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”

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