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”

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