PEARL JAM. PEARL JAM, AGAIN.
About a year ago, the members of Pearl Jam sponsored a turtle, Backspacer, in the great turtle race held in (where else?) the pacific northwest. Pacific leatherback turtles face the threat of extinction, and the race is designed to raise awareness for their plight. Backspacer, Esteban, Billy, Grembo Jones, Cali and 6 others made their way south along the Pacific coast, taking part in what was, for them, a epochal tradition, practiced by their ancestors as far back into antiquity as one might venture to wander. Despite having started the race “further back than any of her competitors," on April 27, 2009 Backspacer crossed the finish line first!
On that very day, as Pearl Jam was in Brendan O’Brien’s Atlanta studio putting the finishing touches on their aptly titled new record, bassist Jeff Ament and a couple of crew members were mugged and robbed of more than $7,000 in cash and assets. Ament was left bleeding from the head and I believe he required medical treatment. Goodness gracious!
This record did not come easily. After 17 years and seven records with Sony’s Epic label, and a one-off, one shot self titled record on J Records, Backspacer marks the first time that the band can claim to be truly out on there on their own.
What Pearl Jam have managed to do with this, their ninth studio album, is something quite extraordinary, indeed. Sort of. From a business and logistical standpoint: fascinating. Musically: pretty damn impressive, two listens in...
The first news of the new record, save for rumblings of being “in the studio” from the band’s website, came in the form of a secret concert held in a small Seattle venue, where one Mr. Cameron Crowe was said to be in attendance, directing video recording of the band performing to an intimate crowd, for three purposes. The film would be used to create the video for the first single from the record: The Fixer. Additionally, footage would be used for a forthcoming video release celebrating and documenting 20 years of Pearl Jam. Lastly, it was mentioned, the video would be used to create a commercial for Target, Pearl Jam’s new business partner dujour.
Wait. What? Did you just say that Pearl Jam, railers against all that is greedy and dark in this world and the next, have teamed up with TARGET, exclusively, with this new record??? There must be a mistake! Alas, there is no mistake, and legions of fans, eager for new music from the band, did a double-take and tilted their heads like confused little puppies.
Upon considering the deal that was made, and seeing exactly what it meant for the band and fans alike, I would venture to guess that most die hards accepted the deal as being savvy, wise, necessary, and impressive. Pearl Jam maintains their publishing rights, of course, and their exclusivity with Target only goes as far as the other big chains are concerned. So no, Johnny Guitar, you won’t be able to pick up Backspacer at the local Wal-mart, or Best Buy, or, I bet, even @ Border’s or Barnes & Noble. However, if you want to swing by Bert’s or Rainbow Records next week, the album should be there for your grubby little hands.
So the deal lines up that Target is the exclusive big-box, and the record is available at any and all interested mom and pop, local record stores. PJ is able to sell the record through iTunes and similar places apart from the Target deal, and also they are able to sell hard copies of the album directly through their website. From Target, they receive promo, national big box distro, and an unheard of $5/disc. When on Epic records, the band likely received somewhere between 50 cents and $2 per record, to put this # in context. Staggering.
This new found freedom from record label fiefdom has allowed the band to do other interesting promotional runs. Last week, as the album's release drew near, the band, via Twitter, posted a number of pictures of independent record stores, in which the first person to present themselves there would win a free limited edition Fixer 7" on orange vinyl. Weeks ago, the band released their album artwork via an online contest, in which participants were encouraged to scour the internet for the nine Tom Tomorrow images that make up the cover artwork. Once these nine images were assembled (from sites such as Rolling Stone & Spin, Yahoo, Wired, and elsewhere) one could view the artwork as a whole, as well as download a demo of Speed of Sound, from the new record. This is a good choice of demo, because the solo acoustic demo sounds much different than the studio version done by the full band, and hence, provides an interesting juxtaposition and an insight into the song crafting process.
The next big swing in the pre-release promo buzz came with the release of the first single, The Fixer, and subsequently its aforementioned video. Critics had a field day detailing the song as Pearl Jam’s happiest, most optimistic groove ever, and it is difficult to argue the point. The previous winner in this category, in my mind, would be Riot Act B-side “Down” which is a spectacular number, but is, after all, titled ‘down.’
This raises an interesting issue. For the past ten years, every Pearl Jam release has been met by a gaggle of reviewers eager and anxious to compare their latest offering to their initial one, 1991’s seminal and groundbreaking classic Ten. In most cases, at least with the last three records, reviewers have breathlessly panted their belief that the band has finally returned to form, and has turned over a new leaf in terms of their relationships to music, their fans, and each other.
The occasional casual observer continues the lament that no Pearl Jam record has ever equalled the spectacular magnitude of Ten. I would disagree with both of these assessments. Ten is in no way the best album put forth by the band. And although I don’t know which album I would personally award the honor of being considered ‘best’ I would say that Ten likley does not break the top five. It has some great songs, including the three songs (Alive, Evenflow, Jer'my) which catapulted PJ to the vaunted position they maintain today. But that record is thick and heavy, and remixing the album for the deluxe reissue could only do so much to soften the unseemly, reverbish metal sound brought forth by initial producer Rick Parasher.
Vs. is utterly magnificent, shoving the words ‘sophmore slump’ straight down our negative little gullets from the first chaotic chords of “Go” through the violent wailings of “Drop the Leash!” and finally through the soft dark ruminations of “Indifference.”
Vitalogy is a bit of a hodgepodge, the result of intraband turmoil that left much of the record to be fleshed out by Mr. Vedder on his own. At times, this makes for great music. At other times, it makes for Bugs. Of the first three albums, this has been recognized as Danny's least favorite. Highlights in rock include: Last Exit, Spin the Black Circle, and the Whipping. Highlights in soft balladeering include: Nothingman, Immortality. And the mega-hit highlights: Betterman & Chordoroy. With so many quality grooves, it is hard, in the end, to disparage this record too much. But many, most even, might mark this as the point at which the point of departure for Pearl Jam begins.
The boys followed up a couple of years later with No Code. This is definitely the apex of Pearl Jammian experimentalism, with the first single, Who You Are, sounding as if it was procured directly from the dinnerplate of Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn. Of course, this is meant as one of those sly, backhanded compliments... but still. The record has fantastic songs like Sometimes (Timmy’s favorite), Hail Hail, In My Tree, Red Moquito, Lukin, and even more!
Yield was next, in 1998, and this marked the time when I officially got “back into” Pearl Jam. I had strayed a bit, as it took until about 2000 or even later before I could truly come to appreciate the utter genius that was No Code. Our paths had diverged, as I delved into punk rock in the mid nineties, just as they took their turn toward experimenting with organic loops and soft convoluted ruminations. With Yield, it all came back together. Brain of J starts off this record in true rock form, and I even got Sandro to admit that it sorta rocked, minus, of course, the guitar solo, which turned him off. The next song on the record is the beautiful ‘faithful.’ It is slow and seems kinda boring at first, but it was this song that really locked me back in with Pearl Jam. I remember listening to the record for the first time, and upon hearing this second song, with its initial verse, extensive chorus breakdown, and second verse, I thought to myself “god damn they better end this song now” and sure enough they DID!
I expected them to kick into another chorus, which would inevitably be boring for a song so long. But they avoided this brilliantly and in that moment, kept me as a fan. Well played, gentlemen.
Next up, a different kind of experimentation, with Binaural. The record was an attempt to use Tchad Blake’s unique recording style and blend it with the Pearl Jam sound. I don’t think the band was particularly thrilled with how things turned out, turning to Mr. Brendan O’Brien for a last minute remix. Still, the songs are top notch, with rocker’s like Evacuation, Grievance, God’s Dice and Insignificance. The slower numbers do the job as well. The highlight of this album for me is its utter prescience. It plays like the first post 9-11 album, released 5-16-2000. I think this record was the first to attach itself to the “Pearl Jam is back!” meme that persists through the newest release. (Although, as I just read on wikipedia, Yield "was proclaimed as a return to the band's early, straightforward rock sound." So it started even earlier...) Still, Binaural highlights an emerging pattern that has been present since the release of Ten. With every Pearl Jam record, there are songs that are fantastic, and then there are a couple that just fall a bit flat. Sleight of Hand is definitely my least favorite song on this record. Its slow and trance-like machinations just don't do it for me, and serve as the poster child for exactly what it is about Pearl Jam that does not thrill me. Still, the lyrics are good, but overall it just doesn't mesh.
I want to call 2002's Riot Act my least favorite record, but when I go back and look at the track list and the # of songs I like, it is easy to make an argument that it should be one of my favorites. Green Disease is one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs of them all, and there are other gems like Thumbing my way, Save You, Love Boat Captain, I am Mine, and Cropduster. Lacklusters include: Help, help; 1/2 full (this song is sort of awesome but just lacks something....can't put my finger on it); You Are, Bushleaguer. This record was recorded almost completely live, which gives the overall sound a sense of loose urgency, which may work against the great songs to produce a weaker product. Perhaps.
“The Avacado” record, Pearl Jam’s self titled release of a few years ago, is a strong performance from a group of guys who wear their collective experiences on their musical sleeves. Or, rather, they are a band that SOUNDS like they’ve been together for 15+ years. I really liked this record when it came out, and I still do. But it does fall victim to the same fault that is the achilles heal of any Pearl Jam record: great, great songs padded with a couple that just don’t live up, at least in my eyes. On every record, there are 2-5 songs that just don’t quite do it for me, completely. I like them fine enough, but if push came to shove, I would leave ‘em, not take ‘em. The greats from this album: Comatose, WWS, Severed Hand, Marker in the Sand, Come back, Unemployable, Parachutes, Big Wave. For an album with 13 songs, this is a big list of good songs. But a couple of the others don’t quite measure up in my eye. Lyrically, these weaker songs are sort of wonderful, but musically and overall they don’t cut my mustard.
So this brings us to September 20, 2009. Initial sense: typical, and brilliant. The record really does shine with the beautiful optimism of a band that no longer feels tethered to the viscous political wranglings of the past eight years, or the formal fiscal responsibilities of a mammoth record label. As with every Pearl Jam record, there are some great songs here. The first single, The Fixer, is as bright, cheery and poppy as critics have suggested, and you’ve likely heard it somewhere already, whether it has been on WMMR or some similar station, the credits of the MLB All Star game, or elsewhere.
The second song on the record “Got some” seems to tie the game of dealing musical rockers to the game of dealing drugs. This is an apt metaphor, highlighted by the laments of the protagonist in the albums opener “Gonna see my friend.” You may remember “Got Some” from Pearl Jam’s June 1 appearance on the opening night of the new Tonight Show. They rocked it there, although the vox seemed a little low and it wasn’t their greatest performance ever. Still, it was good, and the version on the record hits hard and keeps hitting. Gonna See My Friend is another solid rocker, starting the album off right with pounding drums and bouncing guitar, all overlayed by them vocals Murph has come to love so much. ;)
Johnny Guitar rounds out the opening salvo as track 4, and does so with a swing kick groove reminscent of some real swooner punk rock. It's a little slower than a punk number, per se, but has enough energy to keep the kids boppin, generally. "I had my disappointment 'cause for years I had been hoping that when she came she would come for me."
The band stops to just breathe after this, with a very, very aching song called Just Breathe, pulling the heart strings with lamentations on the shortness of life and the suddeness of death, and the gaping hole left in between. Usually for me, it is these slower songs that leave me dissatisfied on a PJ record. There are definitely some of them found here. But Just Breathe is slow and sad and utterly beautiful, and just might be the best song on the record.
In 1996 when I was 16, I got my driver’s license and hit the road! In one of those early days I drove down the road, and put on WYSP 94.1 in the middle of a song I did not know. It was Red Mosquito from the as yet unreleased No Code record. Before any lyrics were sung, I said to myself “this is a new Pearl Jam song!” I could just tell by the sound of the guitars and the overall taste of the music, despite it being a bit different than your typical PJ song.
This same type of thing is true with Just Breathe. As soon as you hear it, you know: this song was written alongside the songs Mr. Vedder wrote for the Into the Wild soundtrack. It just has that sense, that sound. And this is a good thing. It fits right in, and as I said, it is brutally heartwrenching.
I was, of all places, at Target over the weekend last week. I had some purchases to make, and I waltzed on past the music section, where they were selling the Fixer 7” single. Despite having heard the song numerous times over the internet, and despite knowing I would have the entire record to listen to quite soon, I just couldn’t help myself, and bought it for the ole vinyl collection, and for the B-side Supersonic, which I had not yet heard. Brought it home, dropped the crooked arm, and liked what I heard. Much like the Fixer, the Pearl Jam that performs Supersonic is a cheery Pearl Jam indeed. THIS is likely the most optimistic, happy Pearl Jam you’ll ever hear, and it makes for good music. The Fixer is top notch, despite its differentness. Supersonic is tolerable as well, awesome even, but it is just strange to hear PJ going in this direction. I like it, overall, but it is gonna take a little getting used to. They really put the pedal to the perky!
When I first listened to the album's last song, The End, I was struck with its awkwardness, and had a similar reaction to the aforementioned situations with Yield's Faithful. The song end's with Vedder softly squealing a series of rhyming couplets in a way that is pushing the boundaries of cool. That being said, just like in the past, they win you over immediately with one of their best album endings ever, as Vedder sings away: "I'm here... for not much longer" the song ends for the rest of the band @ "I'm here" leaving just the vocals to whisper "for not much longer." No clever outro's, no histrionical flares, just a man breathing out his final lines as the world falls silent around him.
Pearl Jam has, with this ninth album, done something different, and that is commendable. They've simplified their sound, and they've brightened up a little. That being said, in terms of themes, the last few albums have focused heavily around the concept of love, whether it is in Riot Act's Love Boat Captain where we hear that while it has "already been sung, can't be said enough: love is all you need. All you need is love..." or on the Binaural's opener (Breakerfall) "There's a girl on a ledge she's got nowhere to turn cause all the love that she had was just wood that she burned... but only love can break her fall" and lastly, on their self titled offering, Parachutes offers "and war,.... Break the sky and tell me what it's for
I'll travel there on my own... and love, what a different life had I not found this love with you."
With many other examples of this overriding leitmotif available, I stop where I am. But my point is, it is hard to describe a band that is so caught up in love as a "dark" or "brooding" animal. And in that regard, this newest record, along with its most recent counterpart, carry a heaviness with them that comes not from some dark, angry, megalomaniacal place, but rather, comes from an aching and longing over lost friends and death that is palpable. The last record was dedicated to one Mr. Johnny Ramone, amongst others, and his absence in the world is felt heavily on this record as well. The subject of love is still evident through the thread of the lyrics, and a new relationship and children has given Vedder even more reasons to sing about it. But sometimes, when I am alone with my thoughts, I let out an audible sigh as I consider the lost memories stolen by lives cut too, too short. I can hear that same sigh in the buried in the crevices of many of these new songs.
The new album rocks, where it rocks. I can't get enough of "Got some" with its lyrics like "Precipitation: which side are you on? Are you drying up? Are you a big drop? Are you a puddle full of detrimental?" And the Fixer, which I have already heard ad naseum, has not quite gotten old yet, and lyrics like "when something's old I wanna put a bit of shine on it. If something's lost I wanna fight to get it back again!" keep me coming back. Where it is slow and contemplative, it scores big points as well. Just breathe is one of the best slow and contemplative PJ songs ever, and The End is a great song, with a great ending and a great set of lyrics, as well. But the record falls short where so many PJ records before have as well: the mid tempo ballad. Some on this record are already starting to grow on me, such as Speed of Sound. But these songs bleed together, and the album feels like it could use one more "rocker" towards the end of the record, despite the excessively upbeat Supersonic as track #8. I like this record a lot, and the live show will no doubt strengthen this sense when the band visits Philadelphia for 4 nights in October to close out the Spectrum. If I am lucky, I will get to go to one of these shows, and I will no doubt be singing along fervently to the new songs, rockers and mid-tempo ballads alike.
Ten: A- Best tracks: (Porch, Once, Oceans)
Vs.: A+ (Animal, Leash, Small town)
Vitalogy: B+ (Last exit, Spin the black circle, Nothingman)
No Code: A+ (Hail, Hail; Lukin, In my Tree, Present tense)
Yield: A (Given to Fly, Do the Evolution, mini fast car, In Hiding)
Binaural: B+ (Grievance, Insignificance, Soon forget)
Riot Act: B (Cropduster, Green Disease, Save You, I am Mine)
Pearl Jam: A (Comatose, Severed Hand, Parachutes)
Backspacer: B+ (Got some, Just Breathe, The Fixer)