Eddie Vedder – [Album]

Sunday, 29 May 2011

The very touchstone in the Pearl Jam catalog that keeps Ukulele Songs from coming off as a complete left-turn into self-indulgence is precisely the element that calls into question the worthiness of the effort. “Soon Forget,” off of Binaural from way back in 2000, was an Eddie Vedder solo track in all but name, showcasing the frontman as left, quite literally, to his own devices; no band, not even a guitar to hide his by-then-well-tempered “jovially misanthropic” persona. Here was a man alone with a ukulele and his moral superiority. It’s a fine song and one that probably deserves a little better than its slotting as that album’s penultimate track. What could have been a nice break in proceedings for the band was instead relegated to the status of a gimmick and shoehorned in before the run-time wrapped. The question, then, is of what happens when the non sequitur becomes the status quo.

Vedder has displayed various faces throughout his career. In the last twenty years, he's played the role of Pearl Jam frontman and iconic lone gunman – a chameleon whose outward appearance seldom changes beyond occasionally shorter hair and perhaps a clean flannel. The narrator on “Soon Forget” is of similar lineage as the goofy raconteur found rambling his way around “Bugs” and barking through “Lukin,” spouting such wry profundities as, “Counts his money every morning/The only thing that keeps him horny.” The song may serve as a dry run for the full commitment Vedder devotes to the ten originals, five covers and one instrumental found on Ukulele Songs, but there’s a seriousness to these songs that suggests a level of craft beyond the pretty blatant dicking around of those earlier, tossed-off tracks.

The wordless “Waving Palms” is like a cold beer by the time it clocks in at thirty-six seconds during the last third of the record and expresses both stronger imagery and a more clever turn of phrase than any of Vedder’s actual lyrics elsewhere throughout the album. It also holds the distinction of being the one track to live up to the title of the record, which more accurately would have been called Ukulele and a Voice You’d Recognize in a Coma Songs. The three songs that aren’t indigenous to this album are opener “Can’t Keep,” "Tonight You Belong To Me" (originally borne on the soundtrack to Steve Martin's The Jerk) and the closing rendition of “Dream A Little Dream of Me,” here excising the “of me” in the title and placing Vedder squarely alongside such musical heavyweights as Cass Elliot and Corey Feldman. “Can’t Keep” is what I would call a genuine remake (as opposed to a cover), since its genesis is in the Pearl Jam album Riot Act, where its status as the opening track there as well starts things off quite nicely but is somewhat forgettable in the wake of the stunning rager, “Save You,” that immediately follows. In this context, the urgency that Vedder rings out of the four small strings he has given himself to work with arguably serve the end result a little better than the spacey drum circle setting of the original version. Notably, the move calls to mind Chan Marshall’s piano reading of her “In This Hole.” The final original song on this album, “Tonight You Belong To Me,” finds Vedder in duet with the Cat Power songstress herself.

None of this commentary is meant to make the album sound like it is any kind of chore to make it through. Contrarily, the whole thing goes down pretty easily; especially with highlights like “Sleepless Nights” and “Sleeping By Myself” – if not like an amenable first date, then at least like Boyd Crowder into a coal mine.

So where did this album come from exactly? In an interview to promote Pearl Jam's last LP, 2009’s Backspacer, Vedder was captured extolling the merits of his return to habitual pot smoking. Ukulele Songs distinctly sounds like the fruits of whatever labor Vedder puts into rolling a joint. Conventional songwriting wisdom holds that a musician ought to pen works they’d want to listen to themselves, so perhaps the whole endeavor is for the man’s own edification and possibly that of his children. With the exception of the unnecessary (albeit charming) interlude “Hey Fahkah,” in which he good-naturedly emphasizes the titular profanity, this record might be most effective as a collection of songs to put your kids to bed by. Beyond that, if interested parties are able to nod off to this record too, so be it. In the meantime, no impression has been left that the fare on Ukulele Songs will become the singer's standard; even approaching fifty, Vedder is unlikely to hang up his punker coat to play wet nurse just yet.



Ukulele Songs
comes out on May 31, 2011 via Universal Music. Pre-order it here on Amazon .

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