It has been aptly noted that Eddie Vedder’s true talent is for being a rock star. His passionate singing is special not for any merits of its tremulous roar but for seeming like the voice of a very troubled deep thinker whose every grunt bespeaks imponderable existential calamities and supernatural power. His humorless lyrics rarely make much sense, yet they invariably convey just how troubled and desperate his feelings must be. As a public figure, though, the Chicago-born jut-jawed Kirk Douglas of alt-rock alienation burns with larger-than-life rebel fire, and it’s impossible not to admire both his excruciating sensitivity and his incorrigibly principled and virulently conflicted sense of self. Regardless of the merits of his music, Vedder has long been seen as a worthy and humble god who truly understands and deeply cares. (And give the man his props on another front: he knows his old Who records.)
In turn, Pearl Jam — a rock combo that would be crushed into the dirt in a battle of the bands with, say, the generation-older Aerosmith, yet whose rhythm section’s muscular movements have been more widely imitated than Beavis’ snicker — has been able to take an oddly anachronistic leadership role as virtuous crusaders by having political opinions and challenging big bad business (Ticketmaster, the media) on behalf of the common fan. None of which says anything about the merits of their mega- selling records. Ultimately, Pearl Jam’s achievement is ennobling thuggish electric rock without dressing it up, turning decades-old lunkheaded leftovers into an impressive and respectable modern banquet. It’s rare that an arena band has shown such skill at communicating rock’s profound majesty without pomposity. Who else could release an ode to vinyl (“Spin the Black Circle”) on CD and not look like total chumps in the process?
Pulled together in Seattle at the start of the ’90s by ex-Green River punks and Mother Love Bone rockers Jeff Ament (bass) and Stone Gossard (guitar), Pearl Jam — with Vedder, lead guitarist Mike McCready and Dave Krusen, the first of many drummers, completing the lineup — made its debut on Ten, an effectively somber loud/soft Big Rock record shaped by McCready’s Joe Perry riffs and elevated by the vocalist’s self-willed charisma. With his straining, barely contained intensity and profound unease, Vedder inflates the trivial lyrics of “Even Flow” and “Porch” into sweeping melodic anthems, holds himself back in “Black” and turns traumatic souvenirs of a troubled adolescence into the grown-up obsessions of “Alive” and “Jeremy.” “Once upon a time I could control myself” Vedder avers in “Once,” clearly implying that the expiration date has since passed. Nothing about the album bears out that effective, threatening gimmick, but his conviction makes it hard to ignore.
Other than new collaborator Brendan O’Brien’s significant production improvements — he fine-tunes Ament’s chunky rubberband bass into a bigfoot behemoth thundering just ahead of new arrival Dave Abbruzzese’s whacking snare drive and fries Gossard’s rhythm guitar chording into an incinerating structural wall — Vs. doesn’t suggest the existence of any vast well of creative imagination to be tapped in Pearl Jam’s backyard. (Album packaging, however, is something else entirely.) A few new musical ideas crop up — acoustic guitar in “Daughter,” chukkachukka wah-wah in “Blood,” hand drums in “W.M.A.,” a different sort of hook in “Glorified G,” a moody minor-key progression in “Rearviewmirror,” organ on “Indifference” — but the band’s central equation already seems set in stone. Vedder’s lyrics, meanwhile, are receding deeper into schematic elusiveness. If “Glorified G” is meant to be a statement against firearms, its ironic message fails to even register an unambiguous vote on the issue; “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town” boils down to a thin aphorism (“Hearts and thoughts they fade away”); the anti- police “W.M.A.” (white male American) brings the protest song to a nadir of communication skill. The bellowing “Leash” comes as close as the album gets to crystallizing a statement of purpose, and it’s a highbrow doozy: “We are young / Drop the leash / Get out of my fucking face.” For the youth of today, Zen master ideas like that may be hard to resist, but it’s really not much to go on. Vs. is a substantially better album than Ten, but no less maddeningly vague in its ambitions and content.
On Vitalogy, Vedder tones down his anomie in favor of lyrics about insects, albums, romance and aging, but he still fills the disc with vein-popping vocalizing of catchphrases with the odious potential to become guiding principles in high school corridors. “All that’s sacred comes from youth,” he sings in “Not for You” (the guitar figure of which comes from Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul”). Otherwise, the group’s third album delivers the standard dose of blustery exertions (“Last Exit,” “Tremor Christ,” “Whipping,” “Immortality” and the tuneless frenzy of “Spin the Black Circle”) and several songs of more intriguing merit. “Satan’s Bed” (aka “Already in Love”) tries out organ-driven garage-rock; the chunky, countrified “Corduroy” compares favorably to Soul Asylum. On the other end of this uneven album, the seven-minute “Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me” unveils a surprising weakness for nonsensical tape collage. Ultimately, Vitalogy comes down to “Nothingman,” a slow and tender minor-key waltz eulogizing a splintered romance. Displaying the restraint and subtlety so absent elsewhere, the group handsomely frames a fraught Vedder performance to achieve atmospheric folk-rock magnificence. By resisting its instinctive bump and grind, Pearl Jam is revealed to be far more profound in the impact of a whisper than a scream.
(In 2011, the group issued 1993 : 1995, a deluxe repackaging of Vs. and Vitalogy, with three bonus tracks, in a hard slipcase with an added DVD documenting a 1994 Boston show.)
The band embraces these noble, quiet moments more frequently on No Code, an unfocused yet rich song-cycle in which Pearl Jam attempts to shake off the grunge era. With timekeeping by ex-Chili Pepper drummer Jack Irons (the man who introduced Vedder to his future bandmates, by the way), the group still delivers squealing hard-rockisms, but only the pounding “Hail, Hail,” for better or worse, follows the old blueprint. The rough guitar carnage in “Smile” and “Red Mosquito” serves a reminder that PJ was Neil Young’s backing band on Mirrorball, but the songs come off like Not-So-Crazy Horse retreads. When they’re more punky than clunky — the raging anti-heroin “Habit” (who, other than addicts, is really pro-heroin?) and the minute of pure bile that is “Lukin” — Pearl Jam’s bite actually leaves a mark, but the more eccentric, subdued moves ultimately dominate the album. “Who You Are,” with its traces of discordant piano and Middle Eastern undertones, has a light touch that the group previously resisted. The acoustic sway of “Off He Goes” and “Around the Bend” is more organic (i.e. less pretentious) than former folk excursions; the low rumble of “Present Tense” and “I’m Open” justly frame Vedder’s low-key recitations. With Gossard stretching his vocal cords (so to speak: the guitarist makes J Mascis sound like Freddie Mercury) on the generic romp “Mankind,” No Code is a grabbag of possibilities, but inconsistency is what gives it life.
Just as the titles Vs. and No Code screamed defiance, Yield suggests a group not necessarily giving up, but certainly giving in. After a lengthy legal battle with Ticketmaster that resulted in haphazard tours, and the halfhearted public response to No Code‘s oblique charms, Pearl Jam stopped being righteous and started getting real. Sort of. In the tense “No Way,” Vedder professes, “I’ll stop trying to make a difference,” but then adds a quick “no way” to reassure fans that everything is right with the universe. Manic metal-garage riffs roam free in “Do the Evolution,” “Brain of J.” and “Push Me, Pull Me,” and a loose, roots-y vibe drives “All Those Yesterdays,” but the disc is otherwise filled by just the sort of majestic, mid-tempo rock anthems one expects of Pearl Jam. Vedder’s vocals, and the implied meaning to his curious lyrics, are more straightforward than usual; in the brooding “Wishlist” he just up and admits, “I wish I was as fortunate / As fortunate as me.” He’s still prone to such metaphorical head-scratchers as the grand “Given to Fly,” in which a phrase that sounds like “flying home” is actually “flying whole.” Huh? No matter. In the end, with unobtrusive gems like “MFC” and “In Hiding” filling the grooves, no other Pearl Jam album asks for so little yet offers so much.
After successfully flouting, then embracing, career- rocker nichedom, Pearl Jam boiled down their heroic hard rock into a thick slash ‘n’ hum that could appeal to no one but the already-converted. Binaural boasts a sturdy and occasionally threatening sound, but too much of it is unpleasant to hear and quickly forgettable. The album starts strong, Vedder’s death rattle ushering in former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron’s propulsion in the pumped-up “Breakerfall”, but nothing else here matches that intensity. “Thin Air” and “Parting Ways” are good examples of PJ’s soft side, but even they seem heavy-handed. The album’s production — by the band and Tchad Blake — encourages hearty riffs like those found in “Insignificance” and “Grievance,” but it inevitably squanders them on aimless compositions. Likewise, the mix buries Vedder’s commanding presence, leaving his words completely unattainable. If not for the seemingly insignificant “Soon Forget,” a brief interlude with Ed and his ukulele, Binaural would collapse under its own weight.
Pearl Jam’s murky, downbeat future solidified on Riot Act, an even bigger bummer than Binaural. Aside from the soaring chorus of “I Am Mine” and the delicate country pacing of “Thumbing My Way,” there is very little to enjoy here. “Love Boat Captain” displays the soft/loud dynamic that Original Grungesters are famous for, but at this stage in the game what’s the fucking point? “You Are” has some heavy wah-wah, “Get Right” has a pulsing guitar lead, and “Bushleaguer” allows Vedder to lambaste the president with First Amendment fervor, but it all gets washed away in a hookless hailstorm. Producer Adam Kasper (Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age) knows enough to mutate the bluesy “1/2 Full” into a PJ-worthy jamfest, but he doesn’t know when to pull the plug. Of course, all this means nothing in the larger context of Pearl Jam’s career. Seattle’s proudest can fall back on their meticulous anti-image and unswerving conviction until the music comes ’round again. And, hopefully, it will.
The equivalent of a Pearl Jam yard sale, Lost Dogs is an exemplary collection of B-sides, compilation cuts and unreleased tracks. Live staples like “Yellow Ledbetter” and “Last Kiss” stand out, as do a killer version of the Holland/Dozier/Holland classic “Leavin’ Here” and the similarly Who-enlivened “Black, Red, Yellow.” Typical of Pearl Jam albums, the most resounding songs are the softest (“Drifting,” “Let Me Sleep,” and the hidden “4/20/02,” Vedder’s somber rant about Layne Staley’s inevitable and pathetic death), but Lost Dogs also reveals the band’s sense of humor. Yep, Pearl Jam cuts loose in the surf-rockin’ “Gremmie Out of Control,” gets silly while mocking the Red Hot Chili Peppers in “Dirty Frank,” and lets Ament salute Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in “Sweet Lew.” Clearing out the attic shows that Riot Act could have been better if that session’s leftovers — the lighthearted “Down” and the punchy, poppy “Undone” — had made it onto the record.
Want live, they got it. Besides boldly releasing “official” bootlegs of nearly 150 shows from two world tours, the group has Live on Two Legs, a strong set from ’98 that ends with Neil Young’s “Fuckin’ Up.” However, the toned-down, semi-acoustic gig from ’03 captured for Live at Benaroya Hall is more pleasing, with cool covers of the Ramones’ “I Believe in Miracles,” Dylan’s “Masters of War” and the Shel Silverstein-penned Johnny Cash novelty “25 Minutes to Go.”
In June ’96, Ament unveiled a hippiesque side band, Three Fish, with singer/guitarist Robbi Robb of Tribe After Tribe and Seattle drummer Richard Stuverud (Fastbacks, The Trouble With Sweeney). The trio’s self-titled debut goes from slow and drone-like (“Solitude”) to medium-paced and drone-like (“Song for a Dead Girl”), but the touches of otherworldly folk in “Intelligent Fish” and whiny tribal-rock in “Silence at the Bottom” (Jane’s Addiction, anyone?) keep things unpredictable. The second Three Fish release, The Quiet Table, is drenched in dippy hippie-dew, a point made more apparent by the mystical gobbledygook in “Shiva and the Astronaut” and “Myth of Abdou.” Rock-based arrangements sporadically come into play (“Once in a Day,” “My Only Foe”), but only “All These Things” makes good use of the rhythm section.
The Rockfords, McCready’s side project, features three members of Goodness, including singer Carrie Akre (who also fronted Hammerbox back when grunge was just another name for dirt). The group’s likable debut works best when it’s energetic and poppy (“Adelaide”) or corny and country (“Silver Lining”, “Distress”), but not so much when it tries to rock the house with uncomfortable funk (“Flashes”). The Rockfords’ double-disc concert release contains all of the first album’s songs (minus “Riverwide”) and five other live tracks, the best being “Do It,” an indie-pop barnstormer with a guitar solo straight from the Allman Brothers’ catalog.
Aside from his work with the rock combo Brad, Gossard filled a little time with Bayleaf, a dull solo album that’s a little bit creepy (“Fits,” “Hellbent”), a little bit sleepy (“Anchors”) and a little bit reggae(!?). Actually, the skankin’ numbers — the Sublime-like “Cadillac” and “Fend It Off” — are the most fulfilling songs here. (Special thanks to producer/collaborator Pete Droge and singer Ty Wilman for taking the mic away from the sincere yet vocally challenged guitarist for at least three of the ten tracks.)