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Sunday, March 13, 2005
Pearl Jam was essentially formed from the remnants of another Seattle band, Mother Love Bone. When that band collapsed following the overdose death of vocalist Andrew Wood in 1990, guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament (who had played together in 80's proto-grunge band Green River with Mark Arm of Mudhoney) formed a new band, briefly called Mookie Blaylock. Lead guitarist Mike McCready was recruited, and they got temporary help on drums from Soundgarden's Matt Cameron. A demo tape was made, which was sent to surfer dude Eddie Vedder in San Diego, who overdubbed vocals. Dave Krusen was brought in as permanent drummer, and this lineup recorded the band's debut, Ten.
Ten was released in 1991 but didn't really take off until 1992, after Nirvana's Nevermind blazed the course, inspiring interest in the whole Seattle scene, which came to be called Grunge Rock. Once Pearl Jam was discovered, they took off, eclipsing even Nirvana in sales.
There was a very intense rivalry between Nirvana and Pearl Jam fans in those days. Nirvana owed more of a debt to punk, and went for sloppy immediacy. Pearl Jam took its cues from 70's hard rock and metal, and came up with crafted, hooky hard rock.
Both were important bands, and history will give Nirvana the nod for leaders of the scene, but Pearl Jam had something special, too. Eddie Vedder's rich, hearty, expressive voice is one of the most instantly recognizable in rock, clear and articulate over a bedlam of grunge noise.
Krusen left the band in 1992 and was replaced on drums by Dave Abbruzzese. Throughout the year, the Lollapalooza tour, MTV, and constant radio airplay turned them into bigtime headliners. Abbruzzese would eventually be fired and replaced with Jack Irons (ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers).
And here is where the story gets interesting. Pearl Jam developed a reputation as a band of impeccable integrity; almost every career move they've made since then was one designed to bolster this reputation, often with very real financial loss for the band.
For their second album, Vs., they refused to release any videos or singles. They released their third album only on vinyl; in two weeks it managed to reach #60 on the charts anyway; when it was then released on CD it shot to the top of the charts. On their 1994 American tour, they refused to play stadiums, and played tiny venues, even college campuses. In 1995 the band backed Neil Young on Mirror Ball, a melding of old and new that seemed to revalidate both careers.
Then came their quixotic battle against Ticketmaster; refusing to abet Ticketmaster's "rip-off" practices, the band set up a tour outside of the established ticket distribution system. The tour was not a success, due to problems in finding venues outside of Ticketmaster's empire and problems in distributing tickets themselves. They ultimately lost their battle against Ticketmaster, a humiliation.
They changed after this disappointment. Later albums like No Code and Yield were willfully experimental; quiet, textured, insular. They sold well to the cult, but nothing like the old days, and slipped off the charts quickly. The late 90's found the members working increasingly on side projects. Binaural was released in 2000, to lukewarm reception, and Riot Act (2002) is the last word we've heard from them. Other recent releases include 75(!) live albums in 2000-2003, to combat bootlegging.
Pearl Jam earns its reputation with their very first release, the excellent, and now classic, Ten. The pre-Ticketmaster stuff is top drawer, too. Their later albums are all worth hearing as well; while they don't have the aural wallop the first few had, they all bring some interesting new directions to the table. What the future holds for these mavericks is unclear.
Tonight's randomized playlist: all titles by Pearl Jam in my library, a pool of 57. First ten tracks randomly selected by Media center are profiled, Jam Tags, 1-5 stars, follow.
1. Pearl Jam: Do The Evolution *****
We kick off with one of the best cuts from Yield. This noisy clang of a tune has a strong garage band vibe running through it, with pounding, discordant guitars giving way to an uncharacteristically punky vocal from Vedder. McCready chips in a fuzz line straight from the 60's, the song has repeated shifts in tempo, Vedder's voice is filtered and distorted, and the chorus is louder and more chaotic each time we reach it, until Vedders' screams and the distorted feedback become nearly indistinguishable. All without betraying their grunge roots. For a band people were giving up on at the time, this is a strong workout.
2. Pearl Jam: Animal ****
This opens with a roaring riff that vaguely recalls Even Flow, but instead reveals itself to be a powerchord-fest, with Vedders voice a forlorn foghorn through it. This is primo grunge, right here, the pure stuff. McCready's solo in the middle is all over the place, recalling the 70's heavy bands, the 80's speed bands, and helps shape grunge itself. The tune ends in a rude clatter and clang of percussion.
3. Pearl Jam: Not For You ****
By Vitalogy, Vedder had acquired a broader range for his voice. No longer simply bellowing over the din, he gained a bit of soul, and a wider, more expressive vocabulary of inflection. Here, he almost resembes a lower-register Ozzy Osbourne or Jack Bruce. A mid-section with synthesizer belies this band's attempts even then to redefine themselves outside of the grunge pigeonhole. Jeff Ament provides a particularly fluid and melodic bassline during a quiet lull right before the last assault.
4. Pearl Jam: Alive (live: Memorial Stadium, Seattle 7/22/98) *****
This is a beloved song among Pearl Jam acolytes. For one thing, it has one big fat giant singalong-able hook for a chorus. For another, it revealed Eddie Vedder at his most sensitive and unguarded; this naked piece of autobiography chronicles the time Vedder's mother told him about the father he didn't know he had. It's hard not to be affected by the emotional wallop of this tune, nor to find affirmation in the I'm still alive chorus. Not sure where this particular version comes from; it's professionally recorded with excellent fidelity; it may be a CD single track.
5. Pearl Jam: Footsteps ***
This is a bonus cut from the Japanese issue of Binaural, not on the American one. This is a rough sounding acoustic number, featuring just Vedder and McCready. Vedder's voice is as expressive as ever, but in some ways, this exemplifies the problems with their later work. While the singing is great, the lyrics are fuzzy and impressionistic; it's hard to see what has him so worked up here. Not worth shelling extra dough out for a Japanese disc, but if it turns up somewhere else, a completist should probably grab it.
6. Pearl Jam: Garden ****
From the arguably unmatched debut, Ten. This starts quietly, with delicate quitar work and gentle vocals before band and Vedder crank it up full volume. This is perhaps what Pearl Jam could do best; segue from soft to loud and back again, without causing any whiplash; they make it seem as organic as the flicker of a campfire. McCready gives a firecracker of a solo here, sounding like Eric Clapton minus any blues. Gossard's classic rock sounding riffing recalls Black Sabbath to a degree.
7. Pearl Jam: Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town *****
Within this particular playlist, this almost sounds startling. A clean sounding waltz with a tuneful and irresistable melody and sway to it. Vedder is equally at home with folk-like material such as this, and McCready, Gossard, and Ament give this an equally sweet touch. Once again the band displays that its abilities are greater than the confines of grunge could comfortably accomodate. While they'd revisit this lyrical vein again in their career, it rarely sounded as crisp and fresh as it does here.
8. Pearl Jam: Yellow Ledbetter *****
For the longest time, you could only get this on the Jeremy CD single. This is the closest to bluesy the band ever got, and McCready's playing is extremely reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix circa "Little WIng" here. Vedder is in fine form here, sounding wistful and lonely, a perfect compliment to the accompaniment. This is the sound of the band at their peak, just beginning to stretch out.
9. Pearl Jam: Better Man *****
Another tremendously moving tune, this one was Vitalogy's most played cut. Opening with a lonesome scrape of feedback, it begins with Vedder singing a tale of utter loneliness with tenderness, accompanied only by a single electric guitar, with a little atmospheric organ wash. Nearly two and a half minutes into the song, we finally get the full band. They bring it home with tuneful clarity, sounding alomost like a fuzzy jangle pop band. A personal favorite.
10. Pearl Jam: Smile ****
Fresh off backing Neil Young on Mirror Ball, this has Young written all over it. Opening with a crunchy guitar that could be the ghost of Crazy Horse, and harmonica, with even Vedder sounding a little like Neil, this sounds like the Crazy Horse Neil Young used them as stand-ins for. This also has a good, bring-it-on-home chorus that shows band and singer in tuneful form.
It had been a while since I had given these guys a listen; hearing this playlist reminded me of why I liked them in the first place. Whatever their faults --fuzzy lyrics, fuzzy sound, fuzzy politics, self-righteousness-- they've always backed them up with talent. They've outlasted all of their competitors, and demonstrated a willingness to approach each new session with integrity. Let's hope we haven't seen the last of them.
Very solid list and accounting of the band's history. One correction: PJ released Riot Act in 2002, which included at least one track ("I Am Mine") worthy of consideration for any playlist.
Excellent! Thank you so much! My personal favorite on Binaural was "Nothing As It Seems". This group is the Rolling Stones of Grunge. Now that you've opened this can of worms, you will have to think about Temple of The Dog.
Good summary of Pearl Jam's tortuous career. Impressions of PJ's albums vary widely between casual listeners and fanatics (like myself). "Ten" and perhaps "VS" are about all casual listeners know and/or like whereas fanatics put later albums like "Yield" and "Binaural" at the top of their lists. The excellent commentary on the songs makes it clear why we devotees go to extraodinary lengths to catch PJ on stage.
Great job on the list, only one problem I have with it was your comment on the song "Footsteps". I personally think that the lyrics, though there isn't a lot to them, represent what he is trying to say quite well. You don't have to be so blunt to make a song meaningful to someone. Something a lot of people don't always pick up are a lot of the references to depression that Pearl Jam has. Such as, "Indifference" from Vs.
The lyrics in "Footsteps": "I've got scratches all over my arms, one for each day since I fell apart" can be easlily interpreted as depression. Now, I'm goin on a hunch here, but the song Rearviewmirror sounds a lot like Vedder is singing about being abused. I assume it's by parents because of the line "Fist on my plate" which is of course implying that this person got a fist or beating for their meal. I believe but with no real certainty, that one of the members in the band had depression of some kind. Since they've had references to it throughout their entire career it couldn't be any of their drummers. I'm assuming that it could be Gossard, considering he wrote the words and music to songs like "All Those Yesterdays".
Footsteps could be pertaining to one of the members having abusive parents as a child, and I only make that assumption based on the song Rearviewmirror. Could it be Goassard? I don't know, I'm going to leave it up to you.
Hmmm, interesting post, anonymous, I never really looked at that song that way before. You could well be right about it, I need to give it a re-listen.Post a Comment
Truth is, this was one of my earliest artist overview posts, and it really needs to be re-done; I plan to when I get some time.
I'll mull over your thoughts on this; I appreciate your comments a lot.