Ten (Epic ‘91, '09) Rating: A+
Exploding out of Seattle on the heels of Nirvana’s landscape altering Nevermind, Pearl Jam established themselves as the most popular (and one of the best, despite Kurt Cobain’s derision of their abilities) of all the Seattle “grunge” groups. In truth, aside from their flannel shirts and Sub Pop pedigree (bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard were formerly in Green River and then Mother Love Bone) there wasn't anything all that grungy about the band, and this debut album had as much in common with the guitar heavy arena rock bands of the ‘70s as the punk bands that Kurt Cobain so admired. That isn’t to say that punk (or, more accurately, post-punk) isn’t an influence, as Pearl Jam’s sound and lyrics are much darker than any of those good time arena bands, giving their music a fierce immediacy that many of those groups lacked. The band’s musical attack on Ten (named after the number of their favorite basketball player, Mookie Blaylock) is memorably muscular and their songwriting consistently strong, while producer Rick Parashar gives these songs a big echoed sound that pleased both Top 40 radio fans and alternative snobs. But the album’s true hero is singer Eddie Vedder, a previously unknown former gas station attendant whose impassioned vocal performances and phenomenal voice would make him a reluctant superstar and give these good songs the edge to truly make them great. It took some time for the album to gain a head of steam, but Ten eventually proved to be an unstoppable ‘90s hard rock landmark that spawned several inescapable hit singles. “Even Flow” is arguably the band's most arena ready radio hit ever, led by its soaring, singable chorus, while “Alive” matched depressing lyrics (actually, all of the lyrics here are depressing) to uplifting, life affirming music that's capped off by a blistering extended Mike McCready guitar solo. "Black" may very well be my favorite dark moody ballad ever, led by Vedder's vocal for the ages. Damn, music doesn't get any more emotionally devastating (or any better) than the section where Vedder sings "I know some day you'll have a beautiful life, I know you'll be a star, in somebody else's sky but why, why, WHYYYYY, can't it be, can't it beeeee miiiiine?", and the fadeout ending is also outstanding. "Jeremy" is another absolute classic, this one based on a true story about a misfit boy who shot and killed himself in the middle of class at school. The memorable video would be the band's last for several years, and the song's incredible surge leads to an exciting extended ending on which Vedder again shines. If Ten contained only those four songs it would still be a notable release, but its album tracks are also consistently first rate. For example, "Once" begins the album by slowly broiling over before it explodes into rumbling rhythms as Vedder's intense vocals then captivate on a surging chorus. "Why Go" also chugs along in impressive fashion and contains another memorable chorus as well as another expertly executed guitar solo, while "Oceans" is an acoustic yet epic song with a Middle Eastern flavor that's exactly the type of track I would miss on later albums. "Porch" delivers hard charging rock that demonstrates how Vedder could make magic with simple "yeah yeah yeah" lyrics (much like the "who who's" on "Jeremy"), and "Garden" is a moody ballad with another big memorable chorus. "Deep" is the lone song on the album that doesn't really latch onto a memorable melody (the intensity is still there, though), and the pointless extended ending to the otherwise exceptional "Release" (a slow, atmospheric power ballad on which Vedder's emotional vocals are again flat-out phenomenal) is the only other negative I can think of. Still, these exceedingly minor imperfections won't stop me from giving Ten a perfect A+ rating, as it's a mesmerizing glimpse into the battered psyche of a troubled soul (songs such as “Alive” and “Release,” both about Vedder’s unresolved issues with his father, are clearly autobiographical and are all the more affecting as a result). More importantly, the dark yet accessible music here is consistently superb, making Ten an instant classic (among many that appeared during the banner year of 1991) that seems bound to stand the test of time. Note: The Ten Deluxe Edition reissue features the original version of the album, a remixed alternative version of the album mixed by Brendan O’Brien, and six bonus tracks, including a popular version of “Brother” with vocals (previously released as an instrumental on their Lost Dogs compilation) and a DVD of their 1992 MTV Unplugged performance.
Vs. (Epic ‘93) Rating: A
I think that this album had the highest sales total for a first week ever (I believe until N'Sync's No Strings Attached years later; boy have we collectively dumbed down in recent years), and given the band's comparatively low profile these days it's hard to remember how absolutely huge these guys were way back when. Fast sales or not, after the classic Ten, many of the band's fans looking for Ten Part 2 were probably disappointed upon this album’s release, at least initially. However, it was obvious from the start that there would be no easy formula or resting on any laurels where Pearl Jam was concerned. The band has adopted a much rawer (dare I say “grungier?”) sound here (in part because Brendan O' Brien has replaced Rick Parashar as producer), and while I occasionally miss the polished crispness that the debut offered (and which they have yet to return to again), there is no denying the staggering power of many of these songs. "Go" begins similarly to how "Once" started Ten, and it's every bit its equal in terms of intensity and passion. If anything "Animal" ups the intensity further; though Vedder comes up with his first (mercifully brief) case of the mumbles, the song is all about its awesome surge. The next song, "Daughter," a lyrically interesting (it’s about child abuse from a female perspective), pleasantly melodic mid-tempo ballad, was the biggest hit from the album, while "Glorified G" is kinda silly yet it’s also catchy and singable - plus I just love that "that's OK man 'cause I love God" line. "Dissident" has probably the album's most air guitar worthy riffs along with another great Vedder vocal - how anyone can listen to Ten or this album and not be incredibly impressed by him is simply beyond me. Then again, "Blood" is little more than an excuse for Vedder to shred his larynx, but "Rearviewmirror" gets it just right. The song's fantastic groove actually approximates a car ride, and the climatic ending where Vedder shouts "rearview MIRRORRRRR" over wailing guitars and a blistering backbeat is all but unforgettable (though the song remains something of a curiously overlooked classic). Continuing, "Rats" is filler, but it's good filler, while the fabulous acoustic ballad "Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town" pokes fun at the band's short song titles while also showcasing Vedder the confident storyteller (like “Daughter” this mellower entry also got significant airplay back in the day). "Leash" is another phenomenal rocker whose memorable features are its memorable "get out of my lucky face" lyric (that was a joke), its unsinkable groove that hits you in the head like a 2x4, and its choice guitar bits. Finally, "Indifference" delivers powerfully understated atmospherics that are almost gothic in tone (are those keyboards I hear?) - labels aside, it provides an excellent low-key ending to the album. In summation, though it wasn't quite as consistently memorable as Ten, Vs. was a great second set that was very different from their debut without ever straying too far from the band's strengths. Again the performances are outstanding, as Vedder pushes his vocal chords to their limit and the rhythm section supplies a relentless groove throughout, with the raging guitars of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard seamlessly interlocking with the fluid bass of Jeff Ament and the bottomed out wallop of excellent new drummer Dave Abbruzzese (who replaced Dave Krusen who had an alcohol problem)); Abbruzzese’s creative playing elevates even average numbers like “W.M.A.” Last but not least, the album sold well despite the band’s complete disdain for videos and any kind of self-promotion, thereby dismissing with actions Mr. Cobain’s haughty words (no doubt fueled by jealousy due to their immense popularity) about their “corporate” ambitions. Yet for all its should-be-legendary accomplishments Vs. is still something of an underrated album that’s forever overshadowed by their indomitable debut, though to this listener it’s their second most enduring album to date.
Vitalogy (Epic ‘94) Rating: A-
This album's a curious one, as it contains some of Pearl Jam's best songs and some of their worst. The album begins with the jackhammer drums and hard rock riffs of "Last Exit," one of several good but unremarkable hard rockers, the others being "Whipping" and "Satan's Bed." "Spin The Black Circle" then continues with Pearl Jam's tribute to vinyl records and punk rock, but though the band gets points for a potent rock drive and a considerable energy, the song is looking for a hook that it never quite finds. Fortunately, "Not For You" is a moody mid-tempo rocker on which Vedder is absolutely riveting - I can just see him stalking the stage spitting out these pissed off lyrics - while "Tremor Christ" is likewise carried by Vedder's intense vocal, though the musical backing is (only slightly) less impressive. "Nothingman," the first of three excellent ballads, is truly a beautiful and affecting song that's notable for its powerful sense of understatement and Vedder's evocative, multi-tracked harmony vocals. So far so good for the most part, right? Unfortunately, problems begin with "Pry, To," the only purpose of which is to annoy me (at least it's only a minute long), while "Bugs" is simply one of the silliest throwaways I've ever heard. These songs sound even more ridiculous sandwiched around "Corduroy," one of the band's very best songs. Right off the bat it establishes a great dark mood along with riffs that stick and a catchy chorus - plus, the ascending "everything has changed..." section is flat out brilliant, and the jam ending just rules. Almost as great are "Better Man," a lyrically sympathetic and musically engaging ballad turned rocker that was the album's big hit, and "Immortality," another great moody (not to mention bluesy) ballad that ends the part of the album that I actually listen to. This is because "Hey Foxymophandlemama, That's Me" is a 7-minute waste of time (at least the other filler track, "Aye Davanita" has something, namely a not half bad groove, going for it) on which Pearl Jam get "experimental" - if you can tolerate this track more than once you're a better man than I. I can only surmise why Pearl Jam chose to sabotage their own album with three (almost four) songs that amount to total garbage. Perhaps they were trying to alienate their fans who had grown a little too fanatical, or maybe they were trying to prove their anti-corporate, non-"sellout" credentials by showing that they could release any crap that they wanted to on a major record label. Whatever their reasoning, it was very misguided, as these songs seriously mar what is otherwise an excellent album. Face it, Pearl Jam, you are a corporate classic rock band, but you're a damn good one when you stick to your strengths. And that should be good enough for anyone.
No Code (Epic ‘96) Rating: B+ No Code was a transitional album for Pearl Jam that is unlike any of their other albums. On the positive side, Eddie Vedder has shed the rock star whining that marred some of Vitalogy for more optimistic, spiritual themes, most notably on the epic “Present Tense,” where Vedder aims to discard past regrets and live for the present. New drummer Jack Irons (ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers) is a stellar addition throughout, replacing Dave Abbruzzese (no slouch himself, he was fired because he didn’t get along with Vedder, not for any legitimate musical reasons) and adding a rhythmic Eastern flavor along with a looser, groovier vibe in place of Abbruzzese’s blinding, hard-hitting percussive fury. The band’s most democratic outing to date (Vedder was starting to replace Stone Gossard as their main songwriter but they all contribute here), this album saw Pearl Jam experimenting to an unprecedented degree, usually with successful results, in large part due to Irons' exotic percussive flourishes. Delicate, sparse acoustic songs such as “Sometimes,” "Around The Bend," and the utterly gorgeous “Off He Goes” exude a resolute calm, but the band rocks hard on “Hail Hail,” the punkish “Habit,” and the anthemic “In My Tree.” The band also effectively borrows from mentor Neil Young (who they had backed on his 1995 album, Mirror Ball, and who had played on their own brief Merkin Ball EP) on “Smile” and “Red Mosquito,” both of which sound like they could be Crazy Horse cover songs. A lack of originality aside, they're both very good songs, unlike “Lukin” (named after Mudhoney's bass player Matt Lukin), on which the band's powerful playing can't compensate for skimpy songwriting, and “I’m Open,” an atmospheric filler with a regrettable spoken word section. Still, there's nothing offensively bad here (even the Stone Gossard sung "Mankind" is pretty good), though there's nothing that's "oh my God" great, either. Also, Eddie "Mumbles" Vedder goes overboard on his brooding outsider persona, and producer Brendan O’Brien doesn’t help matters, mixing the ballads at a substantially lower volume than the rockers, which can be disorienting and at times impedes the album's overall flow. Despite these significant flaws, No Code is still a very good, often-overlooked album whose sprawling scope will reward patient listeners with a highly diverse and enjoyable collection of songs. With no obvious hits, the strange, decidedly uncommercial first single “Who You Are” flopped, paving the way for No Code to become Pearl Jam’s first commercial disappointment. Then again, that may have been just what the band wanted.
Yield (Epic ‘98) Rating: A-
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that Pearl Jam will likely never top Ten or even Vs. My advice is simple, and is the same I'd give to fans of other bands who peaked early and will likely never top their great first two albums (Pavement, Weezer, and Oasis come to mind): get over it. After all, the band has evolved a great deal since then, and even though I prefer the great old early days the group has continued to release strong records that admirably have little to do with each other. Yield is less rambling and worldly than its predecessor, and the band returns to big guitars and epic, arena-sized choruses on songs such as “Faithful,” “Given To Fly,” and "In Hiding." In addition to Vedder’s commanding vocals (delivered here with more clarity) and their powerhouse rhythms, more and more the band’s calling card is becoming the beautifully textured and imaginative guitar parts supplied by Stone Gossard and Mike McCready (the latter of whom typically plays lead). Their melodic playing graces mellower tracks like “Wishlist” and “Low Light,” while also rocking hard on the stomping garage rockers “Brain Of J” and "Do The Evolution"; also check out their impressive work on the cool instrumental bonus track that closes the album. Realizing that comparatively few people had listened to No Code, Pearl Jam returned to more accessible, radio friendly song structures and choruses, and without the deathly seriousness that we’ve come to expect, even going so far as to proclaim “I’m not trying to make a difference” on “No Way,” an unheralded album highlight as is “MFC” and “All Those Yesterdays.” Unfortunately, as has become the norm for the band, this album has some filler, but Yield was a fine "comeback" album that spawned a couple of smash singles ("Given To Fly" and "Wishlist") and won back a lot of “fans” who had foolishly jumped ship.
Live On Two Legs (Epic ‘99) Rating: B+
“We’re making up for lost time here…thanks for waiting,” says Eddie Vedder at one point, and a strong set list that draws almost equally from each album (though only two songs appear from Ten), solid performances, and the album’s excellent sound quality makes this live album almost worth the wait. I did say almost, though, as Live On Two Legs isn't definitive by any means. For one thing, there are few surprises, and the band's performance on the album's biggest surprise (“Daughter” segueing into Neil Young's “Rockin’ In The Free World” and then “N.W.A.”) is surprisingly lifeless. Additionally, too many of these songs are overly faithful to the studio renditions, generally without improving upon them. I also would've welcomed more extended solo spots like on "Black," not to mention the inclusion of some of their excellent non-album tracks (such as “State of Love and Trust,” “Yellow Ledbetter,” and “I Got Id”) and maybe a Neil Young-less cover or two (they also cover "F*ckin' Up"). On the plus side, the band paces the set smartly, and the songs throughout their career all seem of a piece with one another, even the ones from No Code. It is coming to this realization while listening to Live On Two Legs that is arguably the album's most impressive achievement. As for the performances, few of these songs equal their studio counterparts, most of which were fittingly raw in the first place. However, neither do they get left in the dust, and this album has quite a formidable a set list. Eddie Vedder even shows a sense of humor on the introduction to “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In A Small Town,” but I can’t help but think that the band’s lost battle against Ticketmaster took a toll on them. It was a gallant effort for a worthy cause (anyone who has ever paid a Ticketmaster service charge knows what I mean), but these performances, while always lively and entertaining, aren’t quite inspired or revelatory, which is mildly disappointing considering that this band is capable of scaling such heights (speaking of heights, one of the things that made early Pearl Jam concerts stand out was Vedder’s dangerous climbing exploits). Of course, there's now an absurd amount of Pearl Jam live albums available, many of which are likely superior to this set. In 2000/2001, to quote the All Music Guide's Stephen Thomas Erlewine: “In order to circumvent bootleggers, their European and American tours were recorded in full and released in an unprecedented series of double-CD sets, each of the 72 volumes featuring a complete concert."
Binaural (Epic ‘00) Rating: B
With grunge having long lost its commercial clout, in 1999 Pearl Jam had their biggest hit in years with "Last Kiss," their surprisingly poppy cover of a golden oldie that was initially released as a fan club only single. However, by the time of Binaural this former "biggest band in the world" was back to their brooding old ways. The “Pinball Wizard”-like air guitar of “Breakerfall” starts things off with one of the album’s few up-tempo numbers, and “Gods’ Dice” also has a propulsive bottom end though it’s not quite as catchy, a fault that's rectified by the sing along “Evacuation.” Things slow down from there, as the excellent mid-tempo ballad “Light Years” is more in line with the rest of the album, though “Insignificance” and “Grievance” are both intense rockers with worldly themes. Some searing, soulful blues guitar propels “Nothing As It Seems,” as good a choice as any for the album’s first single, as Binaural could certainly use some more commercial hooks, ironic for a band that had earlier in their career been accused by Kurt Cobain of being corporate sellouts. Of course, that charge never rang true, but Pearl Jam have since seemed almost willfully difficult at times, making their post Vs. output strong but inconsistent overall. This is also true of Binaural, as several mid-tempo musings on the album’s second side are a tad too low-key (the word lifeless comes to mind), and Pearl Jam could’ve tightened up some songs or at least upped the energy quotient in the absence of any attempt at humor. Of course, even most of these songs sink in slowly over time, but it requires work, and Tchad Blake's murky production doesn't help matters. Also, former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron is under-used as Pearl Jam’s fourth fine drummer (marking Pearl Jam as the most drummer-unfriendly band since Spinal Tap), and Binaural is ultimately merely a pretty good album (their weakest yet) from what used to be (and can still be) a pretty great band.
Live In Seattle Nov. 6, 2000 (Sony ‘01) Rating: A-
As previously mentioned, Pearl Jam released a whopping 72 live albums in 2000 and 2001, each one a complete concert. This was the last show, in the band's hometown of Seattle, and unsurprisingly it's supposedly one of the best of the bunch. It's the only one of the bunch I have, anyway, and it crushes Live On Two Legs in every conceivable way imaginable. Pearl Jam may be frustrating at times in the studio, but they've always had a great live rep., and these 29 songs spread out over 3 cds shows just how many stellar songs they have. Nicely paced, well-performed and recorded, and smartly sequenced - "Light Years" following "Off He Goes" reminded me what an excellent ballad band they can be, while "Go" and "Once" back-to-back provides a ferocious 1-2 punch, for example - there are too many highlights to mention in full, and only a few "where are they?" omissions, "Black," "Elderly Woman...," and "Learning To Fly" perhaps being the biggest ones. There are some nice surprises in store as well (Pearl Jam are known for their continually changing and often-surprising set lists), including a couple of enjoyable if far from revelatory Who covers, "The Kids Are Alright" and "Baba O'Riley," and even part of the "Stairway To Heaven" guitar solo appearing from seemingly out of nowhere on "Crazy Mary" (a Victoria Williams song that they had sung on a benefit album). Elsewhere, "Corduroy" and "Rearviewmirror" smoke, "Nothing As It Seems" is absolutely riveting in its searing intensity, "In Hiding" soars on its anthemic chorus, "Better Man" sees the crowd joining in on an extended ending, "Even Flow" brings forth some serious guitar heat, "Alive" is very much alive and kicking (ass), and "Yellow Ledbetter" could hardly close things out any better. On the downside, there are a few questionable or at least so-so selections ("Leatherman," "Lukin," "Parting Ways," "Soon Forget"), "Daughter" rambles unnecessarily, and Vedder exudes zero charisma during his between song patter. Really, the five or so times he speaks rather than sings prevents this album from achieving an even higher rating; he makes me groan more often than not, such as when the multi-millionaire complains about really rich people. Anyway, I guess that they kept these tedious, humorless raps in for authenticity's sake, but I wish they hadn't, as the music on the bulk of these three cds see a fantastic live band firing on all cylinders.
Riot Act (Sony ‘02) Rating: B+
I'll admit it, I'm as guilty as the next guy. Somewhere along the way many of us lost interest in Pearl Jam. I'm not quite sure why, because these reviews makes clear (to me, anyway) that they never made less than a good album, yet they've seemed less relevant in recent years, perhaps due to the marketplace being saturated with so many inferior imitators (Creed, anyone?). I mean, here we are over a year after this album's release and I'm finally listening to it for the first time, whereas previous Pearl Jam releases were scooped up and assimilated immediately by yours truly. And you know what? Pearl Jam are still a really good band, a point that is immediately apparent on "Can't Keep," a groovy rocker with a big beat and exotic Eastern overtones. Of course, that's just a warm up for "Save You," which is simply Pearl Jam's most vital, exciting, and flat out rocking song in ages. "Ghost" and "Get Right" also bring the RAWK big time (if not quite as successfully),
while "1/2 Full" has perhaps the best of several smoking Mike McCready guitar solos that are sprinkled throughout the album. Sure, there's a certain formula to what Pearl Jam does these days, and even some of the albums best songs - such as "Cropduster" (memorable for its moody, intense "Corduroy"-like chords and some good harmonies), "I am Mine" (with its delectable mid-tempo melody and lyrics about controlling your own destiny), and "Thumbing My Way" (a gorgeous acoustic ballad that's aided by atmospheric keyboards from Kenneth “Boom” Gaspar who has officially joined the band’s ranks) - sound vaguely familiar. However, Pearl Jam does what they do very well, and even the obligatory filler-ish songs, and there are some on the album's second half, are generally interesting. Alas, as with so many albums these days this 15-track, 54-minute album is longer than it needs to be. Obvious candidates that could've been cut are "Bu$hleaguer," an indulgent spoken word piece on which Vedder takes his cuts at President Bush ("born on third, thinks he got a triple"), and "Arc," a short, ill-fitting a capella chant that adds little to the album. Elsewhere, the short but effective "Green Disease" sees the band's excellent rhythm section in fine form, "You Are" is a funky number that’s arguably the album's most experimental successful track, "Help Help" features more Bush whacking ("the more you read, we've been deceived, every day it becomes clearer"), and "All Or None" provides yet another moody ballad to end yet another album. Though all contribute to the cause, Cameron and Vedder especially shine, writing or co-writing most of the material (say, didn't Stone Gossard used to be the primary songwriting force in this band?), and playing and singing powerfully throughout. There's plenty of choice lyrical sound bites too, such as "don't see some men as half empty, see them half-full of shit," as the band's (mostly Vedder's) cynical, socially conscious lyrics focus on a money grubbing, greedily corrupt populace, the need for self-reliance in the face of such a morally bankrupt society, and death. That last theme was inevitable post 9/11 and the tragedy where 9 people were killed during Pearl Jam's set at the Roskilde festival, and the band directly address "the 9 friends we'll never know" on one of the album's best songs, "Love Boat Captain." Yet Vedder also proclaims "to the universe I don't mean a thing, and there's just one word I believe in, it's love," and hope is present elsewhere ("no matter how cold the winter, there's a springtime ahead") as well. Corny it may be, but all these years later Pearl Jam are still true believers, in music, in each other, and in their audience who they demand so much of. For all the brooding negativity that is often present here, that life-affirming spirit is also all over these 15 richly riotous acts.
Lost Dogs (Epic ‘03) Rating: B+
Given the quality of several familiar Pearl Jam songs that had never made it onto their original albums (their two songs on the Singles soundtrack, "I Got Id" with Neil Young, "Yellow Ledbetter," "Last Kiss," etc.), I always figured that Pearl Jam had a really good b-sides compilation in them. Sure enough, here it is, a 2-cd set no less, and most of these "lost dogs" - culled from demos, b-sides, fan club only singles, benefit compilations, soundtracks, and the scrap heap - are well worth hearing, with only a few "what were they thinking?" missteps. The superior first cd is the more rocking of the two on the whole, and strong songs such as “Sad,” "Down," "Alone," “Undone,” and “Hold On” are better than many previous Pearl Jam album tracks. Sure, I can see why their punkish take on Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Leaving Here" and their silly surf rock cover "Gremmie Out Of Control" didn't fit any Pearl Jam album, and former drummer Jack Irons' dreamy "Whale Song" is also atypical (to put it mildly). However, it is these varying styles (Pearl Jam has rarely given us so many different looks on a single album) that makes this album so interesting, and "Yellow Ledbetter" is simply one of the band's very best songs. True, most of the other songs are merely very good to good (or worse in some cases), and there aren't really any other obvious all-time Pearl Jam classics to be found here, unless you include the aforementioned "Last Kiss," an oldies cover for the band's fan club that improbably went on to become (Gossard) "our biggest song ever." How do I know that? The booklet, which includes honest (Gossard on "Don't Gimme No Lip": "pretty good rock chorus, actually. The verses are a little weak") and often charming (Vedder on "U": "Written in a car on a ten minute drive. Had the trip been any longer I'm sure the song would've been more complex") commentary about each song from various band members, adding value to a classy package. Unsurprisingly, that anthemic aforementioned quickie was from the Yield sessions, and it's fun trying to figure out which songs originated from which periods (for example, the No Code-era songs are "groovier," etc.). As previously mentioned, the considerably mellower second disc is less impressive on the whole, in part because it has much less variety, as well as some skippable filler. However, it too has some really good stuff (the first five songs, for example), and these songs reinforce what a great singer Eddie Vedder was and still is. Another thing that should be mentioned is what excellent musicians Pearl Jam has. They can tackle almost any style and make it work, and their passion and sincerity are never in doubt, shining through even on these 30 "throwaway" tracks. As such, this is a fine collection of Pearl Jam songs. It's definitely not the place to start with the band, but fans already on board will find much to like here. Note: Of the songs mentioned at the beginning of this review, the two terrific Singles soundtrack songs ("Breath" and "State Of Love and Trust;" the latter in particular is among my favorite Pearl Jam songs ever), and the incredible guitar track "I Got Id" don't appear here, though all three appear on their subsequent greatest hits album.
Rearviewmirror: Greatest Hits 1991-2003 (Epic ‘04) Rating: A+
Speaking of which, originally I wasn't going to review this 2-cd collection since I feel that all of the band's original albums are worth owning, but ultimately I decided that it was just too darn good not to include it on this page. For one thing, the song selection is excellent and the album is aptly titled, as Pearl Jam takes the most songs (five from Ten and six apiece from Vs. and Vitalogy) from their most popular albums while taking two or three songs apiece from the rest (usually the right ones) and also rounding up all of the best non-LP songs ("State Of Love And Trust," "I Got Id," "Breath," "Last Kiss," "Yellow Ledbetter," and "Man Of The Hour," the latter an extremely moving ballad previously available on the soundtrack for the Tim Burton film Big Fish). The album is imaginatively sequenced as well, as the first disc delivers the hard rocking stuff and the second disc features the "chill out" mellower songs; both are sequenced chronologically for the most part aside from flipping some song orders, such as placing "Alive" before "Even Flow" and "Animal" in front of "Go." The sequencing works surprisingly well, though it makes this seem like two distinct albums rather than one cohesive collection, and it does reveal their limitations as far as diversity goes (plus, "Breath" and "Given To Fly" probably should've been placed on disc one). Still, for all its flaws (and it wouldn't be a Pearl Jam album if it wasn't flawed), most of these 33 songs are great, and "Once," "Alive," and "Black" have been crisply remixed by Brendan O'Brien for you completist freaks out there (though in truth I feel they did their best work with Rick Parashar and would like to see them work together again). All in all, this anthology does a stellar job of spotlighting the strengths that made Pearl Jam one of the most popular and flat-out best bands of the past 15 years, and though there are plenty of strong album tracks big fans are sure to miss, these two filler-free discs may very well be all that non-fans who are curious about the band will ever need. Simply by sticking around, Pearl Jam have accumulated the most good material of any of the classic grunge bands, and this album contains most of their best stuff.
Pearl Jam (J ‘06) Rating: B+
With the excellent first single "World Wide Suicide" a raging success and mostly glowing reviews, many are touting this self-titled disc (also known as The Avocado Album) as Pearl Jam's "comeback" album. Which isn't entirely fair or accurate, as Pearl Jam never really went away. Even Binaural had "Light Years" and "Nothing As It Seems," after all, and since their great first two albums Pearl Jam have consistently made very good if seriously flawed albums. Pearl Jam is no different, perhaps more fiery, energetic, and consistently rocking (and more flat-out consistent) than anything in some time, but lacking the hooky songwriting that would make these expertly played songs stand out more. As per usual, Pearl Jam alternate between big bruising rockers and moody ballads, more the former than the latter, and when attempting to handle big topics (like "Unemployable") at least they remember to break out big riffs as well. Other highlights include "Severed Hand," with its rapid fire riffs and wailing guitar solo, "Marker In The Sand," an evocative semi-ballad with a big Vedder vocal that surges to an epic conclusion, "Gone," with its moody verses and soaring chorus, and "Come Back," which features another impressive buildup and alternately pretty (mostly) and anthemic guitars (Eddie’s in great form as well). On the lighter side, "Parachutes" has a lullaby-like quality and "Wasted Reprise" is simply a nice segue; its earlier counterpart, "Life Wasted," had gotten the album off to a rousing, hard rocking start, while "Inside Job" closes things out with the albums most experimental track. This 7-minute song has a cool sound (dig that phased guitar) and much to recommend about it (its highly personal lyrics about McCready’s battle with Crohn’s disease, for example), but though it’s a very good song I can't get past the feeling that it could've been even better, and the same could probably be said about this album as a whole. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the albums urgent intensity - "Comatose" and "Big Wave" also rock hard - and the fact that Vedder and company thankfully keep the Bush bashing to a minimum, though several war-themed songs could certainly be called “politicial.” Anyway, there's nothing really wrong with the album, as it's consistently strong; the worst that could be said is that most of these tracks are growers that are very good without ever quite rising to greatness. Still, delivering a very good album 15 years into a career after a four year hiatus is an impressive achievement, as Pearl Jam remain a very relevant proposition even though they long ago left behind their status as multi-million selling superstars.
Backspacer (Monkeywrench ‘09) Rating: A-
Released on the band’s own label and distributed exclusively via Target, independent music stores (what few there are left), and the Internet (iTunes and the band’s own Web site), Backspacer is the band’s first album produced by Brendan O’Brien since Yield, and likely not coincidentally it’s probably their best album since that release. For one thing, with Obama rather than Bush in the White House, the band (mostly Vedder who wrote all the lyrics) is less political and more personal, a good thing as their political sermonizing can be off-puttingly preachy. The band also sound more upbeat and optimistic than in the past, and they’ve written a tight batch of often-catchy tunes that have more hooks than they’ve had in eons, plus the band has wisely shed the excess fat of recent releases; Backspacer contains a streamlined 11 songs and clocks in at a concise 37 minutes, proving again that less is often more. As per usual, the album is far from perfect, as it gets a bit samey sounding and some songs (“Johnny Guitar,” “Speed Of Sound,” “Force Of Nature”) are solid but lack that special spark. However, the majority of this album is flat-out fun to listen to, and though the band are almost always musically impressive I haven’t felt that way about a Pearl Jam album from top to bottom in some time. The album begins by rocking out with the fast and furious, hard driving “Gonna See My Friend” (on which Cameron shines) and then ups the ante on “Got Some,” which boasts a tightly coiled intensity (again led by Cameron) as well as wailing guitars and hooky vocals. Later on, “Supersonic” is a good fast punky rocker, while “Amongst The Waves” and “Unthought Known” are majestic, soaring anthems (especially the former, perhaps their best such song since “Given To Fly”) on which Vedder in particular excels. On the mellow front, “Just Breathe” is an utterly gorgeous folk ballad (among their best ever) that prominently features keyboards and strings; then again, keyboards are also a key ingredient to “Amongst The Waves,” and strings also appear on “The End,” an affecting meditation on death on which Vedder’s voice is again the main attraction. This short song ends suddenly, fittingly, effectively, as often it is the small details that this album gets just right. The album’s first single, “The Fixer,” is a good example of the poppier direction that this album takes, and along with “Just Breathe” and “Amongst The Waves” it’s a slam dunk to appear on the band’s next “best of” album. Featuring good riffs, pounding beats, and catchy, hook-filled vocals, the song also provides the band’s mission statement when Vedder sings “when something’s lost, I wanna fight to get it back again.” On Backspacer the band got it back again big time, and it’s also gotten them back on the radio (mostly the aforementioned three songs), where, with a similarly successful comeback by Alice In Chains, not to mention upcoming reunions by Soundgarden and STP (as well as an archive Nirvana live release), they seem poised to give “grunge” back its good name that was long lost due to their legions of inferior imitators. Note: In 2011, the Cameron Crowe film Twenty (also known as PJ20) and its accompanying book (written by Jonathan Cohen) triumphantly celebrated their 20 years together as a band; here’s hoping for 20 more years of high quality music.