Yellow Moon

I feel like, for the most part, I’m the kind of fan who has his favorites, and even enjoys indulging in the occasional game of “what if?” from time to time (What if Binaural was released with its original tracklist? etc.) but in general I try not to presume too much or feel entitled. The same is true of “Yellow Moon.” It’s a cool song, and felt like new territory for the band ten albums in. But but but but but, I can’t escape the nagging feeling in the back of my brain that the arrangement and production of the song doesn’t do it justice.

On paper it works: a waltz-time strummer with swirls of organ, stately piano, and a warbling, evocative lyrics, serpentine vocal melody. But for whatever reason, it all just feels… restrained. The Lightning Bolt performance, like many but not all of the takes on the record, sounds too metronome-bound. I find myself wishing for some more raggedy element to cut against the steadiness and smoothness. It’s grand and lovely, but too smooth at least for my tastes. Mike McCready said in an interview at the time that the song was a “hat tip” to Neil Young, specifically “Helpless,” but I don’t hear it (it was almost left off the album at some point but McCready advocated for it and was proud of his leads; they’re good leads, I agree). I don’t mind the smoothness as much on “Sleeping By Myself” and “Future Days.” Those compositions seem right for it. But there’s something about “Yellow Moon” that feels like a missed opportunity, at least in the studio.

Songwriters: Eddie Vedder (words), Jeff Ament (music)
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Take the Long Way

This morning I allowed myself to fantasize that I won the All-In Challenge contest that Pearl Jam is participating in. If I win, my wife and I will receive an all-expenses paid trip to see the band (airfare and hotel), be allowed to watch soundcheck, watch the first half of the show in great seats down in front, and the second half from the side of the stage. For one song, we’ll stand next to Ed himself. And the kicker for me is that prior to the show we’ll be able to help Ed choose the setlist. But all of this, not only provided we win, but provided it ever safe again to pack however many thousands of people into an arena for a live show. I’m hopeful, but there are no guarantees.

What has this to do with “Take the Long Way” topically? Probably not a whole lot! Matt Cameron’s lyrics seem to refer to dynamics in a long-term romantic relationship. But if I want to ignore their entirety and think about what the chorus could mean to me personally, it might be that though I sometimes go for long periods of time without listening to Pearl Jam — and though in the long stretch between Lightning Bolt and Gigaton, when it seemed like the band might possibly, quietly, be finished, I made my peace with moving on — I always come back to their music, and it’s never difficult to rekindle my excitement. Even when it seems impossible that there might ever be another Pearl Jam concert, I think about the possibility of being transported to other worlds through their live music. I wonder, for instance, what hearing “Take the Long Way” will sound like.

Early reports from private listening parties, pre- album release, called the song a behemoth in the Soundgarden mode, not hard to imagine from the man who wrote “Mailman,” among other Soundgarden songs. I imagined something chunky and lumbering, but the song sounds sleek to my ears, powerful like a big cat rather than a rhinosaur. I also find it to be incredibly catchy, and this on an album that I might argue is among the band’s catchiest, which is surprising because I don’t really think of Pearl Jam as writing catchy music. It’s mostly the choruses, featuring the first woman vocals on a Pearl Jam album track, courtesy of Meagan Grandell, but it’s also in the pummeling, speed-metal (sorry if I’m not identifying the proper genre of metal here, metal-loving friends) interstitials. This is a driving song in every sense of the phrase, being listened to in a landscape where fewer cars and trucks are on the road than, probably, in decades.

Songwriter: Matt Cameron (Words & music)
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Of the Earth

PJThirdManI’ve got a copy of Pearl Jam’s Live at Third Man Records, joining Jack White’s vinyl subscription service in time to ensure its delivery and then cancelling the service as soon as the record arrived in the mail (I love White and the White Stripes just fine, but not enough to stay enrolled). All told I think it cost me about $60 if I remember correctly, which in retrospect is only about $10 or so more than vinyl copies of Gigaton when you factor in shipping costs. Plus Third Man featured a photo book, a pin, a patch, and a 45″ of Eddie Vedder solo singing “Out of Sand” in the Third Man Records booth. But the main reason I wanted the record, apart from the small and intimate show with the odd setlist: “1/2 Full,” “Let Me Sleep,” “Hard to Imagine,” “Pendulum,” was the inclusion of a blistering rendition of “Of the Earth” with Jack White and Mike McCready dueling lead guitars.

Live at Third Man came out in 2016, but the live debut of “Of the Earth” occurred in Dublin, Ireland in 2010, five or so years after the song was first mentioned in an MTV article previewing the self-titled Pearl Jam record in which Jeff Ament compared it to Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Sleater-Kinney, and the Who. I’m not qualified to judge any of those comparisons in any way, or to any other band, but I can describe how it sounds to me: brawny, chunky, stomp-y. It’s a bit of a beast of a song, with minimalist lyrics, and with a proper jam at the end, I tend to believe this song would dominate any studio album it was assigned to. A centerpiece. Which may be why, even though Ament mentioned it as a current favorite to MTV, it didn’t make that record, or Backspacer, which it may have also been attempted for. Since its live debut, gosh, so for about 10 years, fans have been waiting for a studio release. When it didn’t show up on Lightning Bolt people then turned to wishing and hoping for Gigaton. But while I think the tune would fit better on Gigaton than any other record, it wouldn’t fit given how many of the songs on the new album are packed full with Ed’s singing, and “Of the Earth” hearkens back to an earlier era of PJ songwriting in that respect.

So, “Of the Earth” is a misfit. A Lost Dog, if you will. Like “Hard to Imagine” it’s been attempted multiple times in the studio, never panning out or even attaining b-side status. Hopefully, if there is a Lost Dogs 2, we’ll get to hear one of the studio takes, but in the long, long meantime, we’ve got bootlegs and the Third Man record.

Album: Live at Third Man Records
Songwriter: Eddie Vedder (lyrics & music)

Superblood Wolfmoon


Today is Gigaton day! It’s March 27, 2020. The album’s second single, “Superblood Wolfmoon,” came out over a month ago, on February 18. Between those dates, for much of the world, so much has happened that those two releases might have dropped in different worlds, with the widespread pandemic of COVID-19 the demarcation, though the virus had been sowing fear and sadness in China and elsewhere for months longer. The coronavirus may also make writing about and caring about rock music seem/feel quaint, but while songs can’t save the world, they do have their own power to steel and comfort, to rouse and soothe. Sometimes, albums created well before the fact of a particular crisis end up having eerie prescience when they’re finally released. I’m thinking in particular of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot by Wilco, written and recorded before 9/11/01 but forever connected to that era with its songs of tall buildings shaking and ashes of American flags.

Gigaton, by virtue of being released in the first couple of weeks of mass shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, will always be connected to this time, even though “Superblood Wolfmoon” and “Dance of the Clairvoyants” dropped in mid-winter. Both songs’ urgency and tenor are just as relevant, as we’re living in a country/world where a megalomaniacal, arguably psychopathic president cares more about controlling his PR machine than he does people’s lives or wellbeing. Even the assault on the world’s environment goes unabated in quarantine. At this time the EPA has stopped enforcing regulations amidst the crisis. The fuckers.

But the world kept on spinnin’
Always felt like it was endin’
And love not withstandin’
We are each of us fucked


When the tracklisting for Gigaton was announced back in January, the title “Superblood Wolfmoon” was clearly one of the zaniest and un-Pearl Jam-like titles the band had ever come up with. What would it sound like? What would the rest of the album sound like, after the longest gap between Pearl Jam albums of over 6 years. Would it sound like 2018’s single “Can’t Deny Me,” which at the time was said to be the lead single of a new album. What happened to the rest of that album? Would it sound as distinct and again, new-for-Pearl Jam as the first single, “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” with its synths, zooming bassline, and David Byrne-yelps?

It would not! The Vedder-penned SBWM shares DNA with other Vedder compositions. “Sad” in particular comes to mind. Punky, garage-y rockers with spindly, Flamenco-inflected guitar hooks. But if the concern (and I’ve read the concern and belief online) that this means the song isn’t its own thing, I would argue against that conclusion. To me, SBWM feels wildly out-of-control in the best way, partly the result of Vedder cramming an OED’s worth of lyrics over the song structure. Mike McCready’s gonzo Eddie Van Halen fret-tapping solo also contributes, and the whole thing is just breathless fun, the way that even rock songs with serious concerns can be.

Album: Gigaton
Songwriter: Eddie Vedder (music & lyrics)

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Just Breathe

Pearl_jam_backspacerFrom “Breath” to “Just Breathe.” This is one of Pearl Jam’s latter day “hits” and the twin A-side of “Got Some,” even inspiring a cover by the legendary Willie Nelson. But curiously, when I’ve gone a long time without listening to the album I have a hard time calling up its melody from memory. This is no dig at the song–probably more so my memory–but it’s much easier for me to remember Ed’s other acoustic tune on Backspacer, “The End.”

What helps, other than just playing it on whatever device is at hand, is mentally playing back the Into the Wild soundtrack, because there is no mistaking that the basic chords and fingerpicking pattern are incredibly similar to the instrumental “Tuolumne,” though the tunes spin off in different directions.

Lyrically, there’s little mystery to “Just Breathe,” and I like its directness and sweetness, suffused as they are with mid-life death anxiety and melancholy, as well as deeply felt, all encompassing love. The love feels romantic, the point of view someone singing to their partner (Iron & Wine has a lot of such songs in their early catalog) about growing old and being there when one or the other passes, but it also feels familial, and the love extends even to empathy for those who aren’t as fortunate to have so many people to love and be loved by. It’s an affecting and effective piece of writing that doesn’t strain to be opaque. That’s actually a tough thing to pull off well, writing-wise. If it struck or strikes rock audiences as maudlin or simplistic, that’s too bad, but at least this song’s message found its way out into the world to a broader audience.

Album: Backspacer
Songwriter: Eddie Vedder (music, lyrics)

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Pearl_Jam_Lightning_BoltI’m writing this in the midst of the early days of Covid-19, when people all over the world are learning the ins and outs of self-quarantining and social distancing, and very literally wish they could get away. I’m lucky and grateful that I live in the woods, where I can’t see my neighbors through the trees, and my job is such that if it comes to it, and I suspect it will come to it, I’ll be able to work from home. The stores in the area don’t seem to be as ransacked as elsewhere in the country, yet. But I also long for a getaway, out of this cursed timeline, for lack of a better word. No era is free from its share of horrors, but I would prefer an alternate reality in which the governing party was composed of such charlatans and grifters who prioritize instituting a “National Day of Prayer” over making sure there are enough testing kits to go around. We’re all, as the lyrics to “Getaway” put it, “bearing witness to some stranger days” all right.

The last song I tackled was “Gonna See My Friend,” and “Getaway” is similarly an album opener written entirely by Vedder that has seen to date relatively few live performances. But whereas I kinda get it with regard to GSMF, I’m a little surprised by the lack of love for “Getaway.” Wasn’t there even a promotional video about the making of Lightning Bolt that showed Ed rocking out in his truck to it while showing a friend the new record? Cameron Crowe, maybe? I’m too lazy to look it up. But suffice to say, now that the dust has settled, and settled some more on the 6+ year old Lightning Bolt, I think “Getaway” is my favorite song on that record.

Structurally, it’s tightly constructed:

Verse (dynamic shift, most instruments dropping out)
Instrumental Pre-chorus
Chorus X 2
Chorus until out

There’s no bridge, but the verse following the first chorus plays with dynamics by letting most of the instruments drop out, and the instrumental pre-chorus following the second chorus also serves a similar function given the path of the lead guitar melody.

What I particularly love is the intensity of the chorus, and how it builds over the chorus of the song right up until the end. It sounds furious. I hate analyzing lyrics, but I suppose the song is defiantly holding onto atheism or at least agnosticism/secularism in the face of creeping authoritarian religiosity. Or something. I mean, you could go line by line and then ponder all of the “thoughts and prayers” certain factions of politicians have offered up in response to just about every calamity of the past forty years as a substitute for informed action, but ah fuck it. The song does a better job of it than any analysis.

Album: Lightning Bolt
Songwriter: Eddie Vedder (music & lyrics)

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Gonna See My Friend

Pearl_jam_backspacerA couple things that surprised me when I sat down to write about “Gonna See My Friend.” For one, it’s only been played 15 times in the 11 years since Backspacer debuted, and 10 of those performances came in 2009 in support of that record. That’s one fewer times than fellow album opener “Getaway” has been played in 6+ years. This surprises me somewhat because it doesn’t seem like that difficult of a song to play.

The second surprise to me was when I looked up the lyrics and realized that after all these years I have had literally know idea what Eddie was singing. Like, before just a couple of minutes ago if you had told me he sings “Bueno Sera” twice, I might not have believed you, even though now I can hear it plain as day. I guess I just never listened to it that closely. It’s never made a huge impression on me, and I’ve always kinda thought it sounded a little like Stone Temple Pilots’ “Crackerman,” so I guess when I’ve put the record on I’ve just been biding my time for “Got Some.”

But last night as part of my anticipatory run-through of all of Pearl Jam’s albums before Gigaton comes out, I put this album on while making dinner (and drinking a few beers) and I appreciated it a bit more, as I did the whole album. I wonder if the band has largely retired it from their live show for similarly lukewarm feelings toward it, but who knows? At the moment I think it’s cool how even after ten years you can notice new things about a piece of music.

Album: Backspacer
Songwriter: Eddie Vedder (music/lyrics)

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Amongst the Waves

Pearl_jam_backspacerI’m really excited about the new Stephen Malkmus record that’s due to come out tomorrow, March 6. I promise this has something to do with “Amongst the Waves” and Pearl Jam in general, so bear with me.

In a great pre-release review of Malkmus’s Traditional Techniques, Matthew Perpetua wrote about how the former Pavement leader’s solo output, which dwarfs in volume that of the band more or less disbanded twenty years ago, has suffered commercially for its consistency. His records have all been good to great, and all have been pretty similar (Pig Lib is my favorite here, but I get the critique). So there has been rarely a media hook or narrative around any of them–no return from a fall from grace, no duds, no stylistic reinventions. That changed slightly last year with a more electronic-influenced album, but is really about change with the folky Traditional Techniques, which could not be more up my alley. The Brit-folkish rambler “Xian Man” will be hard to oust as my 2020 jam.

It strikes me that Pearl Jam’s output since at least Yield has been pretty similar. PJ nerds can argue about the subtle differences, but any changes in the band’s sound have been pretty gradual, and even Backspacer, which had some kind of story behind it, being a little more New Wave-inspired, and upbeat at the dawn of the Obama presidency, still has lots of songs like “Amongst the Waves,” which mostly fits the mode of a classic Pearl Jam anthem, and thematically is easy to slot with Ed’s ever-growing canon of surfing/ocean related songs.  Fans may have their favorites, but Pearl Jam has been remarkably consistent, content to do its things, and the records have been good to great. That’s a good thing, but it’s hard to tell a story around to the wider music listening world.

But in revisiting “Amongst the Waves,” which never really excited me, especially with 11 years hindsight, I can appreciate the pieces of it that to my ears even now feel fresh–namely the guitar soloing on the bridge, which is really fun and if I’m being honest, reminds me a tiny bit of the proggy influence behind some of the Pig Lib jams. I’ve never seen this song live, but I bet in that atmosphere, its chest-swelling theatricality probably kicks some ass too.

Album: Backspacer
Songwriter(s): Stone Gossard (music), Eddie Vedder (lyrics)

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Only Cloud in the Sky

PearlJam1At some point when I learned there was a leak of demos from the sessions that resulted in 2005’s self-titled Pearl Jam album, I was able to find them, but I never really listened to them. Maybe only once or twice. And then who knows what I did with those files. With the impending release of Gigaton I suddenly had a hankerin’, and they were gone. But let me just say, that while I will not be linking to them here, it didn’t take me long to track them down again, and I am a relative Luddite.

What gave me the hankerin’ was the kind of pre-album speculation that gets fans making predictions and hopes, thinking back to their faves and their not faves from albums past. Pearl Jam fans, the extremely online ones at least, remind me of Star Wars fans. They’re obsessed not only with what is but what could have been, with deleted scenes and tracks, with entire storylines that were never pursued, and songs prematurely faded out (I’m listening to the very rough demo of “Life Wasted” right now and yeah, why the hell did the official song end on a fade?). Following the relative disappointment at the saga-ending The Rise of Skywalker, SW fans have been enraptured with pondering what could have been with Colin Trevorrow’s script for Duel of the Fates, the Pearl Jam equivalent being all the songs that were left on the cutting room floor of Avocado.

I like to imagine alternate canons, though in the end I feel like artists make the decisions they make, and that’s that. It’s weird for me to guess with a band that I revere like Pearl Jam about their song selection process. And even listening to deep, deeeeep unreleased cuts like “Only Cloud in the Sky” sheds no light. Who knows if this song, in the instrumental form I’m hearing it, ever got any further in development? What I can say is that a Pearl Jam album with this tune on it would have had to be very different from what was released. This song feels like it belongs to a different album, and maybe even one unlike any other Pearl Jam album. And it’s gorgeous. There’s a rhythmic thing going on with the guitar parts that has no comparison in the rest of the band’s catalog (maybe others disagree and could point to something though). It’s a sparkly, lovely song that somehow captures the spirit of its working title.

Maybe someday there will be a Lost Dogs two and Stone Gossard will write a pithy description of this tune and why it didn’t a fit, or what-have-you. I know I’d be thrilled. In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying playing these unreleased instrumentals in my car, not least of which because my youngest daughter (4 years old) enjoys singing her own melody lines over them, which is pretty fucking cool.

Album: n/a
Songwriter(s): ?