haven’t even touched on the 100 Essential Albums thing..) back when Springsteen was doing the promo rounds for his book he confirmed the existence of this one as having been written for, and turned down by the producers of that film about kids and magic. At the time he said that it was “very uncharacteristic of something I’d sing myself.” “It was something that I thought would have fit lovely.” Well, despite being locked down for over a decade it emerged this year on a bootleg set called Odds and Sods. Perhaps not suited for a kids movie as such it’s certainly a different take for Bruce and would probably rank quite highly on his ‘movie songs’ list. It comes from the start of a very prolific song-writing period for Bruce and while he currently squats on Broadway in another activity that keeps him from releasing any new material it’s worth a listen for fans.

In terms of where this sits with sessions and musicians…. It’s listed as “copyright June 13, 2001” so my guess is that it could be from the E Street sessions at Thrill Hill East of that spring – between the end of the Reunion Tour and the start of The Rising sessions later that year in Atlanta – that Springsteen considered fruitless but there’s so little on it in terms of ‘band’ sound that it could just as easily be a solo recording.

Love is a tower: Pearl Jam’s “Lost Years” 2000-2005 (Part Two)

A little over month on from the tragedy at the 2000 Roskilde Festival, Pearl Jam returned to the stage as the North American leg of their Binaural tour got under way. In a hotel room ahead of the first post-Roskilde show in Virginia, Vedder wrote a song  called ‘I Am Mine’ to “reassure myself that this is going to be all right”.

It’s a Pearl Jam playing to its strengths song – strong hook and melody with affirming lyrics. As Mike McCready says: “It’s kind of a positive affirmation of what to do with one’s life. I’m born and I die, but in between that, I can do whatever I want or have a strong opinion about someting.”

The tour – which would include a Tenth Anniversary show in Las Vegas featuring the debut of Vedder’s take on Mother Love Bone’s ‘Crown of Thorns’ – would wind down back in Seattle in November. The Binauarl tour also saw the commencement of Pearl Jam’s on-going Bootleg series – every show (with the exception of Roskilde) would be recorded and released as “official bootlegs” in a move designed to prevent fans being fleeced for inferior recordings of their shows. It’s move that’s since been taken up my many an artist. Instead of going back to work on a new album, Pearl Jam took a year off.

2001 saw Vedder join a list of musicians in playing five shows with Neil Finn (later captured on the worth-checking-out Seven Worlds Collide), Matt Cameron’s Wellwater Conspiracy release its third album and  Stone Gossard break cover as the first member of Pearl Jam to put out a solo album under their own name. Bayleaf was released on September 11th, Gossard was in New York doing press for it when to hikacked airliners were crashed into the World Trade Center.

When Pearl Jam returned to action in 2002 the world had changed both internally and externally. The band wanted to address these themes in their music even if “Universal themes aren’t easy to come up with when you’re just a guy and a typewriter and a guitar.”  In the aptly named Riot Act they would do their damndest and created a record full of great tunes that received barely any attention even amongst Pearl Jam fans. I know many a fan who can cite every lyric on Vitalogy but wouldn’t know a word of ‘Green Disease’ and it’s a real shame as there’s a direct line between the two.

Riot Act is an album that clearly benefits from having five songwriters with strong contributions from all. Vedder had returned from his place in Hawaii with both a mohawk (which worked perfectly for his induciton of the Ramones into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame*) and a new band member – Boom Gasper – with whom, on their first night of playing together he had written ‘Love Boat Captain’.

For my money the Adam Kasper produced Riot Act is a stronger album than Binaural. It’s tougher, it’s heavier with hook and Vedder is clearly pissed off. Take ‘Green Disease’ – a propulsive, guitar driven rocker that would’nt have been out of place on Vitalogy that tackles the culture of greed. Or ‘Can’t Keep’ – a tune that Vedder bought in as a ukelele demo that became a multi-layered slow burner with buzzing guitars that brings back memories of No Code while the punk-edged ‘Save You’ is thrashed along on a Mike McCready riff while  Eddie Vedder sings of the anger felt watching a loved one losing themselves to addiction.

For me other highlights are ‘Bu$hleaguer’,  ‘You Are’ and Vedder’s ‘Thumbing My Way’. It’s a clear signpost to where Ed was heading as a songwriter and mark the acoustic-driven direction that would come to fruition on the Into The Wild soundtrack and songs on Backspacer and Lightning Bolt that would allow the songwriter the confidence to be direct and open in his lyrics. Stone Gossard feels the song is his bandmate “getting into an acoustic singer-songwriter thing in a way that you always knew that he could. ”

You Are‘ is one of the strangest sounding songs Pearl Jam have put to tape. A really different vibe that was born out of expirmenting with a new drum machine that Matt Cameron had gotten hold of, it’s another great example of the band taking one member’s ideas and creating something memorable.**

The reception to Riot Act wasn’t that positive when it dropped in November 2002. Press was less than luke-warm and sales weren’t strong. Without a radio-friendly ‘hit’ airplay for those songs released as singles was blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. Nonetheless, in 2003 the band headed out onto the road for the first time in close to three years.  With setlists that changed nightly and made use of their extensive back catalogue and covers repetoire, the tour was a success by any measure but, for the first time, saw the band court contreversy and receive more than a few boos thanks to the inclusion of ‘Bu$hleageur’. I’ve covered this before but it’s a noteable – this dark, weaving satirical swipe at George W Bush drew negative reponses and walkouts through the tour (seriousy – did you think Pearl Jam were fucking Republicans who like blind marching to war?) but it reached a head at the Nassau Coliseaum in Uniondale:

Jeff Ament: “I was totally fine with it. I was ready to go out and open up with that fucking song every night I wasn’t going to be a part of something and then take it back. We recorded the song and put it on a record, and that’s how we felt.”

Riot Act was Pearl Jam’s last studio album for Epic Records. They rounded out 2003 with the release of Lost Dogs – a compilation of b-sides that featured many fan favourites and strong songs from the era covered in these posts such as ‘Down‘ and ‘Otherside’ – as part of their contractual obligations.

In 2004 Pearl Jam joined the VoteFor Change Tour in support of John Kerry. Live At Benoraya Hall, a mainly acoustic (thankfully McCready doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo and bought his full arsenal) set recorded the previous year was released in July and features songs from Binaural and Riot Act sitting alongside deeper cuts and ‘hits’. In this setting these songs shine and their place in Pearl Jam’s back catalogue feel established rather than those of albums that are outliers in the discorapthy as they’re so often regarded.

The final release of this period for Pearl Jam was, fittingly, a summary; the obligatory (again likely contractual) Greatest Hits. A neat little package that rounded up the rockers and the ballads in an Up disc and a Down disc with some tasty remastering of Ten tracks by Brendan O’Brien. It’s a solid compilation and I’ll still drop it in the car fairly regularly – but started a trend that continues to this day much to the chagrin of many a fan; the cropping of images to remove Dave Abbruzzesse from the picture.

2005 saw the band break the album-tour-album-tour cycle and head out for a tour without new music to promote. Just getting out and playing to audiences for the fun of it. It was a master stroke. While work was underway on the album that would become 2006’s Pearl Jam (then the longest period between albums), Pearl Jam are one of the greatest live bands still actively playing and while radio interest and sales may never recover from the 2000-2005 lull and changing mainstream, as long as they continue to put out albums of strong songs that delight live they’ll be relevent to a very sizeable audience.

I’ll finish here with the ‘new’ song on Benoroya and Greatest Hits. Written for Tim Burton’s ‘Big Fish’ it was a pretty moving song in its orginal context but after personal events last year I can’t listen to it without getting a little moist in the eye.  That’s got to be the sign of a good song if it’s that affecting and from 2000 – 2005 Pearl Jam wrote a shit load of good songs.

 

*Vedder, clearly drunk, doesn’t give a fuck. In a speech that’s just brilliant he rags on Disney and tells the crowd to fuck themselves. I can’t recall where but someone said when Jann Wenner dies his afterlife will consist of being stuck in the audience for eternity https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Oi-SKOqVHA 

** ‘The Fixer’, Pearl Jam’s most instantly accessible and lyrically direct song from Backspacer is another example of a Matt Cameron riff becomming something else in the band’s hands.