Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The enduring appeal of Pearl Jam

Much derided as the corporate flipside to Nirvana’s integrity, this judgement was never correct. It’s not like Pearl Jam came from nowhere, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard certainly “paid their dues”, toiling for years in firstly Green River and then Mother Love Bone.

Singer Eddie Vedder is one of the more divisive figures in modern music. His detractors will accuse him of spawning a myriad of lame copy cat singers. This is undoubtedly true, as anyone familiar with the middle of the road American bands which came after grunge in the mid 90s can testify to, as he influenced everybody from Hootie and the Blowfish to Creed. But his voice is a versatile instrument, capable of remarkable sensitivity as well as powerful intensity.

They burst on to the music scene in a mass of hair, plaid shirts and cut-off shorts, looking every inch the grunge cliché. With 2 guitarists, Gossard and the relentlessly soloing Mike McCready, they provided an old-fashioned rock assault, driven by Ament’s bass and various different drummers.

Pearl Jam were never really a ‘grunge band’. They sound less Black Sabbath crossed with punk, more like a heavier early 70s The Who (Vedder is a huge fan). They are probably best known for their debut album Ten, which was everywhere in the early 90s. It was full of catchy rock anthems (Even Flow, Alive, Jeremy), with equally eye-catching videos, ideal for MTV (in the days when MTV still played music). They had a ‘big’ sound, perfect for blasting out of stereos everywhere. They followed it up with vs, which had almost as many anthems, though at this point they had made a point of not making videos for any of their songs, to avoid over exposure. This only served to get them more attention!

However their career became more interesting from this point on. 1994 was annus horribilis for the whole grunge/Seattle scene with the untimely death of Kurt Cobain. Cobain had criticised the band, calling them sell-outs, but subsequently they reconciled, so his death affected the band greatly and informed that year’s Vitalogy album. It received mixed reviews when it came out, caused by the lack of radio-friendly singles and also some cringeworthy musical ‘experiments’ (Bugs, Stupidmop). Despite this, the album has endured as one of their stronger albums. At its core, it contains some really strong hard rock songs (Not For You, Corduroy) and also some great slower tracks (Nothingman, Betterman, Immortality), which sound soulful and timeless, great songs played with real passion.

1996’s No Code followed this trend, eschewing the obvious rock anthems with some blindingly good subtler songs (and some great packaging). I was lucky enough to catch them live in Dublin on this tour and they really were superb, playing for more than 2 hours, pulling out gem after gem. Towards the end the vibe was almost like sitting around a campfire, while they played some of their lesser known material. I missed my last train home that night but there was no way I was leaving until it was over.

They have continued in this vein, through Yield, Binaural, Riot Act, Pearl Jam and their most recent, Backspacer. Nothing grungy about these albums, they all showcase the band's unashamed classic rock, updated for the post-grunge audience. None of them are perfect albums, but each contains a couple of minor classics.

Speaking of minor classics, they released a collection of non-album tracks, many of which were considered but ultimately rejected for their various albums. Entitled Lost Dogs, it’s actually a really good listen, and track for track, possible superior to many of their later albums. The track Dead Man had been written for the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, and it points the way to Eddie Vedder’s superb solo album Into the Wild (soundtrack to the film).

Quite simply the last great rock and roll careerist band, ie a band worth following through different phases and albums.