Archive for August, 2011

“Ten” Turns Twenty – Volume Two

August 27, 2011 3 comments

If you’re just joining us, click here to read Volume One of my look back at Pearl Jam’s seminal debut album, Ten.

Anyway, we’re at the point in our journey where it’s time to look back at the album itself. The impact of Ten can still be felt on rock radio (that is, if you actually live in an area where there is a rock radio station). It should be noted that the impact isn’t necessarily a good one. Numerous bands citing Pearl Jam as a vital influence have spawned over the years, and most of them, well…suck. Sadly, Pearl Jam spawned Creed, which spawned Nickleback, which spawned Shinedown, which spawned me not listening to rock radio anymore. The imitators have tried to borrow pieces from Pearl Jam’s original sound: the heavy groove-inspired riffs, the swirling guitar solos, the baritone frontman’s ability to combine themes of love, loss, desperation, grief, homelessness, rape, and a descent into madness into lyrics that don’t sound like they came from the journal of a fourteen-year-old high school boy. Instead, their canned angst dude-rock may appeal to the masses but rings incredibly hollow to the discerning ear.

Okay, off the soapbox. Sorry for that. Now we’re on to the actual music (note: all videos are the album versions of the respective track unless otherwise noted)…

1. Once – Ten opens with the precursor to “Master/Slave,” the album-closing instrumental piece. The intro is haunting and sounds almost tribal (and would be almost directly ripped off by 90’s Seattle-sound cover band Godsmack on their hit “Voodoo“) before ripping into the opening D chord of the first track, “Once.” It is not an overstatement to say that the initial over-driven guitar riff set its hooks deep, and really hasn’t let go of me since. The verse and chorus sections are equally as haunting as the “Master/Slave” opener, albeit in a more aggressive, ‘climactic suspense movie chase scene’ sort of way. Though it is the opener to the album, the track actually stands as the second song in the three-song mini-opera known as “Mamasan,” (“Alive” and “Footsteps” make up Mamasan’s bookend tracks), and tells the story of a man who has become a victim of his upbringing and has, as a result, become a serial killer. Vedder’s gravelly voice is committed on every note, and he sounds every bit the crazy man incarnate. They lyrics to “Once” paint a very vivid, realistic picture of a man’s descent into madness:

“backseat lover on the side of the road/I’ve got a bomb in my temple that is gonna explode/I’ve got a sixteen-gauge buried under my clothes/I play…”

“Once” – album version

2. Even Flow – The album’s second track, Even Flow, centers around a funky, tritone-interval riff written by rhythm guitarist (and principal music writer on Ten) Stone Gossard. It’s a steady, uptempo rock groove that has filled arenas and ampitheaters 672 times over the years, inspiring mosh pits for two decades. Lyrically, it depicts the life of a seemingly insane, chronically homeless male individual. Freezin’, rests his head on a pillow made of concrete again / Feelin’ maybe he’ll see a little better set of days. Our protagonist’s optimism is short-lived, however, as whispering hands gently lead him away. Though it features one of the heaviest grooves on the album, and one of McCready’s most Stevie Ray Vaughan-inspired lightening-fast guitar solos (in an unintended, ironic coincidence, the album was released on the first anniversary of SRV’s death in a plane crash), the album version is somewhat lacking, primarily due to Krusen’s drumming. Thankfully, Krusen was replaced by Dave Abbruzzese (okay…first by Matt Chamberlain, then by Abbruzzese) and a more aggressive, raw sounding version would be recorded for the video version and is far superior to the original. Check it out…

3. Alive – If there were any doubts that Ten was not just another album, but something more…transcendental, “Alive” squashed them. Ten‘s third track was the band’s first single, and is the first act in the three-song Mamasan trilogy. “Alive” is a partly-fictional, partly-autobiographical tale of a man who learns that the man that he thought was his biological father was, in fact, nothing but a… More than that, his true biological father, a man that he knew only as a family friend, was now deceased. The song’s central figure takes the news, well, like you’d expect.

The now-iconic "Stickman" cover art to PJ's first single

Though he shouts the now-anthemic chorus “I’m still alive…” he does so not out of a sense of empowerment (in that he is glad that he’s alive and able to work through the life-changing event) but out of a sense of burden; cursed by the fact that he is still alive, forced to come to some sort of terms with the news. Vedder has talked about how the song’s meaning has changed because of the way that it was interpreted by the fans, and that it has since become a source of power for him. In many ways, the song almost has two lead vocalists: Vedder’s trademark, heart-on-his-sleeve baritone and McCready’s best guitar work on the album; two guitar solos that contain at least as much emotion as Vedders vocals. Enjoy.

4. Why Go – Another tale of a descent into madness, this time told about a girl committed to an asylum by, of all people, her mother (she’s been diagnosed/by some stupid fuck/and mommy agrees). We don’t know why she’s there (depression? bipolar? rebellion? genuine insanity?), but we know that she has the opportunity to leave (she could play pretend/she could join the game, boy/she could be another clone). She rejects the chance at freedom because if your own mother is the reason you’re there (what you taught me/put me here/don’t come visit/mother), well, why go home? The track sounds dark, driven by a sludgy, lead bass riff. Also, more screaming, wah-infused guitar work from McCready. Vedder’s vocals sound not just like he is reading from a lyric sheet but really leading you through the highs and lows of the story. See for yourself:

5. Black – The album’s first ‘ballad,’ “Black” begins with a simple E-to-A power chord riff that is repeated for the bulk of the song. The instrumentation for the verse and chorus sections is understated, leaving plenty of room for Vedder to soar on this emotional tale of a man processing a love lost. Our central character proceeds through an escalating series of emotions, from an initial sense of dull lifelessness (now the air I tasted and breathed has taken a turn…), to passive-aggressive anger (and all I taught her was…everything), to scorned bitterness (I take a walk outside/I’m surrounded by some kids at play/I can feel their laughter/so why do I sear?), to delusional outrage (twisted thoughts that spin around my head). When the song reaches its emotional climax, our story-teller’s thoughts have unraveled to confusion and general loss (I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life/I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky/but why can’t it be mine?). The interplay between the guitars of McCready and Gossard escalates throughout the song, matching Vedder’s intensity note-for-note.

6. Jeremy – The song that would catapult Pearl Jam into the stratosphere of international superstardom (much to their chagrin, as it turns out), “Jeremy” is a song that is really like no other. It doesn’t sound like a classic rock song, it doesn’t sound like any other ‘grunge’ song. “Jeremy” sounds like…”Jeremy.” Centering on a riff performed on Jeff Ament’s Hamer 12-string bass, “Jeremy” is inspired by two different true stories (most notably that of Jeremy Wade Delle, the Richardson TX 16-year-old who stuck a .357 Magnum in his mouth in front of a class of thirty of his peers and pulled the trigger) and tells the tale of a high school kid who witnessed a classmate take his own life during class after years of torment from his mother, his father, his peers. The song really speaks for itself; a tidal wave of intensely haunting, emotional, vivid story telling. Because you haven’t seen the video in a while, be prepared…it’s a little unnerving.

7. Oceans – “Oceans” is a bit of a weird song. It is driven primarily by percussion and a slow bass groove, and is the first of many songs that Vedder would write that pertain to the ocean, spawned by his love of surfing. “Oceans” is a love song, written about the devotion that Vedder had for his then-girlfriend (and later wife, and even later ex-wife) Beth Liebling. As it appears on the album, “Oceans” is a perfect example of the over-production that plagues the album. It takes the band’s live performance (which, sadly, doesn’t feature the pepper shaker and the fire extinguisher that the album track does) to really pull out the song’s subtleties and emotional nuances. Here’s how it sounded when PJ took over MTV Unplugged:

8. Porch – Pearl Jam gets political for the first time, a sure sign of things to come (all the bills go by and/initiatives are taken up by the middle/there aint’ gonna be any middle any more). “Porch” is the only song on the album written entirely by Vedder, and draws equally from his punk rock and classic rock influences. It’s a high-intensity, all-out rocker, and my personal favorite on the album. Pardon the cheesy video…maybe just minimize it while you listen to the song…

9. Garden – A beautiful, powerful, intense, underrated song about being alone. Whether you interpret ‘garden of stone’ to be a cemetery or a euphemism for modern, post-industrial society, “Garden” is about being reclusive going it alone, not needing another’s hand to guide you (maybe a critique on religion?). All summed up in the song’s final line “I don’t know/I don’t care/I don’t need/You, for me to live.” We’ve all been there…

10. Deep – Another punk-inspired rock song that features Jeff Ament’s Hamer 12-string holding down the rhythm so that McCready and Gossard can trade aggressive, almost psychadelic lead riffs. The lyrics are profoundly disturbing. The three main verses to the song are individual stories of people plunging deep into individual types of despair. The first, a heroin addict: (on the edge, a windowsill/ponders his maker, ponders his will/to the street below, he just ain’t nothing/but he’s got a nice view, and he sinks the needle deep). The second, a suicidal/homicidal man (…to the sky above, he just ain’t nothing/but he’s got a great view, and he sinks the burning knife deep). The last, a girl being raped (young virgin down from heaven, visitng hell/to the man above her, she just ain’t nothing/and she doesn’t like the view, but he sinks himself deep). I know I’ve used the “powerful” and “intense” adjectives a lot in this blog post, but Vedder’s vocals are nothing if not both of those things.

11. Release – Though not a part of the Mamasan trilogy, to me this song is its logical, real-life end. Where “Alive” was inspired by Vedder’s mother telling him that his biological father was both A)deceased and B)not the person that he was raised believing was his dad, “Release” is Vedder’s letter to his father, asking him to release him from the aforementioned curse. “Oh dear dad, can you see me now/I am, myself, like you somehow/I wait up in the dark, for you to speak to me…” The lyrics to this song were not included in the album’s liner notes, leaving the listener to form their own opinion as to why (my guess at the time: too personal).

There you have it; a nineteen-hundred-word track-by-track rundown of Ten. This album changed me. It didn’t save my life (my life was pretty good). I couldn’t identify first-hand with a lot of the themes (I knew, and loved, both of my parents; I wasn’t a murderer – also, I’m still not a murderer; I’m not crazy), but I could identify with the way that Vedder told the stories. You could tell that he was committed to every word of every line on the album. His voice was unique; at times delicate, but generally a gravelly, intense (there’s that word again) baritone that prompted some members of older generations (like my Uncle Dave) to remark at the time that it sounded like he was singing while having open-heart surgery without the requisite anesthesia (and he meant that in a bad way). Pearl Jam became the first band that was really mine; my generation’s Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, minus the synthesizer that plagued the middle, Born In the USA phase of the latter band’s career.

I don’t count Ten as being Pearl Jam’s best work; it was only my favorite PJ album until their sophomore release, Vs., debuted. I love the individual songs, though some of the b-sides from the Ten sessions and the pre-Vs. era are equally as good as anything on the album, if not better. But the fact remains that Ten stands the test of time, in all its over-produced glory. For that, I wish the album a very, very happy twentieth birthday.

“Ten” Turns Twenty – Volume One

August 27, 2011 1 comment

Assuming I finish this post in time, today (August 27th) marks the twentieth anniversary of Pearl Jam’s Ten. In fairly short order, the album would become, arguably, the most influential non-parental piece of my adolescence. The album, and the band in a larger sense, would help shape what I’d become as a person; how to think, how to listen to music, how to question authority. It would become the first real album in the soundtrack to my life, the cornerstone on which twenty years of musical experience would build, introducing me to the worlds of punk rock, folk rock, acoustic rock and indie rock, in addition to providing me a better perspective on the classic rock that I grew up on but abandoned for a time as a youngster.

If you’ve known me for a while and you know my penchant for A)all things Pearl Jam and B)writing stream-of-consciousness, music-related posts on this little blog o’ mine (whose very name is a rather obscure PJ reference), you probably figured an ode to Ten was coming. It’ll be tough to encapsulate exactly what this album has meant to me over the years but that doesn’t mean I won’t try. Join me on an all-encompassing trip, won’t you?

You probably know the story by now, but in brief: Pearl Jam had formed roughly ten months earlier from the ashes of a few seminal Seattle bands (Green River and Mother Love Bone, primarily), when when Jack Irons (ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers) obtained a five-song demo tape that longtime bandmates Stone Gossard (rhythm guitar) and Jeff Ament (bass) had been working on with Mike McCready (lead guitar) and gave a copy to a surfer dude that he knew in Southern California. (Interesting aside: the drummer that the newly formed trio recruited to play drums on their demo was none other than Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, who, in 1998, would become Pearl Jam’s fifth drummer in eight years after Soundgarden dissolved and the very same Jack Irons would resign his post as Pearl Jam’s drummer. Cameron is still drummer for Pearl Jam, as well as the newly-reformed Soundgarden.)

Rare early PJ picture, featuring the short-lived original lineup. From left: Ament, McCready, Krusen, Vedder, Gossard

That “dude,” Eddie Vedder, would write and record vocals to a few of the tracks (which would later become known as the ‘Mamasan Trilogy’: “Once,” “Alive” and “Footsteps”), and send it back to the other three in Seattle. Long-distance flights would take place, fruitful jam sessions would happen, Dave Krusen would round out the early lineup and the rest, as they say, is history.

The unlikely inspiration behind Pearl Jam's original name and the title of their debut album

As stated above, Pearl Jam’s debut album, Ten,was released via Epic Records on August 27th, 1991, a full month before Nirvana’s Nevermind.By this point, the band had shed their previous moniker, Mookie Blaylock, though due to love of basketball (primarily shared by Ament and Vedder), they would proceed to name the album after the aforementioned point guard.

I’ve spent a long time pondering exactly what form I wanted my “Ten Turns Twenty” post to take. Ten was an important album in my formative years; perhaps the single most important one. I was raised on a steady diet of what we now call ‘classic rock’ – The Beatles, Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band, John Mellencamp, Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Montrose…oh, and of course Bruce Springsteen (with and without the E Street Band). At some point, I started the “my parents’ music is lame” phase, so my tastes shifted to R&B-infused early hip hop: Bell Biv Devoe, Bobby Brown, Boyz II Men, Another Bad Creation, Marky Mark & The Funkee Bunch, etc. Forgive me…I was like nine years old.

Anyway, in late 1992 came my introduction to Ten. I’m not going to pretend that I remember exactly where I was when I first heard it, though I have a pretty good idea. Gym class. That’s right, gym class. I had just turned twelve and was thus in seventh grade at Pennichuck Junior High. The boys’ gym teacher, “Coach” Connolly, was a rather demonstrative individual, very much a presence in the way that boys’ gym teachers can be. He was also a big music fan, and frequently had the tape player out in the gymnasium while we were playing basketball or handball or the like.

Somewhere along the line, somebody had given Coach a sort of Pearl Jam mix tape. It contained most of the tracks from the band’s performance on MTV Unplugged and some live rarities, including an improv cover of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket” which came from the band’s June 1992 performance in Zurich.

That mixtape, which Coach was kind enough to copy onto an old 60-minute Memorex tape, would serve as the spark that lit the fire that would become my Pearl Jam obsession for, well, the next twenty years. Christmas 1992 brought with it my first CD player and my first two CDs: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and, finally, Pearl Jam’s Ten. (Related side note: I still have one of those CDs, jettisoned the other long ago.) I’m not too proud to admit that I actually obtained my own copy more than a year after the album debuted: remember, I was 11 years old when the album came out. But I finally had my very own copy, and would proceed to spend endless hours unfolding and examining the nine-panel poster that contained the now-iconic, magenta-hued artwork on the front and hand-scribbled lyric sheets to most of the song on the back.

Obligatory picture of the original, unfolded, magically magenta album cover artwork.

Ten is, by no means, a perfect album; far from it in fact. It is by no means Pearl Jam’s best work, nor is it the best example of Pearl Jam’s influence on the so-called ‘Seattle sound’ (that title belongs to the band’s sophomore album, Vs.). In fact, I find it almost unlistenably over-produced in hindsight; I went several years without listening to the original album until about a year ago, when I started revisiting it from time to time, knowing that the twentieth anniversary was approaching. (Related side note: the original album was rendered much-more listenable after hearing Brendan O’Brien’s remixed/remastered, comically bad Ten Redux edition that came out a couple years ago; my hatred of Brendan O’Brien knows no bounds).

Don’t get me wrong: the songs on Ten are great. The album has sold roughly ten million copies to date, and stands as the band’s most commercially successful for good reason. Eddie Vedder’s voice would become a mouthpiece for alienated, disconnected, troubled kids the world over in a more real sense than his ‘grunge’ counterpart Kurt Cobain (be honest: you didn’t really identify with Cobain’s nonsensical lyrics most of the time, just like you didn’t really identify with Jim Morrison’s a generation before him), much like his idol Pete Townshend was before him.

I guess that brings us to the logical point where we re-examine the original album and all of its mystique. If you’re still with me, thanks…we’re up around 1200 words at this point, and my consciousness stream shows no signs of drying up. So I’m going to stop now and call this “Volume One.” When I’m done the next part, I’ll link to it here.