Tuesday, May 04, 2010

CD of the Day: ‘No Code,’ Pearl Jam (1996)

Though they don’t often get enough credit for it, drummers do make a difference. At least where Pearl Jam is concerned. This was Jack Irons’ first proper album with the band, and he made an impact on their sound. “Softening” isn’t the right word, but Irons has an warmer, more laid back approach to keeping time—almost like he’s always playing catch-up with the beat instead of keeping it.

His style mellowed the rest of the band out a touch, at a time when they needed it most. “No Code” marks a dramatic shift in tone following their near dissolution during the “Vitalogy” years. This CD, like Irons, is a bit more passive and low key—revving up for big rockers is the exception this time around, not the rule. It’s a more adult-oriented record, too, and marks a turning point in the band’s recording career.

And, thus, like Irons, “No Code” is idiosyncratic. Look no further than opener “Sometimes,” which starts the album much like a PJ concert—quiet but intense, not so much a song as an prologue. The CD really “starts” with the full blast of “Hail Hail,” a sister to “Corduroy” and a surefire concert-hall hit.

From there “No Code” is all over the place. Certainly no one expected the tribal beats of “Who You Are” to anchor the album’s first single; “Lukin” rocks as hard as any PJ song—for all of 62 seconds; “Mankind” features rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard on vocals, the first time Eddie ever stepped away from the mic on an official album; he returns the very next track for “I’m Open,” a … poem? And then the record ends with a country ballad!

For all its oddities, though, “No Code” features some of the best Pearl Jam songs ever written. “Red Mosquito” is a bluesy stunner straight out of the Neil Young School; “Smile” offers a fantastic groove—played, in true “No Code” fashion, on guitar by bassist Jeff Ament in a reversal of roles with Gossard; “Off He Goes” is not just arguably the band’s best acoustic track, but one of their best songs, period; and “Present Tense” will stop you in your tracks with Mike McCready’s minimalist guitar line building to a cathartically explosive minute that’s one of my favorites in the entire catalog. And then there’s the soaring “In My Tree” and its unmistakable Irons drum line that is so good the band still has trouble getting this song right in concert since he left.

“No Code” is a weird record—as weird as “Vitalogy” in its own way, without being so intentional about it. It’s the band’s least “Pearl Jam”-sounding CD. But that’s not a bad thing.

Grade: B+

Favorite Track: “Off He Goes”

Least Favorite Track: “Mankind”

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