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.

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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

Corduroy

•October 22, 2007 • 6 Comments

I’m wearing corduroy pants right now (chocolate brown, thin wales, straight legged); I named my beloved cat Corduroy when I was 15 (orange and white, fat, loves to drink water from the tub faucet); I just discovered a great website for the Corduroy Appreciation Club (stylish, funny, reminiscent of McSweeney’s) because I was looking up word origins and the history of the fabric on Wikipedia. I learned from Wikipedia that a common but unverified belief is that the word comes from the French for “cloth(es) of the king”. Well, that’s supposedly not true, but it dovetails quite nicely into the story of “Corduroy”, the Pearl Jam song (classic, magnificent, liable to be played at least twice per show).

Okay, done with parentheses; here’s a story: at every Pearl Jam show I’ve been to, there’s always been, in addition to similarly obsessed fans who know every word to every song, a strong contingent of rock radio-lovin’ dudes that show up in stone-washed jeans and faded black concert tees, get loaded, cry openly during “Black”, and push through the crowd en route to a pee break during every post-Vs. song. Annoying yes, but those dudes are always going to be there. And I’ve come to realize that’s okay. Love your favorite songs and hate the ones you hate. There will also always be those who claim nothing after 1993 was worth their time. Fine. Wherever Pearl Jam decided to go after the last seconds of “Indifference” ticked away, lots of folks decided to hang back and let them be. Great. I would never claim to have ever been close to veering off from the band at any point during their career, but I can say with surety that though Ten and Vs. hooked me in, “Corduroy” itself was largely responsible for keeping me there, for winning my trust in the band’s future, and verifying everything I felt about what I already knew and loved.

As infamous as Eddie’s “complaint about fame” songs are, fans and non-fans alike often miss the bigger issue at stake. “Corduroy” is about seeing one’s personal clothing style co-opted and exploited for big bucks just because of lightning-struck celebrity, but behind that, behind “They can buy but can’t put on my clothes”, “Corduroy” is about wanting to live a true and honest life, and how that existence is threatened. It’s about, in essence, freedom. Not the nebulous, flag-waving idea of freedom, often invoked but never considered, but the idea that commercial culture and consumerism, regardless of good or bad intention, separate us from ourselves. You can’t buy a jacket that looks like Vedder’s and become him, or automatically become part of a “grunge” or “alternative” culture, the same way putting a flower in your hair or patches on your jeans doesn’t make you a hippie.

“Corduroy”, though it is specifically about Ed based on his feeling and experiences, has implications and meaning for everyone. Every social and artistic movement eventually gets folded into the larger culture that seeks to define it based on how that culture wishes to perceive it. “Grunge” was oversimplified down to being depressed music made by unhappy people. All the easier to dismiss when those sourpusses start having challenging political ideas. Ed’s corduroy jacket getting turned into a fashion statement is symbolic of that transformation, and his song is his refusal to accept that, his attempt to reclaim his own life from marketers and hitchhikers. In high school, I probably didn’t think about it in these terms, but I wanted control over who I was and how I was perceived too. I resented being judged by people who didn’t know me, or overhearing someone who always picked on me for my tastes suddenly raving about them once they became “cool”. “Corduroy” hit me hard. I too felt destined to take the varmint’s path.

It didn’t hurt that “Corduroy” was the most musically satisfying Pearl Jam song I’d heard since I was initially drawn to “Even Flow”. Built on Ed’s familiar arpeggiated riff, the song goes through several distinct yet cohesive parts, some minor, some major, which together create a song that is sad yet noble, defiant yet heartbroken. There is no context on stage or coming out of a set of speakers that “Corduroy” doesn’t sound perfect; it works as the centerpiece to Vitalogy, and it stands alone as a great song apart from the album setting. Turned inside-out and upside-down at the Bridge Benefit? Again, it loses none of its import or resonance. With a lot of Vedder’s material past and present, it’s fairly easy to hear his influences, even when they’re well-incorporated, from the Who to Neil to Dylan to the Clash. But “Corduroy” feels most archetypically and organically his own, maybe a synthesis of everything he’d digested and learned to that point, but with his own spark and stamp. I find that although I latch onto other songs for periods of time, and have several which I’d call perennial favorites, they all remain planets around “Corduroy” the sun.

Undone

•October 19, 2007 • 3 Comments

From “Green Disease” to “U” and now “Undone”, in this final stretch of More Than Ten, the remaining songs have many similarities, namely (at the risk of being completely redundant) they all consist of Ed Vedder indulging his lighter, leaner musical sensibilities. “Undone” is also a catalogue of other favorite Ed themes. Let’s recap them again!

1. Escape from mass, mainstream society to a smaller, simpler locale? Check.

Last stop on the west coast line
South of the northern border
One small corner on my mind

2. Commentary on the pitfalls of fame? Check.

Everybody, they know me there
Don’t get any second glances
Chances are that they don’t care

3. Ocean imagery? Oh you betcha.

Change don’t come at once
It’s a wave… building before it breaks

4. Left-wing politics? Yep.

Can’t wait for election day
Witness the occupation
Corporations rule the day

Ah yes, the four tenets of Vedderism. But there’s a notable, directly stated difference in “Undone”: “All this hope and nowhere to go / This is how I used to feel, but no more.” Though the song was released as a b-side, it is the act in Riot Act. It’s interesting to see that this renewed sense of both hope and purposefulness coincided with one of the grimmest times in modern U.S. politics and affairs, but that determined vigor and optimism has continued throughout a dire 2-term Bush presidency in much of Ed’s, and Pearl Jam’s work, as if the silver lining to an increasingly Orwellian world is an eventual wake-up call, and pendulum swing back towards sanity and rationalism. “Undone” is breezy yet focused, definitely west coast, with e-bowed and wah-wah guitars, sighing background vocals, and an explosive outtro that ranks among the band’s best.