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

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

Fell On Black Days

Shocking news. Absolutely shocking news still coming in but; Chris Cornell, leading figure of the Seattle music scene, ‘grunge’ legend: July 20, 1964 – May 18, 2017.

Been Away Too Long

In 1997 after forging a path for the harder-edge of the ‘Seattle sound’ for thirteen years and with a handful of classic tunes and two definitive ‘grunge’ albums to their name, Soundgarden called it a day.

For a while it was a bummer. They released a compilation album at the end of ’97 that seemed like a thoroughly decent wrap-up (complete with the obligatory scrap off the studio floor masquerading as a ‘new’ track). Chris Cornell, having for over a decade been seen towering – he’s a tall chap – over the world of alternative music – released a pretty good solo effort about how shit his life is when messed up by chemicals he should know better than to touch before joining RATM members in Audioslave, delivering another collection of solid tunes then making friends with a Timbaland, making a god awful stab at playing music his voice would be ill-suited to even at its best (it’s been a ravaged shadow of its former glory for some time now), writing a Bond theme and generally becoming a parody. Matt Cameron became the lynchpin that holds the still mighty Pearl Jam together – having taken back the drum stool that he’d filled when the then-untitled group put together the fabled demo that was to reach the ears of Eddie Vedder – and Kim Thayil and Ben Shepherd essentially shopped their services around with guest spots and short-lived group efforts.

It’s strange but it seemed like the lack of Soundgarden as an existing band wasn’t a bad thing. I don’t recall a conversation where anyone said ‘damn I wish they were still making music’. To be honest it seemed like they’d fulfilled their purpose and, while it was dramatic at the time, the demise of these forbears wasn’t such a ‘cut down in their prime’ and that it was probably better to have done so than carry on until sales declined and their legacy diminished.

And yet it would seem nobody told them this. For, sure enough, in 2010, Soundgarden ‘regrouped’. Queue reunion concerts, ANOTHER compilation album and even a live album over an eighteen month period. Now a Soundgarden live album sounded like a great idea except that Live on I-5 was recorded from shows on their awful 1996 tour and sounded like a quickly produced, poorly realised and pointless cash-in. Almost as much as the ridiculously named Telephantasm compilation that preceded it. As if to highlight how unlikely and un-required this one was it was shipped out as part of the Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock game. Something that revealed what’s really going on here.

Soundgarden were a force to be reckoned with. From Ultramega OK through to Down On The Upside they lead the way. No music lover is without Superunkown and Black Hole Sun still dominates ‘Best of the 90s’ type lists and video run-thrus. However, the importance of Soundgarden and its acknowledgement is one that seems to have escaped the band during its initial lifetime – of course not, in 1997 when they called it a day they were still current. It’s only with the benefit of a decade’s hindsight that people look back on the scene and their role was really noted. So while bands like Pearl Jam are still forging ahead and forward in style and hence never out of the spot-light, Nirvana’s sudden rise and dramatic end ensured their place in the lexicon and yet those same kids that wear the iconic smiley t-shirts weren’t having the importance of Cornell & Co hammered home.

King Animal

zzzzzzzz

Which is what it feels like the recent releases from the Soundgarden camp reek of: We’re important too – LOOK! Here’s another best-of, here’s a live album – we’ve got a new album coming soon and so we’re still relevant. Indeed, how best to grab this new generation of music buying youth’s attention than to get slapped in with the Guitar Hero game? Hell, it worked for Aerosmith right and they’re close to Jurassic in age. And here, I believe, is my problem with it: it feels forced and is being forced onto everyone.

The new album was streamed a few days before it’s release and I had a copy of it on my iTunes shortly after that. It’s not there now. I listened to it. I gave it fair chance. I ignored the ridiculous title and G0d-awful artwork and opened my ears as only someone who’s on their second copy of Badmotorfinger can. Yes, I loved Soundgarden. I was hoping for it to be great and to show that Live On I-5 and Tele.. were just poor record company decisions. I was wrong.

King Animal is dull. It lacks the originality and fire that used to ignite Soundgarden albums. There’s no sense of purpose to this collection of songs other than “look, we’re here still and called Soundgarden” only it’s more “we’re here now and called Soundgarden just like that awesome band in the nineties were; we deserve attention”. Once a song starts you know exactly how it’s going to go, how it will get to the end and that, really, you don’t need to hear it. There is zero surprise. It’s riffs by numbers and Cornell’s bellow is now akin to a lion cub imitating a roar as loud as possible yet without any real balls or feeling behind it.

What’s worse is the amount of build up and media whoring that’s surrounded it. Pearl Jam have been hyping it out – given that Cameron is still a serving member that’s no surprise, emails from music press and label and the band have been bludgeoning my inbox with news and teases of riff-heavy snippets from “the new album by the legendary Soundgarden”. It was already huge and important before anyone had heard a full song! I’m not making this up – people were giving it 5 star reviews on online stores while it was still on pre-order and not a note had been heard – just because it’s Soundgarden. One comment I distinctly remember was “people who hate this are just stuck in 1994.” True, 1994 was a great time for Soundgarden but I also love Down on the Upside and there’s been a whole lot of music released since then that makes me go gooey inside. No, those that don’t like King Animal aren’t stuck in the past – they’re simply those who were hoping for a good album, not a reheat of decade old stodge.

You cannot release an album and have it become amazing just because you say it is. An album should be great by its own merits not just because it’s by a group that defined a genre and happen to have made it. They can’t make an album great just because it’s made by Soundgarden. Had Cornell, Thayil, Shepheard and Cameron spend a year coming up with an album that was fresh, tight, vital and solidly original then that praise would be deserved. Had the album been chock full of the dynamics and variety that earlier work was then yes, hat’s should be off. King Animal is not that album. It’s tired even before the first song ‘Been Away Too Long’ – “oh look! Look what they did there with that song title! YES YES YES you have been away too long”, please – is finished.

The overall feeling from this album is that it’s just another few songs that will be stuck between Rusty Cage and Spoonman while the crowd look for a breather before shouting along to Fell On Black Days on the inevitable huge ‘we’re here still’ tour that follows. King Animal and the reunion surrounding it feels like a case of “we’re Soundgarden, we were important, pay us, we like the idea of acclaim but cash will be fine.”

Sorry but this sits up there with Smashing Pumpkins’ Oceania in terms of let downs from the years big releases from big bands. In fact, it’s more of a led down for at least Corgan is writing off the past and trying to do something new rather than simply expecting plaudits for what he did twenty years ago. Let’s be grateful Mark Lanegan isn’t feeling the need to grow his hair long again and give Gerry Lee Connor a call.

This is a bit of a negative post. Feel better, remind yourself of why Soundgarden needed to try harder: