Tuesday, May 31, 2016

You Used to Be Soooo Good: Pearl Jam

Welcome to another edition of You Used to Be Soooo Good, where Justin & I, Dan Moore, discuss things used to be awesome but now, eh, not so much. This week we discuss a band whose music was very important to me while a teenager in the rough streets of suburban Massachusetts whose current output is what I would call cookie cutter at best ( I don’t really know what that phrase is supposed to mean)              
Pearl Jam:  You Used to Be Soooo Good
Look at 'em in all their unwashed glory......

DAN: The early nineties were a confusing time for me in the music world. I was steadfastly a rock music fan. Loved Led Zeppelin from an early age due to influences from my father, and was drawn to all kinds of loud rock music since. But as a thirteen-ish year old boy, it was tough to be called a ‘headbanger’ in a derogatory fashion in a school where mostly pop & rap were listened to. Listening to Guns N Roses, Skid Row and other metal bands was not ‘cool’ to them, and peer pressure to fit in was abundant…but I just couldn’t do it. I stuck to my rock roots. And then it all changed with this new music called ‘Alternative Rock’. All of a sudden, guitar riffs and loud drums were acceptable in my school, all because of Nirvana, Stone Temple Pilots and, for me, the kings of this new movement, Pearl Jam.  Their first album, Ten, took a while to grow on me, but it did, slowly but surely. There are so many songs on that album that scream out classic. From front to back, there is not one misstep. It made me want more of them, and shortly thereafter, Vs. came out, which topped their debut album. I mean, just destroyed it. They grew into a completely different sounding band. Their music was INCREDIBLE.

Goofy cover but goddamn what a great record.

JUSTIN: My path to Pearl Jam was slightly different.  I too was into hard rock and metal, specifically bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, Slayer, etc.  I liked Gn'R, Motley Crue and Poison as well, but it was the thrash/speed metal that really blew up my skirt.  At my school metal was somewhat accepted actually, since some of the popular kids were into some of the same bands I was.  The difference was that I really looked the part, with long hair, rock T-shirts, acid washed (sometimes torn) jeans, and black cowboy boots (over the pants of course).  Yeah by today's standards I looked like a real jerkoff.  But there was a large metal clique in my school so I fit right in.

Anywho, by 1991 metal had actually gone mainstream and I was in heaven.  Metallica released the Black Album which took the world by storm.  They were all over the radio and MTV, and soon most of the metal bands I loved were following suit (i.e. stripping down their sound and making more accessible music) and finding mainstream success.  This was a double-edged sword because the music was clearly watered down but it was great to see bands like Megadeth actually getting mainstream attention.

The grunge thing crept in very slowly in my circles.  Nirvana showed up with "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which at first sounded to me like just another mainstream hard rock song.  I didn't hear anything that radically different for some reason, and it wasn't until I saw the video and found that they didn't look at all like rock stars that I thought, "Hmm, something's up."

Pearl Jam didn't pique my interest at all until the summer of '92, when "Alive" and "Evenflow" really caught on.  My first reaction to hearing there was a band called Pearl Jam was, "sounds like lame-o hippie sh*t to me."  But then the music grew on me and I caved and bought Ten.  And it's a really great record.  Definitely an iconic grunge album - not a bad song on there.  By the time Vs. came out I was enough of a fan that I waited in line for about two hours at Tower Records in Boston for the midnight release (incidentally I got one of the copies that was called Five Against One).  Got back to my dorm and listened to it front to back, and loved it.  It's definitely on par with Ten, though it's hard for me to pick one over the other.  Vs. has a more mature sound but Ten has so many classics.

Always liked this cover for some reason.  Always liked the album more.

DAN: They were a can’t-miss band when they came around (until their fighting with Ticketmaster basically stopped them from touring for years). Their first three albums are all great to listen to even today (and as blasphemies go, I must say Vitalogy is easily my favorite album they produced). They all still hold up. I venture to say they still had ‘it’ all the way up to the fifth album, Yield.

Then…something happened to them. I can’t put my finger on exactly what. Maybe it was the battle against the monopolymaster took some fight out of them. Perhaps they got a little too much hang out time with Neil Young. I’m not sure, but after Yield, their music lost all its urgency. It lost its importance to me. They weren’t exactly a raging hard rock band in those early years, but they could bring it. The later albums just don’t have that vital, rock edge to them. I was like Justin; I would wait up and buy their CD’s Tower on Newbury Street in Boston. They were that important to me. To listen to them now is disappointing. I still have all their albums, minus the most recent Lightning Bolt. I still listen to them a great deal. But the amount of the newer material that gets skipped in the rotation is infinitely more than the old days (hell, the only actual Pearl Jam song I loathe is ‘Blood’ from Vs.) It sucks, because I love Eddie Vedder’s voice. I think it’s one of the most iconic in rock music history. So many artists have been influenced by his singing (where would Creed be without him???!?!?), but their musical output just isn’t what it could be, to me anyway.

Dan's favorite Pearl Jam album.  Cuz he's a WEIRDO.

JUSTIN: Vitalogy is their best work??  Dan, you ignorant slut.  But seriously, Vitalogy was still a strong album and contains some all-time PJ classics ("Betterman" anyone?).  Vedder and co. lost me with No Code though.  I was so unimpressed with that album I stopped paying attention to anything they did for years.  Between that and the Ticketmaster feud I kinda figured Pearl Jam would fade into obscurity like so many of the 80s hard rock bands had. 

Fast forward to 2009 and I heard rumblings of a new Pearl Jam album, their ninth overall, Backspacer.  The first single "The Fixer" popped up on the radio and I kinda dug it.  Then the reviews came out saying Backspacer was their best album in years, so I decided to check it out, and I was thoroughly impressed.  It was the most urgent-sounding, straight-to-the-point Pearl Jam material since the early 90s.  "The Fixer," "Got Some," "Force of Nature," "Amongst the Waves," all instantly viable PJ tunes.

I decided to go back and listen to the albums I had missed, and other than Yield, which is a damn fine record, I was not impressed.  No Code, Binaural, Riot Act, and the eponymous 8th album all left me cold.  It was clear that Backspacer was a return to form.  I also have not checked out Lightning Bolt as yet, but I've heard pretty good things about it.

Overall though I'll agree, Pearl Jam started out HUGE, fell into a very long lull period, but seem to have found their footing again.  Time will tell how their recent efforts stack up against the novelty and youthful exuberance of their first three records, but you have to give these guys credit for surviving the death of grunge (in some cases literally) and being the only Seattle Big Four band that has stayed together since the genre first exploded in 1991.

The return to glory!

DAN: I certainly don’t think those intervening albums until Backspacer (which I also agree is a return to form) are terrible. I like songs on all of them. They are just forgettable. I listen to a tune off of Binaural, Riot Act etc., and I can’t discern which album it came off of. They all sound happily bland. Music you are not offended by but not inspired by either. (And I don’t think Vitalogy is their best work, I think Ten is, but Vitalogy is my favorite to listen to front to back because it has so many different sounds on it. It’s quite a different album than what had come before with Pearl Jam. It challenged the listener, and I appreciate that.)

Jesus, maybe we should listen to Lightning Bolt, huh? I mean, it only came out 7 or 8 months ago…I find it hard to believe we haven’t had the time to listen to it. Especially since we were both impressed with Backspacer so much. In fact, that is our homework. We must listen to that album full on in the next two weeks, or we’re fired.

JUSTIN UPDATE: Yeah we're back to the land of mediocrity.  Lightning Bolt is by no means a bad album, but like so many of Pearl Jam's other albums since the mid 90s, there's no urgency to it.  It doesn't scream out for relistens.  Evidently Backspacer was an outlier for Vedder & co.

So there it is. Our Pearl Jam love affair started off hot and heavy, hit a lull where we ostensibly broke up, rekindled the flame a bit, and are now cautiously optimistic about our future. Perhaps we will shortly have a new step in this bumpy relationship, and scratch out the “you used to be” from the sooooooo good part of the title of this long, meandering narrative.

Join us again next week when we use our heads (one bald, one very large) to come up with something that really sticks in our craw. We must first figure out what this craw is, but rest assured, when we do, there will be a stick firmly planted in it.

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