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