Johnny Guitar

•August 5, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Image I few weeks ago I asked my cousin, a fellow Pearl Jam fan, what he thought of the Wrigley Field 2013 setlist–especially as it featured a trio of upcoming  Lightning Bolt songs, including the as-yet-unreleased “Lightning Bolt” and “Future Days.” He responded in part by asking me why I thought recent Pearl Jam shows seemed to be bereft of most recent material. The basic construction of a setlist seems to be to take a healthy dose of Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy, and then add a smattering of everything else.  When a new album comes out, that changes things a bit, but only insofar as the formula becomes albums 1, 2, 3, and New Album.  Everything else is a crapshoot (rapture).

With the advent of setlist.fm, it’s actually really easy to get the cold hard stats on this–and it pans out. With the exception of Yield, which manages to hang at least somewhat with Pearl Jam’s Big 3. But unless they’re touring specifically for a new album, expect it to get punked on subsequent tours. Riot Act, Binaural, Pearl Jam, and No Code don’t get represented all that often, unless it’s Halloween or something.

Of course, all bets are off as of yet for Backspacer. When the full-on Lightning Bolt tour kicks off in earnest, I have no idea what material from 2009 the band will feel like playing, or decide makes sense in the context of the new tunes. But if history is any indication, there’s a lot of Backspacer songs that are about to be put to bed. Wrigley only featured one.

While many Pearl Jam fans might celebrate such a scenario (uber-fan reaction seems to have swung decidedly against Backspacer in the four years since its release), I’d be a shame if certain songs were relegated to rarity status even more than they already are. I’m looking at you “Johnny Guitar,” which was only played a third of the time during the BS tour. The song gets my vote for the most underrated from that record, and possibly one of their all time most underrated. I don’t think it’s perfect (end of song fadeouts don’t usually bug me, but the one on this track really, really does), but when I’m playing DJ while riding shotgun while my wife drives, this is the song I most want to hear off this album.

Why? Because it’s fun. I know a lot of songs on Backspacer were designed to be fun, but this one’s weirder, more idiosyncratic, the rhythm and the pacing of the chord changes and Ed’s singing just a little off-kilter and unexpected, and listening to that album four years removed really highlights how much it needed more messiness. Or maybe I should say that I would like it more if it were messier, even though I think the band’s intention was specifically tightness, conciseness, brevity.  My tastes are just running woolier these days. I love that “Johnny Guitar” threatens to kind of fly off the rails, despite it’s catchiness. It takes risks that other songs, god help me “Force of Nature” being one, do not.

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Mind Your Manners

•July 12, 2013 • 6 Comments

ImageWell shit. Don’t call it a Come Back, I’ve been here for years. Except for that whole “updating the blog” thing. I’ve thought about it, wrote a few things I never posted, slept in, had a few beers, got married, had a baby, moved to the country, all sorts of crazy stuff. But now’s as good a time as any to kick back in and cover whatever originals have come out since I left off–which I believe is 10/11 of Backspacer, the upcoming Lightning Bolt, and a few odds ‘n’ sods, I think.  Suggestions welcome. Just mind your manners.

One of the reasons I think it was so difficult for me to keep this blog going right after Backspacer came out was that the songs were too shiny and new to develop any real perspective on. With every other album/song, I’d had at least a smidgen of history or nostalgia associated–enough to distance myself somewhat and try (hopefully) to make the blog something more than I like this songI don’t like this other song. It takes time to develop a relationship with music that you care about, and one of the strange things about the current model of music promotion and the instantaneous nature of the internet, is that opinions get blasted in every direction long before anyone really knows what they’re holding in their hands… er…. ears.

So I stepped away from keeping this blog up, even though there were plenty of songs coming out worth mentioning or dissecting, and I stopped writing for an online music/culture journal as well. I just wanted to listen to the music I wanted to listen to, and not bother with explaining myself or the music to anyone but myself.  It’s been amazing. But then of course the rumors start coming out about a new album, stacking up like pancakes until suddenly you’re sitting in front of a lumberjack’s breakfast after a night of heavy drinking and just daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaammmmmn, you can’t help but dig in. So here we are.

I don’t have very much distance from “Mind Your Manners” but I did rack up an unhealthy number of consecutive listens on both commutes yesterday, and gauge/temper my feelings about it. I overthought it, underthought it, and just plain enjoyed it. I remember loving “The Fixer” when that came out, ditto “World Wide Suicide,” but both of those songs are fairly unmemorable to me now. I don’t want to wonder about the longevity of MYM, the fan in me wants to believe it stay strong in my mind for x, y, and z reasons, but who can ever be sure?  Right now it exists out of context, the way all lead singles do released months before their accompanying albums.

We have lots of questions, the most pressing of which is “Is it indicative of what’s to come?”  Another, related question is “Is there any precedent for this in their earlier work?”  I don’t have an answer for the first, and summoning a response to the second is tricky. Fans have already pointed to “Spin the Black Circle,” “Habit,” and “Got Some” as ancestral stock, and I guess I can see that. I can see how this song marries some of their earlier raw-throated punk songs with a bit of shiny studio polish a la Backspacer. The bridge in particular reminds me of “Gonna See My Friend.”  But I also think it’s something different; I believe the band is actively trying to push themselves here rather than recapture or rehash.  The beat in particular sounds like new ground for the band, a kind of shit-kicking rhythm that plaid kilted mohawked youths skronk to.  McCready’s solo is also ragged and unsettling. And Ed’s scream at the end? Exhilarating. I honestly can’t think of the last Pearl Jam song to make my face scrunch up that way, though I’ve loved several as much but for different reasons.

What “Mind Your Manners” has really made me realize is just how little contemporary aggressive, “heavy” music I currently enjoy. I love King Animal of course, and have dabbled in Mastodon and Baroness thanks to some metal-loving friends. But I mostly find superficially quieter to music to have a much heavier impact that balls-out rock and roll, and I keep digging deeper into older music as well. I could give less than two craps about whatever’s on the radio.  But Pearl Jam, and “Mind Your Manners” specifically, still work for me. The aggression feels earned, the vague, righteous fury–there’s something behind it that is more than fashion or style.  It may be too early to know exactly what that something is, but it’s never too early to know that it works.

Santa God

•September 17, 2009 • Leave a Comment

santa godOh, the anticipation of Christmas morning, unwrapping presents that mysteriously appear under the tree, gifts from that weird, omnicscient fat guy Americans refer to as Santa Claus.  That’s what Christmas is like for the children who celebrate it, at least until they learn that their jolly toy-bestowing benefactor is not real.  It’s hard to imagine (cough) that that type of innocence can still be maintained in this age of overwhelming media, but somehow, it is.  “Santa God” is slight in nature, but surprisingly touching in its simplicity. In some ways, “Now we’re grown and so complex / In a world that can’t relax / Even though he was a lie / We all were satisfied”, tells more effective truth than the band’s more “serious” songs.   And the parallels between the innocence of believing in Santa Claus and in the mysteries of rock and roll fandom are not insubstantial.

On the eve of the release of Backspacer, there are those fans still desperately clinging to that old-fashioned, pre-mp3 leak time of unwrapping a shrink-wrapped CD or vinyl album on the day of its official release.  And there are those who can’t wait, who raid the parents’ closet early to get the toys, which are no less fun to play with, but who also are left with the feeling that something was lost.  But still, there are few bands left today who still inspire that nostalgic feeling of anticipation conjured on “Santa God”, where every new song feels like a gift wrapped in a bow.

Speed of Sound

•September 14, 2009 • 2 Comments

BackspacerThe availability of demo versions of officially recorded music has seemed to grow to ubiquity over the last decade with the internet and deluxe reissued albums flooding our ears with our favorite artists’ rough sketches. Yet, we’re usually afforded the opportunity to hear an artist’s earliest takes on a new composition long, long after the fact.  Rarely do we have the chance to compare both a skeletal and fleshed-out version of the same song immediately upon (or, ahem, before) its release.

“Speed of Sound” provides a fascinating comparison between the solo Ed Vedder version offered via an internet promotion/game, and the fully-crafted, Brendan O’Brien-produced final result. The song, like its Backspacer compadres “Just Breathe” and “The End”, is a folky, finger-picked ramble, clearly the result of the major stylistic breakthrough Vedder underwent which resulted in the Into the Wild soundtrack.  That much is evident to anyone who downloaded the demo.  The final version, however, is strikingly arrayed with different textures that weave in and out in ways that have already befuddled some early listeners, and which, to anyone who hadn’t heard the demo, would barely suggest the song’s humble beginnings.

I’m of the mind that, good or bad, “Speed of Sound” demonstrates the most new growth for Pearl Jam on Backspacer, in terms of the band’s collaborative process both among themselves, and with a producer.  First, as Ed’s contributions in the form of three aforementioned songs sound so distinctly like his growing body of solo material, the band could have easily let those songs go toward a seperate project of Ed’s.  Ed’s earlier acoustic forays (“Elderly Woman”, “Thumbing My Way”) and even some of his ukelele compositions (“Can’t Keep”) lent themselves much more easily to Pearl Jam as a full band than the prospect of these fragile, warbly little tunes. But considering the strength of the material, it’s no wonder the band decided to tackle them and expand what they’re capable of doing in the process.

But whereas “Just Breathe” and “The End” are more conventionally (but no less wonderfully) arranged with strings, shakers, and various leads, “Speed of Sound” was taken in a dramatically different direction, as if the band with O’Brien’s  guidance decided it had to stand out as something different than a dressed up acoustic song, an Ed solo cut with embellishments.  As anyone who writes songs alone on an acoustic guitar can attest, it can be difficult to introduce them in a band setting and think beyond just adding leads or little textural colors.  Particularly if the song is based on fingerpicking patterns, which suggest finer rhythms and highlight individual notes that perform some of what a full band provides.

What the band decided for “Speed of Sound” was to take the motion of the acoustic guitar and replace it, most noticeably, with drums and piano, which both mimic the nimble movements of Ed’s picking on the demo.  The guitars are either pushed way back in the mix, or converted into sustained little drones, blending with gentle pulses of organ.  In the short amount of time since Backspacer has been leaked, “Speed of Sound” has become one of the more controversial songs on the record, which I suspect is because rather than sound rooted in one or more acoustic or electric guitars, it’s assembled from lots of smaller sounds and details (with piano being perhaps the most prominent —> not something Pearl Jam fans are used to). Matt Cameron’s drums provide something of an anchor, but the pattern is still unconventional.  It’s like listening to a cloud as opposed to the rain.

But as it stands, whether or not it becomes a favorite of fans, or a concert staple, it most surely will open the door for more of this type of exploration, of breaking songs into symphonic fragments and expanding the band’s sonic palette.  It’s proven that there’s more than one way to play with Ed’s new acoustic songs, and created a world of possibility for the future.

Yellow Ledbetter

•October 23, 2007 • 10 Comments

Here we are. It’s the end of the show. Lights up.

There are many tangential bits of information about “Yellow Ledbetter”, both statistical and personal, so I’ll begin with a list:

1. In the early days of “Yellow Ledbetter”, though it was occasionally performed as a set/show closer, it wasn’t uncommon for the song to pop up in the middle of sets as well. 1995/1996 saw the emergence of YL as a standard grand finale. Prior to that, Pearl Jam shows were as likely to close with “Leash”, “Porch” or “I’ve Got a Feeling”. Granted, the early shows were rarely the 25+ song marathons of the last ten years, but it goes to show that the iconic status of “Yellow Ledbetter” was not always exactly what it is today.

2. When I was in junior high, I had my first chance to sing for a rock band at a summer program I was enrolled in. The program was for students around the country and the globe, and I somehow met up with a few kids from Venezuela who knew how to play guitar, bass, and drums. The repertoire they knew well were a handful of Green Day songs, and “Yellow Ledbetter”. So I suffered through the Green Day material, affecting my best snotty faux-British pop-punk snarl and dying my hair orange, all so I could try and approximate the notoriously untranscribable “Yellow Ledbetter”.

3. To this day, I know several people who claim “Yellow Ledbetter” as one of their all-time favorite songs, though they do not consider themselves overall fans of the band. I also know someone with a “Yellow Ledbetter” ringtone on their phone. I bet many of you do too.

“Yellow Ledbetter” is without a doubt, one of the most popular and well-known b-sides in all of rock music history. Seriously, try and think of another. Heavy early radio-play and its status as an import-only b-side cemented the song’s legacy from the start. If “Even Flow” was semi-unintelligible, “Yellow Ledbetter” was full-on, which created an enormous amount of buzz, i.e. “What’s he talking about”, but also an undistracted appreciation for the charms of Ed Vedder’s voice, and a friendly, accessible midtempo guitar tune. Whether the lyrics were about a soldier coming back from the war “in a box or a bag”, or someone feeling so beat up by life that they didn’t know whether they were “the boxer or the bag”, there was and is something communal and celebratory about “Yellow Ledbetter” that makes it an idea closer, the song that caps the night with an easygoing finality, but finality nonetheless.

An audience may occasionally groan when they hear McCready’s first few unmistakable bars, but only because they know with reasonable assuredness that the show is about to go into the books. For 5–7 minutes, everyone gets a chance to reflect on the night, the songs, the band, the crowd, whatever they want, and mumble along. Some people view Pearl Jam’s enduring success and its attendant cult fandom as a mystery, but mystery isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it’s healthy: a band that provides its listeners with uncountable entry points into the songs, albums, artwork, shows, and keeps them, if not always entertained, always engaged. “Yellow Ledbetter” then is the perfect embodiment of Pearl Jam’s mystery: fluid, familiar, enigmatic, comforting, confident, puzzling. It marks the end of the show, but also the return back to your everyday life, in a way that makes that prospect somehow less dreadful and daunting. It says good night, and now with the final song reviewed (until the next album), so do I!

Foldback/Thunderclap/Harmony

•October 22, 2007 • 5 Comments

I’ve wrestled with including these three instrumentals from the Touring Band 2000 film on this blog, mostly out of sheer laziness with not wanting to have to find them in the movie and figure out which was which. But through the wonders of the internet, it is possible to find strictly audio, labelled versions of these pieces, and because of popular demand, I’m giving them some solid listening. That the songs were titled, even though they sound very much like the demoed candidates for Binaural that they were, also makes them indispensible for this blog’s ambitions. Because of films like TB2K and Single Video Theory, plus a wealth of pre-album release interviews, we know that material such as these three instrumentals is constantly brought into sessions. Some of it gets put on hold indefinitely; some turn into fully realized songs on later albums. “Foldback”, “Thunderclap”, and “Harmony” each received the strange fate of ending up as montage music on a DVD. Through some clever triangulation and research between my own crumbling memory, Given To Wail, and an old Rumor Pit, I’m fairly confident in matching titles to the instrumentals.

According to GTW, the longest of the three tunes is “Thunderclap”, a broad and expansive tune that sounds more in keeping with the band’s work on Yield than Binaural (unless you count “Of the Girl”, which was supposed to have been attempted for Yield anyhow). When I first heard My Morning Jacket’s “Gideon”, I immediate thought of “Thunderclap”. Listening to them side by side, the two songs are astonishing in their similarities: a breezy guitar figure backed by tom-heavy drums, eventually underscored by a few well placed strums. “Thunderclap” is accomplished and lovely, and the imagination reels at what it would have sounded like completed, with lyrics. What I believe to be “Harmony” is the heaviest number, a crunching rock song that betrays a possible Matt Cameron writing credit, as the second half sounds remarkably like Soundgarden. It also would have proven a challenge to accompany with words, though its moody atmosphere makes it a worthy backing for imagery. “Foldback” is the slightest of the three and sounds like wistful Vedder tunes like “Wishlist” and “Untitled”. The playing here is relaxed to the point of not being completely in time. What all three prove beyond doubt is that the band has grown in its songwriting abilities enough to create music that is evocative without words. When a band’s relative castaways demonstrate more character than most radio acts’ hits, it just goes to show how much more there is to music than capturing the zeitgeist. These instrumentals were never “finished”, per se, but still found their own avenue to listeners’ imaginations.

Vitalogy

•October 22, 2007 • 2 Comments

1. Last Exit
2. Spin the Black Circle
3. Not For You
4. Tremor Christ
5. Nothingman
6. Whipping
7. Pry, To
8. Corduroy
9. Bugs
10. Satan’s Bed
11. Better Man
12. Aye Davanita
13. Immortality
14. Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me