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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Nicsperiment's Pearl Jam Listen-and-Review-a-Thon

If it wasn't clear from the Nirvana reviews I posted over the summer, in the Nirvana vs Pearl Jam debate in the 90's, I firmly chose Nirvana to the point that I own every Nirvana album, and no Pearl Jam ones. In fact, the only Pearl Jam album I've heard all the way through is Ten, despite Vs. and Vitalogy hanging out in most of my friends' glove compartments. Wait, that's a lie, my wife has Backspacer, and she played that one a lot right when it came out. Well, er...
I am at a point where I am reflecting a lot on my life thus far, all of my life, and now that I am at the point in the alphabet (for those not up to date, I am reviewing every album I own in alphabetical band order) where Pearl Jam would reside, I have a batty idea:
I am going to stream every single Pearl Jam full length, all ten of them in a row, and write a mini-review of each as I listen, right here on The Nicsperiment, right now.
Let's do this!

1991 Epic Records

To start, I am loving these early 90's keyboard sounds, but then there's that Vedder voice, so earnest and urgent and serious, so serious. Why so serious? But then the singles start hitting, and "Even Flow" is so good, I could never pretend not to like it. Vedder's soaring vocals really hit the spot on this one, and all the singles, but especially this one. Whoever is on the far right of this album cover needs to wear looser jeans. How do they breathe? I like the snare drum sound on "Alive." This whole thing has a nice, "We recorded this in a big room with lots of reverb" sound. Man, the singles for this album are all ubiquitous to this day, and the non-singles just kind of exist. The non-singles are okay, but the album gets a little bit tiring and repetitive, similar riff-structure, similar rhythms, Vedder's muddy grit all sort of bleeding together...and this is most of the second half of the album. You also don't feel the music is commenting on the times like Nirvana's did. It's just kind of there, like "Hey, we're Pearl Jam, and this could have been made at any point in history." I think the best albums are timeless, and yet of a time. I hope all of the other albums don't just muddle along like this. I mean, the second half isn't bad, I don't want to give the impression that I think it sucks, but in comparison to the singles... The singles are so good! Man, "Black" is so powerful! And "Jeremy" when Vedder is grunge scatting, or whatever it is he is doing at the end of the song and belting out like he is on top of a mountain. Makes me want to play the song again and again! But I have nine more albums of this to get through! Hey, the weird keyboard sounds are back at the end. Cool!
I give Ten an 8.0/10.0

1993 Epic Records

I remember this camel (EDITOR'S NOTE: It's apparently a goat) from the album cover staring up at me from my cousin Rhett's dashboard all the time. Man, this album opener jams harder than anything on Ten! Man, I really like this song. It's called "Go." Full of energy. Great opener. I love how the chorus comes down from the verses. Digging this new drummer! Really cool stuff. Man, and the next song, "Animal," is so aggressive, and nasty, like good nasty, way more attitude than Vedder showed on Ten. Nice guitar solo, too. Doesn't feel extraneous, more like an extension of the anger. Aw, but the next song has an acoustic intro...wait a minute, this is "Daughter." This was Vs. big single. It flows, sounds like it could have been a single from Ten, but again, more attitude.  It picks up, but it's actually a nice break after the energy of the first two songs. Whup, but the next song is lame, like cheesy lame, mainly due to Vedder's silly, repetitive chorus. Sounds like a kid's song. Aw, man, with "Dissident" it looks like Vs. is falling into a mid-tempo groove. How are they going to keep this interesting with seven tracks left? Woah, but "W.M.A" comes out with this crazy tom-tom part on the drums (loving this new drummer!), and keeps the energy going for six minutes, with Vedder's most pointed lyrics yet, directed to abusive police. Nice. The Vs. title is starting to make more sense. The next song has "wah-wah" guitar, but Vedder's most abrasive vocals yet--he essentially screams his way through the song. Enjoying his vocal diversity on this album compared to the previous one. Next few songs keep my interest...three left, though, and I feel like something drastic needs to happen. Hey, the next song is cool, I know I've heard it before, kind of a tender, quieter song about an older woman, but not boring. The rhythm keeps a good sense of movement. Nice, the next song is another rager. This is a much better album than the debut. It doesn't have the "soaring to the top of a mountain" singles, but as a whole, it is very consistent, cohesive, but it's got a lot of variety. The anger, the versus theme really works. Cobain lost his anger and he died, but Vedder's seems to be fueling him...this has the of a time feeling I mentioned above. Holy crap, check out Vedder's lyrics in the quiet, ragged closer, "Indifference":

I will hold the candle till it burns up my arm
Oh I'll keep takin' punches until their will grows tired
Oh I will stare the sun down until my eyes go blind
Hey, I won't change direction, and I won't change my mind
How much difference does it make
How much difference does it make, how much difference

I'll swallow poison, until I grow immune
I will scream my lungs out till it fills this room
How much difference
How much difference does it make

I could see myself owning this album. It is really, really good.
I give Vs. a 9.0/10.0

1994 Epic Records

Man, this one came out barely a year after the last one. Maybe the record label wanted some more singles? Well, they're not really getting singles out of this because this album sounds kind of weird...and hey, I think I like it. Vitalogy is so full of life. It just keeps changing from one sound, vibe, emotion to the next. It's so vibrant. Oh, there's "Better Man," the one song the label was able to get on the radio, and it comes at just the right time, even though it sounds more vulnerable and small than the band's older singles...and I don't mean that as a negative. Vedder's sincerity is starting to became an asset. His honest feelings transcend the irony the time is known for--I kind of feel like I am eating my 20-year old opinion now...really my opinion from two-hours ago when I was negatively comparing Pearl Jam to Nirvana ...Wow, great pacing on Vitalogy, too.  Man, really digging "Immortality," I think I love this album. I can see where Pearl Jam totally lost their mainstream cred here, but they must have really concreted their core fan base with this one. You realize this isn't some radio-single machine, this just might be a great band.
This is two albums straight I have really enjoyed.
I give Vitalogy a 9.0/10.0

No Code
1996 Epic Records

All that praise I just gave, and now album # 4, No Code, is not doing much for me. While Vitalogy sounded cohesive, despite its diversity, No Code sounds disjointed and strangely generic in its own. Another new drummer. I like the guy from the last two albums way better--so much more personality, and such a more full sound. Where are the toms? It's cool the band tried out so many different things for this album, but I wish they had maybe done less things and done them well. "Off He Goes," a softer song, is pretty cool. Man, the rest of this is so aimless. Oh, yeah, this is the album that pissed my high school history teacher off so much. He was a huge Pearl Jam fan, and he hated this album. What a bummer after the last two. Man, this is lame, and to add insult-to-injury, they've gotten all pseudo-spiritual and mopey. 30 ain't death, dudes! No Code's not the worst thing I've ever heard, but it's by far the worst thing they've put out up to this point. Hope they can get it back together.
I give No Code a 5.0/10.0

1998 Epic Records

Man, coming into this album, it just feels like that early fire is gone. Yield is definitely a more cohesive, and dare I say coherent musical document than No Code, not a bad way to spend 50 minutes, but it's far from great, with little standing out. At least it is relaxed and not scatterbrained. It's absolutely solid, but after that opening trio of albums, I want more than solid. I know it's only been a couple of hours, but I miss early Pearl Jam. The drummer on this and the last album just isn't doing it for me, either.
I give Yield a 7.0/10.0

2000 Epic Records

Hey, this one is starting with a bit of energy. Another new drummer, too. This one sounds a lot less boring. My attention is piqued. Three tracks in, and this sounds a lot deeper than the last couple--Vedder singing in ways that sound different than he did in the past. This has a bit of that, "It's a new millenium and everything is going to be awesome" vibe. Stupid 9/11 killed that. Holy crap, did Pearl Jam make a space metal album? Space Jam? Not quite, but "Nothing As It Seems" is awesome. This is excellent. It's like they just kept reshuffling the same toys in the same box, and those toys are all worn out and tired, and then they left the play room and the whole universe was out the door (life hint: the whole universe is always out the door). It's weird how much Vedder is starting to sound like Chris Cornell here. Man, I love how this album sounds. Finally switching producers (they've been using the same one since album #2) really did wonders for the band here. Drums sound huge. I like this new drummer. Brings something different to the table, but he likes the toms like the second guy did, which always seems to benefit Pearl Jam's sound. Man, even the acoustic stuff, like "Of the Girl" is full of atmosphere and sounds great. Wow, "Sleight of Hand" sounds huge (EDITOR'S NOTE: The bassist wrote all the best songs on this one!). I'm back on the Pearl Jam wagon. This is really good stuff. Binaural is so full, I feel like it will take far more than one listen to unpack all of the sounds here.
I give Binaural an 8.0/10.0

Riot Act
2002 Epic Records

I can't lie. Even though I enjoyed the last album, I am starting to get tired of listening to Pearl Jam. Still, I said I would do this, and I have to follow through. Here we go. Riot Act. Three tracks in, and I am not enjoying this as much as the last one. Same drummer, but that big spacey sound is gone. Vedder is laying it on pretty thick, but seems, deeps in his soul, to be profoundly bored--they all do. Forcing myself not to skip tracks. Almost back to No Code territory. ....and I've almost tuned out this whole thing. It's just not very interesting...and yet, No Code is still worse. This is just kind of bleh. Maybe that's why they took a four year break after this. Hope it helps!
I give Riot Act a 6.0/10.0

Pearl Jam
2006 J know what? I feel like I need to give credit to drummer, Dave Abbruzzese, who played for Pearl Jam on Vs. and Vitalogy (albums #2 and #3). Nothing has touched those albums to this point, and it is becoming apparent to me why. Abbruszzese gave the band an energy, aggression, and sense of movement that they haven't had since. Perhaps the tension he allegedly created in the band was a good thing that spurred Pearl Jam into making great music. You can hear them shooting for the sound of their second and third albums here, but without Abbruzzese's playing, it's just not working. Matt Cameron, the current drummer, certainly isn't band, but the songs just can't seem to rise above the level of "generic rock" with him behind the kit (Binaural not withstanding). Or maybe Pearl Jam are just getting old. I can appreciate what they are trying to do here, returning to that political edge and anger of their youth, and it certainly raises this album over the level of the previous one, but they just can't pull off that sound any more and make it interesting. This album is just blandly decent. Man, it really sounds like 2006. "Army Reserve"'s got a cool guitar sound. If the whole album did stuff like that, maybe I would care more.
I give Pearl Jam an extremely half-hearted 7.0/10.0

2009 Monkeywrench

Well, this one I've heard a lot in my wife's car, as it was the first Pearl Jam to come out since our wedding, and she likes Vedder. An anecdote: One time we were watching a late night talk show and Vedder was going to perform some solo stuff at the end. My wife fell asleep on the couch about a half-hour before his performance, and I got up, got a bowl of cereal, and sat on the floor. When Vedder started singing, I said, "Man, his voice sounds like shit," very quietly, nearly under my breath. "No, he doesn't!" my wife said loudly, from deep within a dream. She didn't wake or even stir, but her I Must Defend Eddie Vedder's Honor brain reflex was still running. It's interesting to hear Backspacer in the context of the rest of the band's albums--it sounds like such a breath of fresh air. They probably could have made 1,000 other albums like their self-titled, where they play okay-but-generic songs for 50-minutes, but I'm glad they tried something different here. The long album lengths definitely contributed to the fatiguing factor of their last few albums, and distilling their songs to 3:30 minute averages on this 35-minute long album works wonders. It's also great that they made their sound so much punchier, the short song lengths really prohibiting them from ever falling into any sort of lag, even when the band delves into the more ballad-type tracks. To put something out this lively 20 years into your career is no small feat. This Pearl Jam band might have some legs.
I give Backspacer an 8.0/10.0

Lightning Bolt
2013 Monkeywrench

Ah, the last one...for now. I've made it through ten straight Pearl Jam albums, and lived to tell the tale. Well, actually, I guess I could die while listening to Lightning Bolt, cuz I'm not done with it yet. Digging the energy, though. Maybe even more energetic than Backspacer so far. The drum part in the middle of "My Father's Son" is the most interesting thing Cameron has done for the band. Hey, some of these songs got on the radio...well, this is a depressing fact: In the South Louisiana area we had one rock station, based in Lafayette. It shut down about the time this album came out, and these singles are some of the last songs it played. Man, rock and roll is dead. So depressing. The keyboard has conquered all. Eh, this album is starting to bog down a bit in the middle. By "Let the Records Play" these are sounding like old dudes again...and I'm done, that's it. This album falls into the "It's just modern Pearl Jam" category, kind of like dad-rock wallpaper. But to put the whole thing in perspective, having listened to all ten Pearl Jam albums in a row, this band used to be straight-up mean-sounding, their second and third albums have such a great punk-edge. Pearl Jam is a decent band, and was once a great band. I guess I'll rank these albums now. Then I'm going to bed. Let's make tiers out of this. Oh wait, first:
I give Lightning Bolt a 7.0/10.0

I would buy these:
1. Vs.
2. Vitalogy

I would think about buying these:
3. Ten
4. Binaural
5. Backspacer

I am never listening to these again:
6. Lightning Bolt
7. Pearl Jam
8. Yield
9. Riot Act

I wish I would not have listened to this:
10. No Code

Oh, and one more thing before I forget:

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