Sunday, May 30, 2010

‘We’ll Dance and Sing’: Pearl Jam, Live in Virginia, 5.13.10

When you’ve seen a band—in this case, Pearl Jam—a bunch of times, it’s the little things that start to stand out the most. A couple weeks ago in Bristow, Virginia, it was the opening riff to “All Those Yesterdays” that actually choked me up a little bit.

I’m not one of those get-choked-up-type people, either. It’s just a rock concert, after all. But, man, for some reason that song really hit me. “All Those Yesterdays” is the closing track to my favorite PJ album, “Yield,” and it’s quite a rarity—this month’s airing was only the 13th time the band’s played the majestic track in the 12 years since it was released, and just the fourth time since the end of the ’98 tour (these are the kinds of stats Pearl Jam geeks like me get all worked up over). Back in college I found one of the few early live versions on the Internet and listened to it so often, that’s the one stuck in my head more than the official studio cut. So finally getting to hear it in person—from 17 rows back, no less—was quite the Pearl Jam Moment for me. Coupling the song with “Faithfull” was a nice touch, too.

Though I prefer seeing Pearl Jam indoors, the main set from this show was one of the best I’ve ever experienced. It was perfectly paced, with none of those jarring “Lukin”-into-“Wishlist” transitions Eddie Vedder is wont to concoct. Opening with “Small Town” was an unusual but welcome change, as it got the crowd singing immediately (HEEELLLOOOOO!!!!). The band then moved into one of the most intense runs I’ve ever seen them play outdoors. “Got Some” from “Backspacer” is definitely a keeper.

They took the ferocity down a touch but amped up the emotion with “Given to Fly,” which they can play at every show I ever attend, no complaints. That led into a surprisingly early, but nevertheless welcome, version of “Present Tense,” which is one song that definitely plays better outside. Though I’m still not a fan of “Unthought Known,” it was paired well with an all-time favorite, “Insignificance”; those two songs seem cut from the same “Binaural”-era cloth. “Insignificance” allowed the band a chance to ramp back up into a mercifully shorter-than-usual “Even Flow,” followed well by the gut punch of “Comatose.”

Though I’ve already mentioned “Faithfull,” I should point out drummer Matt Cameron seems to be doing a better job of tempo lately, which is noticeable on a song like this. For much of his Pearl Jam career he’s kept their songs at a lightning-fast pace, more akin to the near-metal of Soundgarden than the classic rock vibe of his current band. As a result, PJ just flew through tracks like “Faithfull,” which actually require a more modest speed. All that seems to have changed, as Cameron—at least for this night—kept himself under control, and it did the songs so much good.

The only bad moment of the entire show came after a sterling version of “Black,” which not only featured a brief “We Belong Together” tag, but also an improv based on what I believe was U2’s “Bad.” One reason I hate seeing shows in D.C. is artists always feel the need to dip their toes in politics, like it’s an obligation of being in town. Ed needs no excuse to wax moronic on social issues of the day, of course, but this night was without question the worst rant I’ve ever heard—and I’ve been subjected to my fair share. He went on and on about how lobbyists for companies like Goldman Sachs should “literally kill yourselves.” After grunting this repeatedly, he sorta came to his senses and tried to walk it back a bit, but by then it was too late. I’ve put up with a lot of Ed’s BS over the years, but this was untenable. The worst part was, it totally took me out of the show for a few minutes, which means I basically checked out for “The Fixer,” one of my faves off “Backspacer.”

The crowd response to “All Those Yesterdays” apparently impressed Ed, because he said, “So, that’s the kinda shit you like? OK.” My little geek heart soared at that, thinking the band would uncork something really crazy; it didn’t quite work out that way, but there were definitely a few major highlights in the encores, starting with “The End,” which Vedder hadn’t trotted out yet on this mini-May tour. I’ve come around on this song, certainly, from the first time I heard it last fall; on a night of seemingly endless perfect pairings, “The End” into “Just Breathe” was another brilliant one.

So how do you transition out of two quiet, acoustic numbers? Easy: “Garden”!!! Another personal debut, I’ve really come around on this one since hearing the Brendan O’Brien remixed version on last year’s “Ten” re-release. It’s a rarity considering the song’s been around for nearly two decades, so “Garden” was another welcome treat. Pairing it with a ferocious version of “Why Go” … priceless (how great is it to have this song back in regular rotation and at full flight?).

Something funny: The guy in front of me literally did not move for the entire concert. Not a head bob, not a fist pump, nothing. All of the sudden toward the end of “Life Wasted” he starts bouncing around like crazy, then stops, and doesn’t move again for the rest of the show. I’m glad I’m not the only one who loves this song and thinks it kills in concert.

“Better Man” was a great way to open the second encore, allowing one more massive singalong before we head off into the traffic jam of a Bristow night. “Spin the Black Circle” was good, too, and “Alive” is just, well, awesome, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. But the final highlight of the night came right before the end in a totally shocking version of “Sonic Reducer.” This is easily one of my favorite PJ covers, yet it’s fallen by the wayside in recent years. It needs to come back. Pure, glorious energy from start to finish. The show ended with “Yellow Ledbetter,” which is fine, but “Reducer” was my finale.

On the whole, this show was about as good as Pearl Jam gets outdoors: Perfectly paced, wonderful setlist sequencing, and a few true surprises thrown into the mix. I couldn’t ask for anything more out of a Thursday night in the Middle of Nowhere, Virginia. I don’t know how it’s possible, but this band just keeps getting better and better at what they do—and they already are one of the best.

Pearl Jam

Live in Bristow, Virginia



Small Town

World Wide Suicide

Got Some

Brain of J

Save You

Given to Fly

Present Tense


Unthought Known


Even Flow



All Those Yesterdays

Black/We Belong Together/Bad/improv

The Fixer

Do the Evolution


The End

Just Breathe


Why Go

Wasted Reprise

Life Wasted



Better Man/Save It for Later

Spin the Black Circle


Sonic Reducer

Yellow Ledbetter/Star-Spangled Banner

Show Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

Friday, May 28, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Ghosts on the Boardwalk,’ The Bouncing Souls (2010)

Following a truly great record is tough. You don’t want to totally go away from what you did so well the last time, yet you don’t want to just rehash your best material, either. It’s a fine balance to strike, and The Bouncing Souls do just that on their latest effort.

“Ghosts on the Boardwalk” contains just enough of what made 2006’s “The Gold Record” one of my favorite punk albums ever. Big, open rockers like “Gasoline” and “Dubs Says True” remind of songs like “Lean on Sheena” and “Sarah Saturday.” The excellent title track, especially, would have fit right in on “The Gold Record.” Elsewhere they sound as full of youthful energy as ever, on rejuvenating upstart cuts like “Never Say Die,” “I Think That the World…,” and “Badass.”

The Souls also go in some new directions on this record that work very well. Perhaps it’s how they recorded “Ghosts” that inspired such creativity: This CD is actually a compilation of tracks released month by month in 2009 to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary. With that sort of program, each song was given its own spotlight and room to breathe in a way most records don’t offer.

“Airport Security” has a more deliberate tempo than the band usually employs, and even features a bit of a country-guitar twang. “The Mental Bits” includes harmonica and evokes “The Pizza Song” from the last record. “Boogie Woogie Downtown” has a lazy, summer-afternoon gait that is quite appealing. And the stripped-down fervor of “Big Eyes” is a pleasant and marvelous surprise deep into the disc.

Lyrically these 12 tracks on the whole don’t break new ground for the Souls, trading on their tried-and-true formula of friendship, fidelity, and hope for a better future that sound a tad clumsy and worn around the edges at times. Songs like “When You’re Young,” “We All Sing Along,” and closer “Like the Sun” (which sounds way too much like “Gone”) have a been-there-done-that feel to the words. I’m willing to overlook it because asking the Souls not to write about these themes is like asking Springsteen not to write about cars.

On the whole, “Ghosts on the Boardwalk” belies the idea that growing up is hard for a punk band to do.

Grade: A-

Favorite Track: “Big Eyes”

Least Favorite Track: “Badass”

Thursday, May 27, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘These Liquid Lungs,’ Cadillac Blindside (2002)

The swan song from Minnesota punk-rockers Cadillac Blindside is above-average pop/punk/emo/post-hardcore/whatever/etc. A cross between Further Seems Forever and Saves The Day, “These Liquid Lungs” is better than many in the genre, but not among its best. What's missing is a standout frontman. Still, it's an enjoyable, if rather unremarkable, listen start to finish.

Grade: B

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘The Black Album,’ Metallica (1991)

With their fifth record, Metallica provided a template for how a band can transition into the “mainstream” without sacrificing identity or integrity. They may have smoothed a few rough edges here and there, but “The Black Album” is still a heavy-metal manifesto that is undeniably Metallica.

It’s hard to pick a place to start on this CD because most of it is so amazingly good, so let’s just start at the beginning: “Enter Sandman” retains all of its nightmarish glory (and is darn fun to play on “Rock Band”); “Sad But True” roars as loud and large as any of their previous work; and “The Unforgiven” and “Nothing Else Matters” are the gold standard for metal ballads.

By trimming their songs down to a more radio-friendly running time, though, that meant a little filler was able to sneak in. Both “The God That Failed” and especially “My Friend of Misery” are a bit more like “old” Metallica and thus sound out of place here; it doesn’t help “Misery” recycles some of the riffs and solo phrasing from “Sandman.” And if we’re getting really picky, hard-driving “The Struggle Within”—the shortest song on the album at 3:54—might have worked better somewhere in the middle rather than its seemingly tacked-on position at the end of the disc; it’s an odd finale for such a monster of a record.

And make no mistake, this is a monster. “The Black Album” still holds up exceedingly well today, one of the greatest rock records of the 1990s and a reminder of why Metallica became one of the biggest bands on the planet. They earned it with this one.

Grade: A-

Favorite Track: “Sad But True”

Least Favorite Track: “My Friend of Misery”

Thursday, May 13, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Is This Philadelphia or Is This New Jersey?’, Pearl Jam, Live 8.29.98

So Mama didn’t raise no Math major. Tonight is actually my 14th Pearl Jam show, not my 13th. Don’t know how I miscounted, despite multiple checks, but oh well. I thought I’d wrap up “13 Days of Pearl Jam” anyway by going back to the beginning: My first show.


It’s a little weird to think back to the mid-1990s and recall for most of that decade I thought I’d never, ever see Pearl Jam in concert. As part of their battle against Ticketmaster, the band for some time eschewed venues partnered with that company, which meant they were playing less shows in out-of-the-way places that were usually smaller—making tickets nearly impossible to get. As an example, for a couple shows at D.C.'s Constitution Hall in 1994, all tickets were distributed via lottery.

By 1998 and the release of “Yield,” Pearl Jam had lost the fight. It was too much hassle, there weren’t enough venues, they certainly weren’t making nearly the money they should (they sold out Soldier freaking Field in 1995), and the majority of their fans simply couldn’t see them play. As it was, getting tickets to the band’s first full-fledged mega tour still wasn’t easy. Camden (across the river from Philly) was my best shot, as it was the closest venue to my suburban D.C. home before I had to go back to college. Calling on the phone (remember those days?), the first show sold out quickly and the band added a second show, so I scooped lawn seats. I. Was. Going. To. See. Pearl Jam.

Thanks to the dedicated PJ taping and trading community, I’m listening to a bootleg of this show right now, otherwise by some of the finer details would have faded by now. What I remember more than anything is the general disbelief in actually, finally getting to see the band—it's a sensation that's never worn off, even to this very day.

We grabbed a spot on the lower third of the lawn, slightly to Mike’s side, but the visuals are pretty much a wash after the five single candle lights to start the show. Opening with “Long Road” was just about the perfect song for me, since it had been as much to finally see this band. The first section of the show—looking back now with experience—was basically perfect, capping a brilliant seven-song run with an epic version of “Given to Fly.” “Lukin” into “Wishlist,” though, has got to be one of the worst transitions this band has ever made; in subsequent years they’ve done a better job with “Lukin” by employing it essentially as a pre-tag to another harder song (“Not for You,” for example).

The back half of the main set was packed with great songs, too. “Not for You” was particularly ferocious. The only odd spot is “Nothingman,” but the band’s always had trouble finding good spots for their softer songs; I like one of the recent trends of clumping them together in the first encore. But, wow, just look at the five-song run to close the set—you can’t ask for much better selection or pacing than that, even if Eddie did flub the lyrics to “Do the Evolution” (a recurring trend all night—perhaps he was a bit inebriated?). Interesting placement of “Alive,” too, as just, you know, another song buried in the back half, instead of its prime positioning in latter concerts. I like the current slot better.

The first encore was spectacular, once we got through the sludge of “Dissident” (why oh why?). “Even Flow” was still a respectable five minutes long back then, and that led to one of the best versions of “Better Man” I’ve ever heard, in person or otherwise. The extended “Save It for Later” tag (an English Beat cover) was almost like its own entire song and sets the standard for one of my favorite PJ moments in any concert. That led into what remains one of only four live versions of “Push Me, Pull Me” ever played. It was a total treat, even if Eddie once again lost the lyrics in the middle; one of the few crystal-clear visual memories I have of this show is him raising his hands to head in exasperation and muttering, “Aw, fuck, I forget the rest” into the mic with a huge grin. Sometimes the mistakes are some of the most memorable moments of a PJ concert (I’ve seen my fair share).

I was blown away by “Rearviewmirror” to close the main set. This one performance forever changed my opinion of the song—I never realized until that moment just how much power it has. The clincher came in the final breakdown, where Pearl Jam employs a series of strobe lights to match the machine-gun rhythm. It’s one of the best times to not be as close to the stage, because the effect is mesmerizing. The band doesn’t use lights that much, but this sequence continues to be a concert highlight.

Back in 1998 Pearl Jam shows were running right at two hours instead of the 2.5 they’ve grown to today, so the second encore was just two songs, both covers, and both memorable. It’s odd to think back on a time when nobody knew the song “Last Kiss,” but Ed introduced it as “an old ’50s song we learned before we left Seattle.” Though many PJ fans have come to loathe “Last Kiss” in the years since (I’m not one of them), this was a rather momentous occasion as it was just the second time the band played what became their biggest hit the following summer.

My first Pearl Jam concert wrapped in about the best way possible with Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World,” again back when this wasn’t an everynight staple (just six showings on the ’98 U.S. tour). I like “Yellow Ledbetter” as a closer, too (and at the time I may have even preferred it), but if I now had to choose one or the other, “RITFW” wins hands down. They own this song, sorry, Neil.

At one point in the show, Ed mentioned—with a bit of uncertainty—that this tour was going pretty well, even though they didn’t know what to expect coming into it. At the time, I certainly didn’t know I’d get to see the band another 13 times over the next dozen years, so I cherished this experience. Still do. I’ve listened to this bootleg countless times, and there was a period in my life where I could recite the setlist to you—in order, from memory. Objectively, this show falls somewhere in the middle of my lifelong Pearl Jam experience: It’s not one of the very best I’ve seen, but it’s certainly better than many. On an emotional level, though, this one’s right up at the top.

Pearl Jam

Blockbuster Music Entertainment Center

Camden, NJ



Long Road


Brain of J

Red Mosquito

In Hiding


Given to Fly




Not for You



State of Love and Trust

Present Tense

Hail Hail


Do the Evolution



Even Flow

Better Man/Save It for Later

Push Me, Pull Me



Last Kiss

Rockin’ in the Free World

Show Time: 2 hours

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Backspacer,’ Pearl Jam (2009)

Though I’ve come to appreciate this album more and more in the several months since its release, I still hold “Backspacer” feels more like a collection of b-sides than a purposeful album.

“Backspacer” is a bit backwards, in general. The “big” songs are the weakest, while the taut little rockers Pearl Jam seemingly can toss off in their sleep stand out. One of my favorite cuts on the disc is “Supersonic” because it doesn’t try to be anything but the simple, pure, fun song it is. Pearl Jam historically doesn’t do fun all that well—usually these type of songs turn out more as jokes than gems—so that makes this song special. It also has one of my favorite lines: “I’m not the paper, I’m more like the fold.”

The first four tracks are all of this mold and breeze by to mixed results. Opener “Gonna See My Friend” is as forgettable as “Breakerfall,” while “Johnny Guitar” is a cousin to b-side “Leatherman”; “Johnny’s” all right but shouldn’t be enough to make a Pearl Jam record. Its inclusion here says something about the overall quality of these sessions.

On the plus side, “Got Some” is aggressive in all the right ways, while “The Fixer” is the best pop/rock song the band’s recorded since, what, “Last Kiss”? “Backspacer’s” lead single has a singsong-y rhythm to the lyrics reminiscent of “Wishlist,” which is not a death knell to this listener as it might be for others. I like the fact they tried to manufacture a radio hit, and it was a solid attempt—this song’s catchy as all get out, even though some of those couplets are a bit painful.

At the heart of “Backspacer” is the duo of “Amongst the Waves” and “Unthought Known,” two songs that have the whiff of intention—the rest of the album’s tracks quickly get to the point, while these two take their time and try to make a statement. That they misfire so badly is, ultimately, what crushes this CD.

“Amongst the Waves” is a sweeping mid-tempo electric ballad in the classic Pearl Jam tradition, hearkening back to a track like “In Hiding.” Not surprisingly, Stone Gossard produces a sturdy riff that any fan of the band can recognize instantly. The trouble is, this song is just … dull. Gossard’s theme goes nowhere except into a bland solo by Mike McCready, while Vedder dips once again into his, ahem, well of water imagery. Really, Eddie? Another song about the ocean? About water? About waves? Where have I heard this before? Oh, right, just about every other Pearl Jam record. Enough already! That, and I hate the word “amongst.” This song is a sister track to “Dissident,” and that is so not a good thing.

Which leads me to “Unthought Known” (another wretched title) that has Pearl Jam fans going gaga for some unknown reason. The first thing I thought when I heard this cut was “Love Boat Captain” from 2002’s “Riot Act,” and, again, that is not a good thing. Like “LBC,” “Unthought Known” ramps up the passion in an attempt to make up for a mediocre melody. To some I guess that works, but the best Pearl Jam songs you know from the first bar—heck, from the first strum of the guitar, usually. This one, like “Love Boat Captain,” has nothing to latch onto, and Vedder just sorta meanders about over the top of it. It’s even structured the same way as “LBC”: muted, indiscernible intro, crescendo into a blowout middle, then fade back into indescernibility (I just made that word up—hey, it’s better than “unthought”). I do not understand the fervor for this song, even after hearing it in concert. Bo-ring.

The best tracks on “Backspacer” are actually troubling in that they have very little to do with the band as a whole. “Just Breathe” and “The End” are essentially two Vedder solo acoustic efforts that sound straight out of his “Into the Wild” sessions. They are flipsides of the same coin, and two of the best love songs he’s ever written. “Just Breathe” is the more uplifting of the pair and employs the lush finger plucking of “Guaranteed” from “ITW.” I love just about every line of this song, its basic theme being: with so much pain so readily available in this world, why should we inflict even more on those we love?

“The End” covers some of the same ground, asking forgiveness of a loved one for past wrongs, but Vedder’s tone here is more desperate than on the former. It closes “Backspacer” on an oddly forlorn note for what is otherwise the most positive collection of songs he’s ever written for Pearl Jam. It’s abrupt ending is an instantly memorable moment in the band’s catalog.

My biggest problem with “Backspacer” isn’t that this is a collection of bad songs, because on the whole it’s not (I’m even coming around a bit on “Speed of Sound”). It’s that all of them remind me of other Pearl Jam songs in a way none of their previous albums ever has. Sure you could pick out one or two retreads on previous CDs, but the feeling over been-there-done-that has never been this pervasive. Even the song titles seem lazy.

“Backspacer’s” lack of an identity actually is its identity: these songs feel like a cobbled-together collection of one-offs. At first I thought it the band’s worst album, a stab at relevance as excuse to play new songs out on tour and not just rehash the glory days. I’ve now come to enjoy “Backspacer” as a pleasant diversion … something to help me drive on down the road, but little more.

Maybe I would’ve liked it better if they’d just called the thing “More Lost Dogs.”

Grade: C+

Favorite Track: “Just Breathe”

Least Favorite Track: “Amongst the Waves”

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Pearl Jam,’ Pearl Jam (2006)

I’ve written so much about this album, is there anything left to say? Oh, sure!

It holds up quite well four years later, and includes some of the band’s best songs. If the Album Otherwise Known as Avocado has faded a touch for me, it’s purely a lyrical dissonance as this and “Riot Act” mark the band’s two most political missives.

The difference between the two is obviously the music. “Pearl Jam” was an album Pearl Jam was desperate to make, whether they knew it or not. They’d been wandering off the reservation for years, searching for ways to challenge themselves and their audience. After a four-year break between official records, the band came back with a rock-and-roll manifesto from the unmistakable opening riff of “Life Wasted” all the way through the closing chords of “Inside Job.”

“Life Wasted” is my favorite song on this CD, and one of my 10 favorites in the band’s entire catalog. It offers everything you could possibly want in a Pearl Jam song: a classic Stone Gossard riff, one of Eddie Vedder’s most uplifting efforts as a lyricist, and a scorching Mike McCready solo that is inexplicably faded out at the end of the track. Live, this song soars.

My opinion on the rest of the album hasn’t changed much, either—if anything, I like several of these songs even more now than I did back when I first heard them. The only one that’s slipped a bit is the mishmash of “Marker in the Sand”; is there a phrase or two I’d like to change in “Inside Job” and “Gone”? Sure. But those are more than compensated by my increased esteem for “Parachutes,” “World Wide Suicide” (another Pearl Jam all-timer, despite my objections to its message), and even “Army Reserve.”

On the other hand, “Comatose” is still one of the band’s most face-crushing tracks, the steady groove and double-tracked vocals of “Unemployable” continue to appeal, “Come Back” remains as touching as ever, and the final minute of “Severed Hand” is one of my favorite all-out guitar extravaganzas in Pearl Jam history.

This album hit the reset button on the band’s career, as five men figured out how to be relevant middle-aged rock stars without letting the message overwhelm the music. It remains one of my favorite Pearl Jam CDs.

Grade: A

Favorite Track: “Life Wasted”

Least Favorite Track: “Marker in the Sand”

[original review]

Monday, May 10, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Lost Dogs,’ Pearl Jam (2003)

It took a lot of guts to do this. Pearl Jam could’ve released a one-disc collection of b-sides featuring the best of the rest and made themselves look really good. Critics would have been saying things like “as good as a proper album,” because the top tracks from “Lost Dogs” easily rival Pearl Jam’s best work. Instead, in the band’s typical transparency, they dumped the bathwater and put out two discs worth of unused material. That means each disc isn’t consistently good, but I appreciate them all the more for it.

The two discs are basically split thematically: Disc 1 offers more of the harder, heavier rockers, while Disc 2 is quieter in the main. Both have their gems and clunkers, but I give the edge to Disc 2.

Highlights from this collection are almost too plentiful to mention. Many of them we’d already heard before on scattered releases, such as the majestic “Hard to Imagine,” haunting “Wash” and “Footsteps,” pounding “Alone,” and, of course, the band’s ultimate b-side, “Yellow Ledbetter,” released on the “Jeremy” single back in 1992. “Down” was better than most of the songs included on “Riot Act” but was cut as too upbeat for that downer of a record; “Undone” is another lighter rocker from the same period that suffered a similar fate. The fan-club singles make a nice reappearance here, too, including “Drifting,” “Strangest Tribe,” and “Last Kiss,” the latter a throwaway cover that became the band’s biggest hit.

The most astonishing true surprise is “Sad,” an Eddie Vedder-penned masterpiece that was inexplicably left off “Binaural” and never heard until this release. Other great debuts include “Ten” outtake “Hold On” (were those original sessions amazing or what?), sturdy rocker “All Night,” the contemplative “Education,” and “Fatal,” a dark acoustic gem that is easily one of Stone Gossard’s best songs.

As for the “Lost Dogs” tracks I regularly skip, they’re plentiful, too: “Black Red Yellow,” “Don’t Gimme No Lip,” “Whale Song,” “U,” and, the worst offender, “Sweet Lew,” are not exactly Pearl Jam’s finest moments. But, again, kudos to the band for having the stones to throw a track like “Gremmie Out of Control” on here, too.

Pearl Jam always puts a lot of effort into an album’s artwork, and the liner notes for “Lost Dogs” are a treasure. Not only do we learn which album each song was intended for, but various bandmembers provide commentary for every track, discussing what they like about it or why it was left off or what it means or how it was written. As a sample, here’s Ed’s thoughts on “Education”: “‘I’m a seed, wondering why it grows …’ sums me up.” Or how about this Vedder quip from "Last Kiss": "We've done really well with teenage death songs." Throw in the photo of the band’s tape archive, and “Lost Dogs” features my favorite liner notes in the band’s catalog (yes, besting “Vitalogy”).

So, despite (or because of?) its flaws, “Lost Dogs” in a sense summarizes one of Pearl Jam’s core principles: No use doing something unless you’re gonna do it right.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “Sad”

Least Favorite Track: “Sweet Lew”

Friday, May 07, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Riot Act,’ Pearl Jam (2002)

This is Pearl Jam’s worst record. I don’t see how there could be any debate about it. That’s not to say “Riot Act” is entirely worthless, but it falls short of the band’s standards, for sure.

Let’s start positive, though: “I Am Mine” is a keeper, certainly, as is “Save You,” one of the hardest-rocking songs the band’s ever done. “Can’t Keep” is an effective, if off-kilter, opener, while the experimentation on “You Are” holds promise (if only the lyrics were a bit better). “All or None” is a devastating blues number, and who knew “Arc” would become one of my all-time favorite Pearl Jam songs thanks to Eddie Vedder’s solo concerts from a couple years ago.

The rest, though … yikes. I get that Vedder & Co. were depressed over George W. Bush's presidency, but come on … live a little! “Riot Act” sounds like they all want to just up and kill themselves. Eddie sings in a cotton-mouthed mush for much of the CD, and his lyrics are way too wordy—“Love Boat Captain” and “Thumbing My Way” are just two of the worst examples.

Perhaps, though, he was merely trying to cover for everyone's lack of musical inspiration. “Get Right” and “Cropduster” are easily two of the band’s most boring tracks, while “Green Disease,” “1/2 Full,” and “Bu$hleaguer” are ripoffs of their own previous work (“MFC,” “Red Mosquito,” and “Push Me, Pull Me,” respectively, if you’re wondering). At one point I thought the mediocre “Ghost” was a five-star song simply because it shows a pulse.

As relatively bad as it is compared to the rest of Pearl Jam’s work, “Riot Act” remains listenable because this band is just that good. I return to it now and then for a change of pace, if nothing else. But out of 15 tracks, there’s only one on this record I couldn’t live without.

Grade: C

Favorite Track: “I Am Mine”

Least Favorite Track: Too many to choose

Thursday, May 06, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘Binaural,’ Pearl Jam (2000)

“Binaural” is a mess—from the recording method to the sequencing to the songs inexplicably left behind in the studio, you can’t help but wonder … what were they thinking? That it’s still such a good record makes “Binaural” all the more astonishing.

It’s the only Pearl Jam album over-weighted to the back. You don’t hit the first truly great song until the seventh track, “Insignificance,” and then there follows some of the band's best work. “Of the Girl” is an ethereal near-masterpiece; “Grievance” is new drummer Matt Cameron’s first “hello!” moment of his PJ career; “Sleight of Hand” is gargantuan; and “Parting Ways” closes the album with another look back to the Neil Young sessions, a stately, grand track in the vein of “Long Road.” Those five songs stand tall among the entire Pearl Jam songlist.

But what about that first half? The trio of rockers that open the album are OK but should have been broken up and spread throughout the record rather than jammed together—sequencing a CD isn’t the same as crafting a great setlist, as you need more ebbs and flows. “Nothing As It Seems” is so ponderous it’s difficult to get through if I'm not in the right mood, and is Exhibit A in the case against anyone but Eddie Vedder writing Pearl Jam lyrics (an unfortunate trend in this decade). “Light Years” is good but not great, and though “Thin Air” holds tremendous personal significance for me, it crumbles a bit under the pressure of “Binaural’s” oddly paced first half.

If you really want to drive yourself crazy, though, consider the band left off “Sad,” one of the best songs they’ve ever written! Also kicked to the curb: “Fatal,” a darkly majestic track that certainly would have made an indelible impression on this record.

“Binaural” came out in May 2000, a special time when I was making decisions that defined my career and my life as a whole. It also marks the absolute height of my Pearl Jam fandom—I spent my summer with this CD and ended up seeing the band five times in four states during the ensuing tour.

So I will always cherish “Binaural,” even while admitting it was yet another missed opportunity in the alternately fulfilling and frustrating journey of one of my all-time favorite bands. The “Ten” remix from last year was awesome, but this is the album I really wish Pearl Jam would go back and fix.

Grade: B

Favorite Track: “Insignificance”

Least Favorite Track: “Soon Forget”