Icon: Pearl Jam
When Pearl Jam finally compiled a catalog-skimming greatest hits collection in 2004 – a decade after the demise of Nirvana, six years after they stole Soundgarden’s drummer and nearly 15 into their platinum-lined career – they really should have considered changing its title from rearviewmirror to We’re Still Alive. After all, who would’ve thought they’d be grunge’s Last Band Standing back when Kurt Cobain called the Seattle vets ‘sellouts’ and Eddie Vedder was swinging from the rafters like a flannel-wearing freak in their infamous “Even Flow” video?
Not only are Pearl Jam survivors of countless modern rock movements; they are a band that’s as Important-With-a-Capital-I as U2, whether that amounts to blasting George Bush, supporting incredibly divisive issues (Pro-Choice organizations, the environment, Ralph Nader) or spitting in the collective eye of the concert industry in a very public pissing match with Ticketmaster. All in the hopes of – Rolling Stone‘s words, not ours – “deliberately tearing apart their own fame.” Or at the very least, MTV’s version of what fame entails, from vapid music videos to stylist-flanked cover shoots.
Like their longtime hero Neil Young, Pearl Jam are focused on rocking in the free world…so long as it’s on their own terms. Musically, that’s meant a catalog that offsets its obvious singles (most of Vs. and Ten) with accidental hits (“Better Man,” “Yellow Ledbetter,” the Young-backed “I Got Id”) and art-damaged asides. (We still don’t understand why Vitalogy – a truly underrated brush with brilliance – includes a Ween-like tribute to “Bugs,” a seven-minute noise collage about getting spanked, and the TMI tidbit that Vedder would “never suck Satan’s dick.” Thanks for clarifying, brother!)
Meanwhile, Alice In Chains have sparked a second career with a new singer, and a ‘reunited’ Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots have struggled to appear as anything but a cash-grabbing, walking wax museum of Generation Angst. Guess Kurt called out the wrong guys, huh? – Andrew Parks
In Chronological Order
Here's something that makes me totally and irrationally angry - and living in Portland, Oregon, so near to grunge's Ground Zero, I do continue to hear it said, more than 18 years after the album's release: "Ten sure has a lot to answer for: Matchbox Twenty, Everclear, Candlebox, Creed, hell, that whole brand of manly 'testosterone/action rock' can be directly traced to that album."more »
Well, sure, but does that automatically make Nirvana responsible... for ripoff artists like Silverchair and Bush? Should we blame Led Zeppelin for the waves of crappy guitar-based bands that slavishly aped all their loudest, most macho moves, but completely missed the nuance, the light and shade, that made them great? It's a moronic argument: Ten stands proudly beside such epic works as Who's Next, Everyone Knows This is Nowhere, Are You Experienced? and Let It Bleed as one of the finest guitar albums ever, while serving as a sonic starter's pistol for a band who've evolved, grown and turned into one of our most cherished artistic touchstones during the two decades they've remained a going musical concern. If others chose to imitate the elements that made it the classic it was, what could Pearl Jam do about that?
What you can still hear most clearly on Ten is the sound of personal pain filtering its way through a then-unheard mixture of Black Flag and Black Sabbath, with a classic-rock sheen applied on the back end and a sly, Prince-like groove curling its way through the album's hook-laden riff-a-rama. Guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament had just lost their Mother Love Bone compatriot Andy Wood to a heroin overdose, singer Eddie Vedder was clearly channeling some demons of his own (Ten's lyrics touched upon such seldom-heard topics as abortion, suicide, psychiatric hospitals, childhood family traumas and the sort of doomy introspection more often associated with Ian Curtis or Robert Smith), drummer Dave Krusen drank his way through the sessions (eventually he would leave the band and check into rehab), and the group's songs spelled out in no uncertain terms the cathartic release all of them seemed to require at that moment.
The subsequent public response to Ten was slow at first, but fans eventually lapped it up by the millions; the band toured relentlessly behind the record while turning in some legendarily incendiary live shows in the process; the singles "Alive," "Even Flow" and "Jeremy" turned them into radio and MTV megastars - launched the so-called grunge movement as a mainstream cultural phenomenon and made Pearl Jam superstars in the process, a turn of events they struggled to come to terms with (and spent much of the subsequent decade attempting to live down). But there's no denying, even now, that Ten's finest tracks ("Even Flow," the sublime "Black," the closing anthem "Release") are as resonant and unique today as they were back in 1991, before they'd launched a million imitators hoping to combine the band's ear for melody with its equally weighty gift for authentic interpersonal connection.
The re-release of Ten adds some interesting b-side curios ("State of Love and Trust," "Just a Girl," "Brother," "Breath and a Scream," "2,000 Mile Blues" and "Evil Little Goat") but doesn't necessarily make it any better than it already was - no matter the cloak it wears or the adornments fitted onto it, Ten remains its generation's finest addition to the classic-rock canon. - Corey DuBrowa
Most bands welcome fame. As Vs. proved, Pearl Jam is not one of those bands. When Ten hit it big, they opted to retrench. Instead of building on the messianic sonic cathedrals constructed by Ten producer Rick Parashar, the group went with Brendan O'Brien. While the future Bruce Springsteen collaborator was best known at the time for making Stone Temple Pilots sound very PJ-esque, O'Brien gave Vs. a more immediate and... rootsy sound that would make him Pearl Jam's go-to producer for many albums to come. Affable acoustic ballads like "Daughter" and "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" went a long way towards establishing that vibe, as well as giving Pearl Jam's commercial viability some legs in a world that was about ready to move on from grunge. (Coincidentally, the best of the three bonus tracks on this reissue - an acoustic version of B-side "Hold On," and a cover of Victoria Williams's "Crazy Mary" from a 1993 tribute compilation, are kissing cousins of these kinder, gentler Pearl Jam tracks. "Cready Stomp," the third bonus track, is a decent enough grunge-funk instrumental.)more »
The results were decidedly more mixed when Pearl Jam decided to kick out the jams. In between future setlist staples like "Rearviewmirror," "Go" and "Dissident" were all sorts of left-turns and dead ends: the primal-scream rage of "Blood" and "Animal," the condescending Public Service Announcements of "W.M.A." and "Glorified G," and the society-scolding Michael-Jackson-quoting I-really-hope-they're-joking "Rats." No member of the group was more affected by Pearl Jam's newfound popularity than Eddie Vedder, and the scattershot nature of his lyrics on Vs. certainly reflects that. For better or worse, Vs. proved that Pearl Jam was a group willing to follow the beat of its own drum. - David Raposa
If Pearl Jam's previous album didn't successfully separate the diehard fans from the dudes expecting "Even Flow" 24/7, then Vitalogy certainly tried to finish the job. While it featured some of the group's best and most beloved songs - thoughtfully defiant anthems "Corduroy" and "Immortality," and the evergreen pop ballad "Better Man" - it also featured some of the group's strangest. And I'm not just talking about Eddie Vedder's spoken-word accordion-driven paean... to the wonderful world of insects. Nor am I talking about the oft-mentioned, rarely-listened-to seven-minute sound-collage that concludes the original album. As with the other Pearl Jam reissues, bonus tracks are tacked on to the album proper. For Vitalogy, that means three alternate takes of album tracks, with the guitar/organ version of "Better Man" outshining the only-vaguely different takes on "Corduroy" and "Nothingman."more »
Despite the scattershot nature of the album - with an off-kilter rock tune like "Satan's Bed" sandwiched between polar opposites "Bugs" and "Better Man," and a proto-punk ode to vinyl ("Spin The Black Circle") sharing album space with a slithering instrumental like "Aye Davanita" - Vitalogy manages to cohere, ultimately as satisfying as it is confounding and uncompromising. Pearl Jam probably didn't know they wouldn't see the top of the Billboard charts for 15 years after Vitalogy, but by the sound of this record, they probably didn't care, either. - David Raposa
Coming after the surly, restless Vitalogy, No Code finds Pearl Jam continuing to expand their sonic palette. As its name implies, the band is operating without deference to any kind of sonic rulebook; thusly, the album veers from thrashing Husker DÃƒÂ¼-isms to grizzled classic rock to lowing ballads laced up with Sufi chanting. But unlike its similarly adventurous predecessor, more of these forays pay off. "Smile" is a charred-around-the edges stomper worthy... of PJ's beloved Crazy Horse; "Off He Goes" inverts the gentle arpeggio from the Beatles' "And I Love Her" and uses it as a backdrop for a tender tale of an old friend fallen on hard times. Eddie Vedder's simmering discontent - which on Vitalogy gave birth to some particularly grievous fits of self-pity - no longer manifests itself in agonized contemplations of human powerlessness. Instead, Vedder seems more earnestly dedicated toward finding his way in a world that will never be fair. In the storm-the-gates "Hail, Hail" he sings, "I could be new - you underestimate me," and later, over ominous fret buzz in "Present Tense," he says, "You can't spend your time alone/ redigesting past regrets/â€¦makes much more sense to live in the present tense." The fiery defiance of angry youth generally leads to one of two outcomes: either frustrated self-destruction, or more tempered methods of resistance, leavened by pragmatism and allowing for possibility. No Code warily but hopefully chooses the latter. - J. Edward Keyesmore »
Binaural is a solid record hobbled by two drawbacks: 1) mortifyingly two-dimensional production that nearly flattens McCready and Gossard's guitars into dueling sine waves, and 2) the soft-fall sensation that Binaural represents the moment where Pearl Jam ceased to matter to a large portion of the world. In outline, Binaural is the same sort of record as Yield; a mix of garage-rocker rave-ups, mid-tempo folk rockers, a sprinkling of tasteful diversions (the... ukulele ditty "Soon Forget," the rumbling saloon blues of "Rival") with pointedly democratic songwriting credits from most of the band. There are some powerful moments: The ballad "Light Years" is as open-hearted and vulnerable as Vedder had been in years; "Thin Air" is a pleasingly direct Everly Bros.-style pop tune; and the righteous, mangy "Rival," obliquely inspired by the hate-crime beating of Matthew Shepard, proved they still had bite. If it all added up to less than the sum of its parts this go-round, well, chalk that up to the passage of time. - Jayson Greenemore »
Riot Act is the most contemplative, insular record of Pearl Jam's career; for the first time, they seemed to be speaking almost entirely to themselves. As such, it is the most overlooked, underappreciated moment in their discography. In its muted tone, the PJ record it recalls most powerfully is actually No Code, but this time, Vedder and the band feel genuinely comfortable in their own skin. The surfer-Zen koan "I Am Mine"... could be a gently affirmative echo of "Who We Are," right down to its modal chord progression. The similarly raga-like "Can't Keep" arcs gently upward to Vedder's pointed declaration "I don't live forever/ You can't keep me/Here." The specter of death, always a sad theme in Pearl Jam's career, looms over Riot Act: It was the first record since nine Pearl Jam fans were crushed to death and suffocated underfoot by a crowd at the Roskilde Festival. On the swelling multipart suite "Love Boat Captain," Vedder references it mournfully and directly: "Lost nine friends we'll never know/ Two years ago today." The song, held aloft by a graceful Hammond organ, remains one of their late-period masterpieces, the sound of a tragedy-scarred band embracing its crags. - Jayson Greenemore »
It's no coincidence that, after 15 years, Pearl Jam waited until Album No. 8 to go the eponymous LP route. With the releases of rearviewmirror (a generous, albeit flawed, two-disc best-of) and Lost Dogs (an equally generous and flawed two-disc odds and ends collection), they concluded their association with Sony subsidiary Epic Records. Also, this record was the group's first album of new material in nearly four years, the longest they'd ever... gone between albums. Their distance from the oblique one-two punch of Binaural and Riot Act, coupled with their non-stop touring schedule, put the group in a decidedly no-frills rock 'n' roll mood when they re-convened with Riot Act producer Adam Kasper for this album's sessions. The finished product bears that impulse out. Singles like "World Wide Suicide" and "Life Wasted" find Pearl Jam doing their best imitation of their younger selves, successfully melding the full-on anger of their youth with the wisdom and focus they've since acquired. Unfortunately, this well-intentioned nostalgia trip also finds Eddie Vedder temporarily regressing as a vocalist. On otherwise capable tunes like "Comatose" and "Big Wave," his unfettered bellowing, while definitely impassioned, acts as a runaway steamroller. When the vocal nuance and restraint Vedder has carefully cultivated over the previous decade comes to bear on an unabashed blues number like "Come Back," it makes its absence on those other tracks that much more apparent. Given Pearl Jam's messy artistic growth, though, it's only fitting that an album named after the group, as good as it is at times, is imperfect in a noble manner. - David Raposamore »
Live Albums and Compilations
In terms of song selection, the biggest surprise on Live On Two Legs (the group's first of many officially sanctioned live releases) might be the relative lack of Ten representation: It only gets two slots out of 16, and both of those tracks ("Black" and "Even Flow") are in the back end of the setlist. Despite that minor quirk, the Legs set doesn't lack for The Hits; if anything, it's disappointing that... the non-album tracks are limited to "Untitled" (an ersatz intro into "MFC") and their righteous cover of Neil Young's "Fucked Up." Both "Elderly Woman" and "Betterman" are included, as are the singles from No Code and Yield, while the group stretches out the outro of "Daughter" to let Eddie Vedder sing lyrics from Neil Young's "Keep On Rockin' In The Free World" and his own "W.M.A." Musically, the group sticks to the script, though the addition of a new cast member (then-temp drummer Matt Cameron) does add some wrinkles. He doesn't show off at the expense of the tunes, but still manages to find space to flash some skill and make his mark (especially on "Corduroy" and "Hail, Hail"). If this tour was meant to be an ersatz audition for Cameron to join the group, he passed with flying colors. - David Raposamore »
As an actual front-to-back listening experience, Lost Dogs makes like a decade-spanning collection of outtakes, B-sides and other ephemera. It takes until the start of the second disc for any semblance of flow to emerge. In fact, a solid case could be made that disc's first nine tracks - among them, Binaural outtake "Fatal," "Dead Man" (the group's rejected contribution to the Dead Man Walking soundtrack), some fan-club singles cuts and shoulda-been... Vitalogy cut "Hard To Imagine" - are all the outtakes a Pearl Jam fan would need. But that would exclude their spirited Who homage (via Holland-Dozier-Holland nugget "Leaving Here"), a spirited run through surf-rock standard "Gremmie Out of Control," and two tracks that also found themselves on the group's best-of: their chart-topping cover of "Last Kiss," and alt-rock radio staple/shameless Hendrix homage "Yellow Ledbetter."more »
If there's anything definitive to take from Lost Dogs, it's that the group cut a whole lot of tracks during the Binaural sessions. Six of the 31 tracks here - all previously unreleased - come from the making of that album, and a case for inclusion on the LP proper could be made for most of them. On the other hand, Jeff Ament's "Magic Johnson" rewrite called "Sweet Lew" (as in Alcindor, aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) might have been better off forgotten. At least it finds another RHCP knock-off, the Ten-era B-side "Dirty Frank," to befriend on the back end of Disc 2. Some folks might bemoan the exclusion of the two-song Merkin Ball EP or other fan-club offerings (among other omissions), but this thorough collection of has-beens, nice-tries, and what-the-hells more than does its job. - David Raposa
In Their Tree: Associated Acts
Listening to the scant amount of material recorded by the Seattle glam-punk act Mother Love Bone can often trigger feelings of, "What if?" What if, instead of passing away of a heroin overdose shortly before the release of his band's debut album, the grandiose Apple, lead singer Andrew Wood had lived? Would the band's gritty, yet achingly vulnerable take on arena rock have supercharged a cultural movement toward glitter eye shadow and... platform boots? Would pleather have taken the place of flannel? Would Eddie Vedder still be surfing?more »
Mother Love Bone's music existed on a precipice between the larger-than-life hard rock that was just starting to fall out of favor in 1990 and the bleaker, more low-end-heavy music that would eventually be dubbed "grunge." But the catalytic factor was Wood, a self-proclaimed disciple of Freddie Mercury and Marc Bolan who laid all his romantic dreams - of grandeur on the stage and in the bedroom, of meeting a woman who's "just like me, only beautiful" - absolutely bare in a way that, at its best, remains absolutely unnerving even on multiple listens.
To be fair, Wood was backed by a top-notch band that helped drive along his vision: Bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard, late of the legendary Green River and later of the grunge-era icons Pearl Jam, helped lay the foundation, and squealing solos by Bruce Fairweather added the requisite amount of flash. (A live version of "I'm In Love With My Car" floating around proves that Wood's dreams of being Freddie Mercury Mach II would have been ably assisted by his bandmates.) Songs like the chugging "Heartshine" and the stormy "Mr. Danny Boy" stalk and preen, with Wood's slightly nasal vocals exhorting the audience to "value love supreme"; at his best, his frontman style was not unlike that of a particularly exhortative street preacher, someone encouraging as many followers as he possibly could to follow him to other astral planes.
"Capricorn Sister" shows the band at its apex, with Wood's vocals multitracked in such a way that it sounds like his subconscious-inspired rantings are being beamed in from space while a trashy, wahing lead guitar skulks around in the background. (Note that the track also represents one of the few times in the history of rock when a band shouting out its own name actually works; this is probably because of the chaotic glee inherent in the track, as shown by liberal use of the wah pedal and Wood, at one point, letting loose a cackle.)
The posthumous collection encompasses Apple and the bulk of the 1989 EP Shine, which has slightly rougher production (not to mention a Ricky Ricardo imitation from Wood). It closes with the two-part epic "Chloe Dancer/Crown Of Thorns," which is probably the band's most well-known composition thanks to Cameron Crowe's tendency to include it on his films' soundtracks and Pearl Jam's live versions; it's a resigned ode to romance, one that sings of "my kind of love/ the kind that moves on/ the kind that leaves me alone" as it builds to its climax with a big old jam session, the kind that could stretch out for days. That it has to end eventually is, of course, inevitable; that Mother Love Bone's career came to the premature close that it did, though, remains sad to this day. - Maura Johnston
Here's the primordial slime out of which grunge crawled: the album, EP and compilation tracks that comprise the discography of a 1984-1987 metal-ish punk band (or perhaps a punkish metal band), named after a Washington State serial killer and populated by hair-tossing dudes who went on to Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Temple of the Dog, Mother Love Bone and Love Battery. As you might expect, the songwriting isn't quite there yet, and the... recording has a great big mid-'80s drum sound that hasn't dated well; Green River were more about attitude and style than craft. (The two covers here are the Dead Boys' "Ain't Nothing to Do" and David Bowie's "Queen Bitch," both by artists who invented dangerous identities for themselves - it's clear why a band interested in transgression, and trying to hone a sound that didn't quite exist yet, would be drawn to them.) But there are plenty of hints of what was to come, especially in Mark Arm's guttural yowl - his future Mudhoney bandmate Steve Turner co-wrote "Swallow My Pride," the song here that points the way forward most. - Douglas Wolkmore »
While this album is the first time that the core members of what would become Pearl Jam - former Mother Love Bone members Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, guitarist Mike McCready, and surfer-dude vocalist Eddie Vedder - got together in a studio, and also served as an unofficial preview of the group's post-Binaural line-up (with then-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron), this album is primarily about Chris Cornell. He formed the one-off group with... Ament and Gossard following the death of Mother Love Bone frontman Andrew Wood (Cornell's friend and roommate), wrote all of the album's lyrics, and wrote the music for all but three songs on the album.more »
For people that only knew Cornell's work from Soundgarden - remember, the group had yet to record Badmotorfinger - the strength and breadth of his songwriting on Temple of the Dog must have come as quite a shock. The rock-god poses he strikes on the album's two direct tributes to Wood ("Say Hello 2 Heaven" and "Reach Down") are nothing new, but this time around they come with a sense of humility and self-awareness. Meanwhile, slippery tracks like "Wooden Jesus" and "Your Savior" offered a glimpse into the interesting detours Cornell would soon take with his other group. This isn't to say that the Pearl Jam part of the Dog didn't make itself known. Apart from Vedder's vocal turn on "Hunger Strike," the Gossard/McCready connection gets made during the lengthy breakdown section of "Reach Down," and "Pushin Forward Back" (with music written by Ament and Gossard) offers a inadvertent preview of what Ten would soon offer to 10s of millions of listeners. - David Raposa
A 1995 collaboration with Neil Young, a skeptic could argue that Mirror Ball captures all the worst aspects of grunge: the macho pounding, the sea-shanty rhythms, the overdone guitar effects and solos, But those things are true of all rock & roll in general, so what can you do?more »
"Song X" is a big opener, a proclamation That This Will Be Rock, but "I'm the Ocean" actually follows through on the promise. Most... of the record sounds like Young trying a bit too much to solidify his Godfather of Grunge title, but this song is simply a great Neil Young song, made better by Pearl Jam's youthful fire. It's enhanced by the sudden appearance of Eddie Vedder as a back-up singer midway through, his first of a very few appearances on the album.
"Truth Be Known" is also great, instantly inventing country-grunge without batting an eyelash. The record builds to "Peace and Love," Mirrorball's one duet between Young and Vedder. (It makes you wonder what Vedder was doing during those sessions - was he a brooding coach?) There are also a lot of guitar solos because this was an age where you had to play a lot of guitar solos.
There is one other keeper: "Throw Your Hatred Down," a nicely paced rocker that finds Young in a permanent snarl but stays jaunty all the same. - Yancey Strickler