Pearl Jam – [Album]

Saturday, 30 April 2011

The wonderful thing about a record is that, after it's out, it remains there for listeners to find when they're ready to hear it. First impressions aren't ironclad either; as time passes and tastes change, a particular album may begin to sound better. Such is exactly the case with Vitalogy for me. When the record first came out in November of 1994, Pearl Jam was already treading a pretty fine line in my eyes; Ten didn't thrill me like it had some of my friends in school and Vs. fit my taste, but I was more interested in some of the other bands drawing notice with the grunge explosion like Alice In Chains, Soundgarden and Nirvana, as well as NOFX, Rancid and Green Day. I wasn't a huge supporter of Pearl Jam, but Vitalogy was the album that caused me to turn the dial away from them completely for about thirteen years. The first songs I heard from the album (“Spin The Black Circle” and “Not For You”) seemed like a calculated effort to move away from the classic rock-inspired movements of Ten and get more aggressive than anything on Vs., and that felt like Pearl Jam was trying to bum-rush Nirvana's post-punk legacy but done a pretty piss-poor job at it to boot. Vitalogy felt earnest to a fault, and that's why I began to ignore them, but even when I wrote Ground Control's Pearl Jam discography review originally in 2009, I still held a grudge against the album; that I'm finding new value in it now has nothing to do with being fickle, I just reached a point where I'd grown up enough to hear it.

Seventeen years after the album's original release and removed from that time period, it's possible to hear that Vitalogy represents a tremendous number of changes for Pearl Jam, both musically and psychologically. Here, the band is relaxing in its own way, as the members try to branch out into new thematic directions (not so many songs about familial torment) and they're clearly not feeling tied to the song structures that they had focused so closely on before. Here, everyone in the group is beginning to contribute to the band's musical voice which makes for a more varied and thought-provoking listen, and listeners will be able to mark that change from the moment “Last Exit” literally warms the band's circuits up to open the record.

While listeners can almost hear Pearl Jam's members sliding into position as “Last Exit” builds up, they'll also notice that the song does so without the methodical devices the group used to accomplish that feat on Ten (no extended fade-ins), nor does it do so with the same torment that Vs. showcased; here, both listeners and the band know the pressure of being “alt-rock saviors” is off, so the band just begins cutting loose.

That liberated air carries over into the positively frenetic “Spin The Black Circle,” but the combination of those two opening songs also shows listeners that Pearl Jam is lightening up, emotionally; no longer pregnant with torment, “Last Exit” and “Spin The Black Circle” show that the band is just having fun with no dire or serious strings attached. In retrospect, much of those first two tracks is actually an examination of Pearl Jam seeing if they're able to just write a song for the song's sake – not for some therapeutic value.

With the “not too heavy” song styling set and in place, Pearl Jam seeks to discover what else they're capable of for the rest of Vitalogy's run-time. “Not For You” touches on the angst-y spires that the band erected on both Ten and Vs., but this time Vedder takes a more provocative stance on the matter; when he belts the title lyric, he's speaking out hard rather than internalizing his frustration which is something the singer has never done before. That sudden shift away from introspection and anguish shocked and excited listeners in 1994, and it continues to do so now.

The going gets even further from Pearl Jam's established norm as “Tremor Christ” gets increasingly frayed and almost sardonic in its crabby beat, lean, spiraling and loose instrumentation and Vedder's almost Vaudevillian vocal melody. Likewise, the wheezing nonsense of “Bugs” is miles away from anything Pearl Jam had ever tried previously, as is the spitting, stomping “Satan's Bed” – which almost sounds like the angriest indictment of love that Pearl Jam had issued to that point. Of course, the band does swagger back to the center established by Ten and Vs. for “Nothingman,” “Corduroy” and “Better Man,” but those moments are the exception on Vitalogy, not the rule – the driving force on this album is to throw a bit of distance between it and all the grunge-y sounds that came before it and any looking back is only done to make sure Pearl Jam's audience (some of it, anyway) is keeping up.

All that said and, conspicuously, Vitalogy remains somewhat on its own in the context of the reissues that the band has released so far. While Ten redux featured a surprising number of outtakes and unreleased songs (six) and the reissue of Vs. also included “Crazy Mary,” the reissue of Vitalogy only features one previously unreleased song (and it's pretty throwaway), a demo version of “Nothingman” and alternate versions of “Better Man” and “Corduroy”i – thereby making it feel like something of a lean offering, by comparison. Even so though, the re-discovery of Vitalogy is worthwhile in and of itself; those who were turned off by the record at the time of its release would be well-served in giving it a second look, and those longtime fans who hung around at the time can feel justified in having done so because the record has only improved with age.



Legacy's Expanded Edition reissue of Vitalogy is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .


Pearl Jam – [Album]

Friday, 27 February 2009

There are moments (alcoholics call them moments of clarity, the over-caffeinated call them epiphanies) that, when one peels back the layers of history, look an awful lot like a seemingly forgotten revolutionary occasion. It doesn't seem like the move that ultimately yielded a complete and total shift and rethinking of values and procedures should have happened “right there” in a given timeline but, with enough years removed and enough surveillance of the proceeding damage done, it's impossible to argue because it's obvious: “that” moment that happened an eternity ago was the one where inertia was overcome and the ball actually started rolling for a sociological change felt almost universally. The alternative revolution – where it first began to really break through and thus leading the way for Nirvana's slash-and-burn clearing and removal of everything that was riding high on the modern rock radio airwaves in the 90s, made it okay to actually have a heart and show it rather than riding on bravado as well as the action between one's legs and fucking off every insecurity like Axl Rose was doing at the time and making it possible for independent bands to remain independent and make it on their own terms – began on August 27, 1991 when Ten appeared on record store shelves.

That's a little romanticized, but it needs to be; at that particular moment, no one could have known what was coming and it didn't happen right away (the album simmered on the back burner for a month before Nevermind came along on September 21, 1991, and blew the grunge sound from being the ill wind over Puget Sound into the wide, wide world of pop) but when it did, Ten functioned as the bridge over the gap between worlds and allowed mainstream rockers that liked their sounds big, their rock operatic and classically bent into the more modestly intentioned modern era where the music was more honest, emotionally articulated and multi-dimensional (read: more human problems and psychodramas that just boozing, balling, drugging and dumb-ass kicks) but still erupting with power and passion. Ten played both sides of that line beautifully; while there's no doubt that producer Rick Parashar was still operating within the standard conventions and paradigms that bands from the previous decade had used to turn in platinum numbers (one can hear the echoes of GNR and Motley Crue bombast here), the band itself overcomes such anachronistic trappings by issuing eleven documents of pure, unadulterated tension and a need to express it so badly that the songs virtually burst at the seams. The conduit for that tension is untested singer Eddie Vedder (he was the only one in the band at that point without a sterling resume – the other members of Pearl Jam had cut their teeth in such seminal and influential Seattle bands as Green River and Mother Love Bone) and he makes it plain right off the top in “Once” with the words, “I've got a bomb in my temple and it's gonna explode” – implying every ingredient of the record in on fell swoop. His fuming words of warning imply a need to break out and desires to heal and find vindication, but no one could have expected what was coming – “Even Flow,” ”Alive,” “Why Go,” “Black” and “Jeremy” follow the initial splash of “Once” and present a directory of misgivings, failed hopes, broken promises, doubts, worries and the resulting self-criticisms of knee-buckling candor turned anthemic in the ears of those disenfranchised members of a generation that felt left behind and/or ignored by everyone from their parents to teachers to the media to every other outlet (that is, all of those that seemed to be looking the other way at the worst possible moment). The band holds Vedder gently and protects him from all of those sources that would (or did) do him harm; as soon as he sounds like he might be overcome by his remembrances of a youth spent ignored, outcast and generally forsaken, guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard leap in front of him with walls of sympathetic guitar aggression that push back any would-be aggressors that might tread too close and simultaneously repels the conventions of the guitar god image bt ignoring the grandstanding, epic solo in favor of textural leads at most every turn. It's a dramatic dynamic that the band erects, but at no point does it waiver; in this set, Vedder is allowed to confront every event that shaped this creature in front of the microphone with ample protection and retinue. It's a very heartening sound as, like the clasped-hand cover image, there is a feeling of fellowship presented in these songs which asserts with authority that no soul in need will be left behind.

No wonder those dispossessed and disillusioned members of Genertaion X gravitated to it.

Eighteen years and seven studio albums later, the history has been written. After grunge blew up, Pearl Jam proved to have a very polarizing effect as the North American music press finally got their own version of a UK-style, Beatles/Stones, Clash/Sex Pistols rivalry in the form of the Pearl Jam/Nirvana preference. Some alt-rock critics and outspoken performers (including Kurt Cobain) balked that Ten was nothing more than a canny, grunge-ish corporate rock facsimile and that the band itself was simply capitalizing on a trend that they were only connected with by virtue of coincidence and regional association. Pearl Jam continued undaunted however, and found their own very celebrated niche. That removed status from grunge ultimately saved them from feeling the burn of the grunge flame-out around 1995.

The question has remained through the times though: was Ten  the product of Pearl Jam's vision alone or was the production that the album featured (which was indeed very glossy and decidedly mainstream) also a mitigating factor to the record? When the band re-entered the studio after the the dust had settled to make the follow-up to Ten in March 1993, bassist Jeff Ament implicated that, while the band was happy with the sound of Ten but wished Vs. producer Brendan O'Brien had been there to put a word in on the final results – so was Ten representative of the band?

Those detractors that said the album was left wanting for some intangible quality are vindicated as a second disc of the album remixed and re-mastered by O'Brien surfaces to solve the mystery. By taking the tracks and re-working them, O'Brien proves that Rick Parashar was indeed a strong-handed producer that was trying to get Pearl Jam into the established hard rock paradigms of the 80s and so, with that assertion in hand, it calls into question whether or not Ten would have drawn the flak it did from naysayers upon its release.

What's primarily noticeable in O'Brien's vision is that there was a whole lot more of Seattle under the surface of the album than listeners could have known. Running leaner and with the confrontation in Vedder's voice amped up to a petulant froth, songs like “Once,” “Even Flow.” “Alive,” “Why Go” and especially “Porch” pounce on listeners and bark with fearsome and unrelenting fervor, thus painting a much different dynamic in the songs from that of the original release. The sonorous echoes that often gave Vedder's vocals a – by turns – hymnal and epic quality have been scaled back here so that he's almost standing nose-to-nose with listeners and cajoling them into action for themselves rather than soliciting pathos for himself. In this context. The songs are confrontational too – flat out asking about the problems only hinted at in the original mixes and forcing listeners to look at them instead of being distracted by the surrounding artifice. Likewise, the guitars – while still springing from the mixes in Vedder's defense – have a more strained and ragged quality that functions as a hook in itself; the rage and frenzy proving to be more infectious than simply another arena-sized device or trapping. In that way, the remixes present a band on ten (no pun intended)with nothing to lose, no intention whatsoever of backing down and also lend a completely different impression of where Pearl Jam really was at in the early going and how desperately one producer tried to get them to fit in. Those naysayers should be the first ones to hear this different expression – it'll shake their world and what they believe to be true to its foundations.

For those long-time fans that have been with the band since the beginning, the Legacy Edition set also includes six bonus tracks left off of the original release of the album. While those fans will probably eat them up too, realistically it's kind of apparent why they were left off – the songs (including “Brother,” “Just A Girl,” “Breath and a Scream,” “2000 Miles” and “Evil Goat”) have all the earmarks of B-sides and demos as they either accentuate the more daunting Rick Parashar-isms at their softest (overwrought and overly packed instrumental performances, in addition to being fairly hookless) or spare, scant and unfinished demos (“Evil Goat”) that feel tacked on but will certainly make the devout salivate. Happily, they don't take away from the set in the slightest (the inclusion of “State Of Love and Trust” is a real gift) and will keep everyone interested as it lays out the contrast between what was and what could have been.
But, as they say in sales, that's not all.

Still other sets released in conjunction with this reissue include a Deluxe Edition two-CD and one-DVD package that includes the heretofore unseen MTV Unplugged performed in 1992 in addition to the aforementioned audio content, a two-LP Vinyl Collection and a two-CD, one-DVD, four-LP (two reprising the same audio, and two collecting the Drop In The Park performance at Magnuson Park in Seattle on September 20, 1992) and a replica cassette of the fabled original “Momma-Son” demos featuring “Alive,” “Once” and “Footsteps.” In addition to all that, the Super Deluxe Edition also includes an Eddie Vedder-style composition notebook as well as artwork and assorted keepsakes too numerous to mention. All of these accouterments assembled together leave no room for any other possible word to be said on Ten – what could there be? In these collections rest the be-all, end-all of what was undoubtedly one of the most important albums to be released in the last twenty years and they're packaged with all of the motives and commandments of Ten in place. They are, very simply, the ideal volumes for any fan of any stripe.

Pearl Jam Official website

Pearl Jam myspace


All four reissued sets for Pearl Jam's Ten album go on sale on March 24. Pre-order at Amazon.

Pearl Jam – "Even Flow" – Live

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