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 – “I’m already cut up and half dead”

Ok – I’m halfway through my run down of Pearl Jam’s ten studio albums so this feels like a suitable place to take a knee and have a look at those albums that bear the band’s name but wouldn’t feature in the list: the live and compilation volumes.

For those who have been playing along at home, those studio albums covered thus far:

10. Backspacer
9. Binaural
8. Lightning Bolt
7. Riot Act
6. Pearl Jam

Compilations

Now in terms of ‘Best Of’s and ‘Greatest Hits’ type releases this is going to be a real quick and succinct round up: there’s only one. Rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991–2003) is a two-disc, contractual requirement, set that splits the band’s output into ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ volumes. I’m not too sure what the criteria for each of these is though as I would’ve pegged ‘Given To Fly’ and ‘Breath’ as being every bit as ‘up’ as ‘Corduroy’ but hey ho. As an introduction to Pearl Jam and for a good go-to in the car it’s pretty ideal and, in amongst the more well known songs are a few surprised inclusions while the presence of ‘Man of the Hour’ and ‘Yellow Ledbetter’ make for a solid compilation. It’s perhaps telling though that the vast bulk of this compilation (all but 5 of the 33 ) – . What’s more of note is that in the 15 years since the period this compilation covers there’s been just 3 studio albums  vs the 7 released in the 12 years it covers. Bloody slackers.

Live

Still, while we, as Pearl Jam fans, are in a relatively barren period for new studio material the band has become one the best live acts still regularly hitting the road and manages near-Springsteen length sets of ever-changing set lists. In the nearly three decades that separate their current tour and their first show at Seattle’s Off Ramp on October 22, 1990 their show has evolved from tight, intense performances to marathon like sets that run the gamut of tempos and mood with surprises and deep cuts thrown in among those ‘classic’ songs that were once the only songs they had in their repertoire.

So – does one of the most incredible live acts still in the game have a the appropriate incredible live album? Well, no, not really. Since their decision* to put out ‘Official Bootlegs’ of every show since 2000** there are approximately 18,000 live Pearl Jam albums out there….. not quite but almost. The bootlegs are perhaps the only way to get a real, highs, lows, warts and all document of a Pearl Jam show but unless you want to get lost in among them all there’s no real way to identify what will make one better than the other. For my money you can take you pick from any of the band’s 2006 tour and you’ll be hitting gold – peak performance and sets mixed with then-new material, classics and deep cuts.

However, in terms of the general, non-self released  front there’s still a good choice out there. Live on Two Legs was the band’s first such album and captured them on their 1998 tour in support of Yield – it’s probably the best one out there if you’re looking for a single-disc intro to the band I’d recommend it over the Rearviewmirror greatest hits set: there’s no ‘Alive’ or ‘Jeremy’ but you’ll get ‘Red Mosquito’, ‘Untitled’ and a ripping take on Neil Young’s ‘Fuckin’ Up’.

As part of their PJ20 celebrations, the band tried to recapture the success of their first live disc with another general-release live album – Live On Ten Legs. A little less tightly focused, this one compiles performances from their 2003–2010 world tours and, while the band are still undeniably tight and in charge, there’s a little more of a grab-bag feel to this one. The same could also be said of last year’s Let’s Play Two. Released as a ‘live’ album to coincide with the DVD of the same name, this one feels like a real missed opportunity – the band’s shows at Wrigley Field in 2016 had some really strong setlists but here Danny Clinch (who helmed the DVD) seems to have selected the weaker cuts and has structured it in such a way as to lose any real sense of flow or continuity. Still – there’s a great take on ‘Release’ and any show that opens with ‘Low Light’ gets a thumbs up from me.

Of course, if you want to go the full Live/1975–85  route then Live at the Gorge 05/06 – it’s a seven-disc document of the band’s three shows at the venue in 2005 and 2006. There’s a few repeats, of course, but there’s a lot of solid gold here and plenty of deep cuts.

If you want to get a good feel for Pearl Jam live – it’s got to be Live On Two Legs. However – if you’ve  got a little bit more time then you can’t go wrong with Live at Benaroya Hall. This two-disc set was recorded at the end of 2003 is a predominantly acoustic set (though Mike McCready often forgets that) which captures the band in a beautifully intimate setting and is packed with great takes on the well known, the lesser known and a few then-unreleased takes.

Odds and Sods

Pearl Jam’s b-sides were the stuff of legend. I remember, when I first got into the band, discussing songs like ‘Footsteps’ and ‘Hard to Imagine’ like they were lost gems. The band’s b-sides and rarities compilation Lost Dogs dropped in 2003 contains is a pretty decent collection of these. There’s the older classics already mentioned along with ‘Wash’ and ‘Alone’ along with newer cuts saved from the studio floor like ‘Down’ and ‘Otherside’. Those newer cuts – ‘Fatal’ is highlighted as producer Tchad Blake’s favourite from the Binaural sessions – serve more like the missing pieces that could have turned luke-warm albums into scorchers while some – ‘Sweet Lew’ and ‘Gremmie Out of Control’ – feel like padding and are really only for completists. As much as I give this one a regular spin, there’s a single disc’s worth of pure gold here amongst some ‘meh’.

But I’m omitting one thing. For the best of all of these – live cuts, studio solidity and rare deep stuff, one compilation is worth investment: Pearl Jam Twenty. Essentially a soundtrack to the Cameron Crowe film of the same name, Pearl Jam Twenty is a great listen. Predominantly a collection of live tunes, it combines more recent recordings with a take on ‘Alive’ from a show in 1990 when the band were still called Mookie Blaylock, a scorching ‘Blood’ from ’95 and early demos for tunes like ‘Nothing as it Seems’ and ‘Given to Fly’ to give a really strong, full-picture document of the band as it rounded off it’s second decade in business and remains on heavy rotation.

*An attempt to provide fans with a lower-priced, higher-quality recording of a show compared to the many bootlegs that were doing the rounds may not sound like the most business-savvy idea but they’ve shifted about 4 million of the things since 2000 – which is about 4 million copies shifted than Riot Act,

**Notable exceptions to the rule include the Roskilde Festival in which nine fans lost their lives.

 

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Pearl Jam

“It’s the same everyday and the wave won’t break
Tell you to pray, while the devil’s on their shoulder”
World Wide Suicide

During the tour for Riot Act Pearl Jam began to take a lot of flack and boos for daring to play ‘Bu$hleaguer’. At Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, the reaction was particularly adverse but the band persevered and were emboldened by the reaction. As Jeff Ament said “I actually walked off stage and felt great. That was a brand-new experience. Killer. We got booed standing up for something we wholeheartedly believed in.” So much so, in fact, that Pearl Jam joined Bruce Springsteen, REM and a host of other bands on the Vote for Change Tour in 2004 in support of John Kerry’s Presidential run and, for a brief moment, it looked like the tide may turn against Bush.

However, come November 3, 2004, Vedder “didn’t get out of bed. However, while I couldn’t get myself out of bed, I heard that Springsteen on that day was making a call to someone he makes records with, saying ‘I have to make a record.'” When Vedder and Pearl Jam did get to the studio a few weeks later the tunes came out on fire: ‘Life Wasted’, ‘Comatose’, ‘Severed Hand’ and what would become ‘World Wide Suicide’ all came from the bands first sessions for their eighth studio album.

And yet… while there were a good dozen songs being worked up, it began to be clear to the band that, by early 2005, the album wasn’t on track to be ready by the end of the year.  “I think that came from the guys affording me the extra time to write, and my needing more time to write,” Vedder would later recall. There was also the fact that Vedder had a child during the process. So, for the first time in their history, Pearl Jam broke the album-tour-album-tour cycle and headed out on the road for a series of shows with no new music to promote. Realising that simply playing shows without the onus of promoting an album could prove a lot of fun, the shows from this tour sound like a band at its peak and they’d continue this practice in years to come. “We were separating the touring aspect of the band from the recording process. We could go out, be Pearl Jam, and tour.”

New songs would be debuted – ‘Gone’ was first played in Atlantic City the day after it had been written -and honed as well as written – Mike McCready demoed one of his finest songs, ‘Inside Job,’ on Vedder’s tape machine in South America – during the 2005 tour and the shows from this tour are well worth checking out.

When recording sessions got back under way and the new material began taking shape from the 25 songs written, it became clear that this was a very targeted album with Vedder’s lyrics aimed squarely at voicing his disgust at the Bush administration “through telling stories… an observation of modern reality rather than editorializing, which we’ve seen plenty of these days.”

It also started to look like album eight was turning into that divisive rock staple – A Concept Album. It was only sequencing that prevented it: “We tried one [sequence], and it just absolutely didn’t work. That was the one that told a story…. You could have tied it all in with a bit of narration… It was interesting to think, ‘Severed Hand’ – is that the same kid who ends up being the army reservist?”

When Pearl Jam released their eighth album in May 2006 it didn’t have a title – “In the end, we thought there was enough there with the title of the songs, so to put another title on the album would have seemed pretentious. So, really, it’s actually Nothing by Pearl Jam.” The album that fans would refer to as Avocado* was released on J Records – still a major, Sony-owned label (probably why it’s proven impossible to find videos to embed in this one, those litigious bastards) – and was their second produced by Adam Kasper. It’s their most aggressive, straight-ahead record since Vs, represented something of a comeback in terms of both quality and commercial appeal, launched a tour that I would argue captured the band at their absolute peak and – much like Vote for Change Tour alumni Springsteen’s ‘Bush album’ Magic – is a real late-career gem.

‘Life Wasted’, ‘World Wide Suicide’, ‘Comatose’ and ‘Severed Hand’ make for as hard a hitting opening series of tracks as the band have ever put to tape and bristle with a raw edge and determination that had been missing from the band for a couple of albums at this point. As Gossard said: “It doesn’t sound slick or that we polished it for too long. That’s the main thing, really, politics aside. The song just has some energy in it.”

 

Elsewhere on Pearl Jam, ‘Parachutes’ has a No Code vibe to it and it, along with ‘Come Back’ – the album’s sole ballad -and ‘Gone’ deal with more general, universal themes. Personally I love a huge amount of this album and think it’s the last consistently solid album the band have made to date – there’s not a song here that I’ll skip when playing and I still crank it up loud.

Granted; the diversity that made some of their earlier albums so compelling is missing, but the force and energy that enthuse this baker’s dozen of songs is undeniable. There’s a real ‘classic’ feel to this album and the tour that followed showed just how seamlessly these songs blend with the strongest elements of their back catalogue. Of the many Pearl Jam bootlegs in my collection, a good six or seven are from the 2006 tour and represent some of their finest shows – especially the five shows in Italy that would be captured on the Immagine in Cornice DVD and the Turin concert that featured the new album played through in its entirety.

I remember when Pearl Jam first dropped, having the distinct impression that it would be a ‘grower’. That’s definitely true. In the ten years plus that have passed since its release this album has certainly grown on me with every listen and new details appear with each investigation. I’m not sure why I don’t rank this one higher in the list – perhaps it is the lack of diversity in the sound. Then again: I’ve recently been spinning the 2017 remaster which was remixed by Brendan O’Brien which adds a significant amount of extra heft to the sound… but then I’m basing this on original versions otherwise I’d need to go back to the drawing board.

Highlights: ‘Life Wasted’, ‘World Wide Suicide,’ ‘Severed Hand,’ ‘Army Reserve,’ ‘Inside Job’.

*Mike McCready: “That symbolizes just kind of … Ed’s at the end of the process and said, ‘for all I care right now, we’ve done such a good job on this record, and we’re kind of tired from it. Let’s throw an avocado on the cover.’ I think that’s what happened, and our art director goes, ‘hey, that’s not a bad idea.’ I think we were watching the Super Bowl, and we had some guacamole or something.”

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’.

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.

 

And wherever we might go: Pearl Jam’s ‘Lost Years’ 2000-2005 (Part One)

In February 1998 Pearl Jam released Yield. It marked something of a comeback for them; it was more straight-ahead than the wilfully restrained No Code, saw the band release their first music video since 1992 and, with the Ticket Master battle lost, marked a return to full-scale touring (documented on Live On Two Legs, released that November). At one sound check that autumn they recorded a song for that year’s fan club Christmas single*. When it began picking up airplay on radio the following year Pearl Jam’s cover of ‘Last Kiss’ soon went into heavy rotation and ended up hitting No. 2 on the charts, giving them their biggest hit to date.

They ‘d be entitled to take a break at this point, to catch their breath and attend to life off the road but then at this point they hadn’t quite learnt how to do that** and they carried on into the new millennium and a period which would see acclaim and sales diminish further than they had with the release of No Code and events that nearly marked the end of the band.

As companies the world over and religious sects and cults realised that the ticking of the clock into a new millennium meant neither massive technological meltdowns, raptures or Armageddons weren’t happening, all was not well in the Pearl Jam camp. The band’s not-so-secret weapon Mike McCready was battling addiction to painkillers and sessions for Binaural were marked by his absence as well as Eddie Vedder – who, though intensely guarded about his personal life, was experiencing both the worst case of writer’s block he’d encountered and divorce. As such, Vedder has since referred to the recording of Binaural as being “a construction job”.

Perhaps they should have taken that break. I mean, after all, Binaural shifted less than Yield and has still to make the million mark and Riot Act has still moved less than half of what Vs shifted in its first five days alone. Are they that bad? No, in short, they’re not. In fact I’m here to argue that for both the uninitiated and the initiated (I still know Pearl Jam fans that haven’t listened to Riot Act), there’s some real gems to be found in this era.

I’ll hold up Binaural‘s first single ‘Nothing As It Seems’ as an example. Written by  bass player Jeff Ament, it started as a very dry, basic demo. He took it to McCready and told him that for the song to happen, the guitarist would need to go to town on it. He did.

Now perhaps I am a little biased in my views as Binaural was the first ‘new’ Pearl Jam release since I’d gotten into the band but I do love this song and while it’s most definitely a headphone album (thanks to the binaural recording technique you’ll need both buds in), live this one, like so many others, comes into its own and McCready’s work on it is guaranteed a rapturous response.

For my money – and I remember the surprised face on the tube on the way to see the band at Wembley when I voiced this opinion to those I was travelling with – Binaural is very much a second-half album. The faster songs that open it don’t quite suit the recording technique even with Brendan O’Brien’s mixing efforts but the second half, from ‘Light Years’ (itself a lovely song and one I’m always surprised by when it comes up on playlists – ‘how could I forget this one?’) on contains some of the juiciest things the band have put to tape.

Insignificance‘ is up there with ‘Corduroy’ as one of the band’s best mid-tempo rockers and I remember it ripping the roof off Wembley Arena. ‘Soon Forget’ marked the introduction of Vedder’s ukulele and cleared his writer’s block, ‘Of The Girl‘ – which started out as a bluesy riff from Stone – is the best use of the binaural recording technique on the album and ‘Sleight of Hand’, a mediation on being stuck in a routine and dissatisfied with one’s life,  is the realisation of the band’s most art-rock aspirations with its effects and wall-of-sound blasts in the chorus:

In hindsight the band 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.”

Indeed – released later on Lost Dogs – songs from the sessions like ‘Fatal‘, ‘Education’ ‘Sad’ would certainly have added a different angle to the album than, say, ‘God’s Dice’.

Upon release  Binaural was received pretty favourably by the press and while the sales weren’t what they were used to be and radio had already shifted what little focus it had given the band to acts incorporating the scratch of turntables into rock, Pearl Jam did what they’ve always done – headed out onto the road. A tour of North America was lined up but, first, they’d venture to Europe to play a series of arena shows – I caught them when they played Wembley in May –  and festivals including Pinkpop in the Netherlands and to Denmark to play the Roskilde festival.

During ‘Daughter’ the 50,000 strong crowd continued to surge forward. The band had made many a plea for the crowd to take a step back and, realising something was wrong, stopped playing. “It was chaos,” Vedder has said. “Some people were yelling ‘thank you.’ Others, who weren’t in bad shape, were running up and saying ‘hi.’ Then someone was pulled over, laid out and they were blue. We knew immediately it had gone on to that other level.”

Eight young men aged between 17 and 25 had been killed in the crush and bodies were being passed over the barricades as the band and fans stood and watched in horror. A ninth man would die in hospital five days later.

The remainder of the European tour was cancelled and, not knowing how to move forward, the members of Pearl Jam considered retiring. 

 

*Since 1991 the band have released a fan-club-only single every holiday season (with the exception of 1994)

**When Jack Irons joined the band he was both impressed and surprised by their work ethic. Work on No Code had kicked off during a heat wave and immediately after a massive show. Iron’s was understandably knackered and, frankly, fancied a rest. The band didn’t yet know the importance of doing so and were too keen to keep pushing forward with the momentum and energy of the tour.

Soundtracks: Singles

The Film: 

Singles is a pretty decent little film. I say ‘little’ as it’s not one of those huge studio jobs involving comic book heros and arse-quaking explosions that are clogging up cinemas these days like so much backlogged faecal matter. No, it’s a charming film made for a modest budget ($9m), held in pretty strong regard amongst critics and fared pretty well at the box office ($19.5m) and has gone on to an even stronger after-life on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray etc.

An exploration of relationships in their bloom, chaos, flourish and collapse amongst a group of those young folks at the time called Gen X. It’s a solid and often funny film that was Cameron Crowe’s first step away from those teen-angst films such as Say Anything. It also happened to be set in Seattle, in 1992 with one of it’s characters, Cliff (Matt Dillon in a role that Crowe had tried to get Chris Cornell to play*), the singer of a grunge band – called Citizen Dick (which also featured Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Eddie Vedder) – and events play out against the backdrop of the then ascending Seattle music scene of which Crowe (formerly a writer for Rolling Stone) was a dedicated fan.

The Soundtrack:

So the soundtrack… it arrived a few months ahead of the film’s release and was a huge hit as these things go, going top ten and selling over two million copies. It featured new songs from Pearl Jam who were starting to break through, Alice in Chains’ ‘Would?’ made its debut on the album along with a song from Soundgarden and a Chris Cornell solo tune.

It served not just as an amazing primer to the city’s nascent music scene but features some great songs from non-Seattle bands such as Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins and two absolute belters from Paul Westerberg only months after The Replacements had called it a day, ensuring, in its way, that these songs would not be shoe-boxed as ‘grunge’ but would be shown amongst the a much-wider alternative rock scene.

Noticeable by their absence among the other 3 of the Big 4 is Nirvana. Nevermind hadn’t dropped while Singles was in production and while musicians such as Ament and Cornell amongst others, were very involved in the film’s production (more to come), Kurt viewed ‘Hollywood’ as something to be steered very clear of. It’s also likely that Warner Bros – who would need to approve the soundtrack participants – didn’t see Nirvana at the time as a commercial viability. Oops. Still, they changed their mind on that front when, as studio politics and games meant the film suffered a delayed release by which time Nevermind had hit. So Warner Bros thought ‘let’s try and cash in’ and floated the idea of releasing the film under the name ‘Come As You Are’ instead. Even sending the band a copy of it to seek approval. Thankfully it never happened…

So, back to the soundtrack. It’s a killer selection of Seattle and Alt-Rock tunes, yes. But it’s not just a near-perfect mix-tape that I’ve damn-near worn out. The songs also fit the scenes they’re used in, too. As Campbell Scott’s Steve walks around Seattle it’s Cornells ‘Seasons’ that keeps him company and when he needs to let off steam he does so by going to Alice in Chains or Soundgarden shows and losing himself in the crowd.

Plus, according to Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge (a must-read), the royalties and monies received for being part of the soundtrack helped an awful lot of bands that never scaled those heights reached by Seattle’s Big Four, with some using the funds as mortgage down-payments. If I recall correctly, Mudhoney – who were late arriving to the soundtrack ‘party’ – recorded their song, ‘Overblown’, for a fraction of the pretty sizeable budget and kept the rest.

Touching back on that involvement for a second…. Three of Pearl Jam’s members featured as Matt Dillon’s Cliff’s band mates. At some point, however, they’ve ditched him and a deleted scene showed him giving it a go solo:

For a bit of authenticity Jeff Ament designed the Poncier tape. He added a handful of genuine-sounding song names to the label too*. Perhaps because he’d been unable to find time to play the role or simply because he was a nice bloke, Chris Cornell saw the list of songnames and took it upon himself to record a song for each of the titles. Of the Poncier Tape songs only ‘Seasons’** made the film and its soundtrack, initially.

Now though the Deluxe Reissue of the Singles soundtrack is with us. It collects those missing Poncier Tape songs (amongst which an early ‘Spoonman’ can be enjoyed) and couples them with a few other songs that didn’t make the cut the first time round to flesh out the included bands roster to bring in Truly and Blood Circus. For my money it’s not a bad set of additions but the single-disc will serve all brilliantly. That being said, Westerberg’s ‘missing’ songs are a welcome addition to my collection. Citizen Dick’s own ‘Touch Me I’m Dick’ isn’t what you’d call a highlight.

I’m running through a few Cameron Crowe films and their soundtracks in my head – Jerry Maguire (which made a hit of Springsteen’s ‘Secret Garden’), Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, even Elizabethtown which was itself a bit of a dud film had a stellar musical accompaniment – and it’s a safe bet to say that the man doesn’t make a bad one and really knows how to get just the right tune into the right place. Singles, his first attempt at a more serious film, is also a perfect example of that.

*All too often in ‘music’ films the song names or actors with musical instruments are as convincingly ‘real’ as a pair of tits on Baywatch.

**For those curious it’s FCFCCF