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Pearls Before Swine: Reading the Riot Act to the Godfathers of Grunge

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thumb_pearl_jam_tenRock and Roll 101: Pearl Jam

It’s been sixteen years now since Pearl Jam released Ten.

At the time, I was a lad of about fourteen myself, and a prime target:
a smart, self-important suburban brat from a broken home, emo before
there was a word for it.

It was a couple of years after I discovered Rock, and a few months
before I discovered Punk (in the form of a certain Aberdeen power
trio). I didn’t get what the Dead Kennedys were going for (still
don’t), but I had begun to suspect that bands like Rush and Bad Company
were, underneath it all, worthless shit.

Rock and Roll 101: Pearl Jampearl_jam_ten

It’s been sixteen years now since Pearl Jam released Ten.

At the time, I was a lad of about fourteen myself, and a prime target:
a smart, self-important suburban brat from a broken home, emo before
there was a word for it.

It was a couple of years after I discovered Rock, and a few months
before I discovered Punk (in the form of a certain Aberdeen power
trio). I didn’t get what the Dead Kennedys were going for (still
don’t), but I had begun to suspect that bands like Rush and Bad Company
were, underneath it all, worthless shit.

Pearl Jam hit me right between the eyes and I never got over it.

Last year the band released their Late Stage Self-Titled Album (Rock’s
equivalent of a living will), so I decided it is time to look at their
works again and try to figure out why I still care.

If there’s one reason I’m writing this, it’s that a disturbing fact has
come to my attention: certain of today’s hot shit indie bands seem to
be of the opinion that they are somehow above Classic Rock. As though
their navel-gazing sub-genres were not just weatherworn caves nestled
behind the roaring waterfall of Rock. As though Rock had not fed and
sheltered them like the proverbial albatross drawing blood from its
breast.

The band’s music is omnipresent enough to present ample opportunities
to disabuse them of this stupid conceit, although I must admit that I
am driven by more painful and personal concerns.

Whenever Pearl Jam comes up in conversation I find myself unaccountably
taking their side, insisting that they matter, even after the meatheads
in reflective sunglasses, cowrie-shell necklaces and Abercrombie ball
caps dripped their Nat Lite-infused mosh sweat all over my beloved
Alternative Rock. There’s a real sense that Pearl Jam was always their
band and not mine, and this irks me on every imaginable level.

Consider those frat-rape heroes the Doors, the band who are most akin
to Pearl Jam in music history. Both sport recorded catalogs that are 60
to 70 percent certifiable buttsuck. Both feature(d) frontmen who not
only took themselves waay too seriously, but provided templates for
other, lesser jackasses to do the same (but I’ll still take Eddie
Vedder’s Planned Parenthood Warrior Child over Jim Morrison’s
sweaty-cocked Lizard Scum any day, simply because Vedder may have
inspired a useful act out there somewhere, and no one ever accused
Morrison of that).

Not that I didn’t love the Doors too; I did in my adolescent haze. But
I have since forgiven them, waved goodbye, and gotten on with my life.
Why can’t I do the same with Pearl Jam? Is it just because they still
seem so damned earnest? Since when do we love bands because they meant
well?

I’ve always wished I could just give the band’s detractors a mix tape
of the good stuff and defy them to blow it off as irrelevant. With last
year’s Pearl Jam registering barely a blip on the pop music radar, now
seems to be the time. So on this auspicious date and via the magic of
the internet I bring you: The Only Pearl Jam Songs Worth Listening
To.


From Ten (1991)

Nope. Throw it away. Better yet, burn all the copies and deny it to the
enemy. I can kind of imagine living on the moon for a few hundred years
and then wanting to hear "Black" again, but that’s just a fantasy. This
album has been fatally compromised and will never mean anything again.


From Vs. (1993)

"Go" – I was so intoxicated with this that I played it for my best
friend the day it came out on my blown out car stereo. We both listened
in ecstatic disbelief to the badass gurgling Touch-and-Go bassline that
sparks off the record. When the vocals came in, he said "Oh shit, it’s
Pearl Jam! I thought this was somebody good!"

"Animal" – The band was at its best when the guitarists brought out a
killer chunky riff and gave Vedder room to go off, but not enough rope
to hang himself. Probably the best rock single of 1993, and infinitely
more punk than the ridiculously self-conscious "Black Circle".


From Vitalogy (1994)

"Last Exit" – A revved up jewel in 5/4 time. I always thought this
was a reference to the old coffee shop up in the U District, especially
since it contained an LSD reference and I once bought mushrooms up
there. Another example of great no-frills rocksmanship that hit hard
and was out the door.

"Not For You" – Come on, you liked this song. It beat the hell out
of anything else on the radio at that time. This is part of the key,
really: it was earnest and goofy and angry and real when other bands
were trying to strike hip or macho poses and utterly failing to bring
anything to the table.

"Corduroy" – Barely makes the cut because of a great chord
progression and a few outstanding lyrics ("The waiting drove me mad /
you’re finally here and I’m a mess"), but Eddie already had his "boy
doesn’t fame suck" song, and as far as I’m concerned you only get one.
I hated the line "spill my tincture" (if that’s even what he was
saying), one of those lines that stuck sideways in my brain and
wouldn’t leave for years.

From No Code (1996)
"Hail, Hail" – a blood-boilingly sweet anthem to all things love.
See a pattern here? It’s OK to say things that have meaning, and wear
your heart on your sleeve, and be vulnerable and risk looking silly in
a rock song. It’s easier to hide behind obscure lyrics and trendy
musical poses, but nobody ever said Rock was easy.

"In My Tree" – This is the best Pearl Jam song ever. Listen to it again.

"Smile" – Like Neil Young, but without Neil’s terrible voice. The
plaintive refrain "I miss you already" is fucking heartbreaking.
Everything that needs to be said is said straight up in this one.

From Yield (1998)
"Brain of J" – I’m including this one because I love the optimism
and the delivery, but I recognize this isn’t really one of their
absolute best tracks. Whatever, it’s my mix tape.

"Wishlist" – This struck me as dead stupid when I first heard it,
but a guitarist friend of mine picked this as his favorite Pearl Jam
song, and years later I have to admit he was on to something.

"Low Light" – Of their ballads, this is the most atmospheric and the least annoying.


From Binaural (2000)

"Breakerfall" – Wow. I pretty much shit my pants the day I first heard
this. In content and execution this is leagues above most anything you
could label ‘arena-rock’. With Binaural these guys took arena rock and
owned it, brought it back to the Who, made us remember why so many
people would want to gather together to hear a Rock band. Because Rock
fucking matters.

"Insignificance" – Ditto on this one. I believe someone was crushed
to death during an early performance of this song. They really came out
with both fists swinging on this record. That is, when they weren’t
making garbage like "Of The Girl".

"Thin Air" – Another really great love song in the vein of "Smile".
Direct and heartfelt without being cheap, sentimental, or mawkish. Suck
a big one, emo community.


From Riot Act (2002)

Yeah, you can pretty much ignore this record. It was basically a pile of dogshit, and I’m not going to defend it.


From Pearl Jam (2006)

And now we’re pretty much up to date. The standout tracks on Pearl
Jam are, as always, the stripped-down, no-nonsense, heart-on-the-sleeve
rockers, namely "Life Wasted", "World Wide Suicide" and "Marker in the
Sand". Take what you can use and ignore the rest.

Pearl Jam is in a lot of ways a done deal now – their moment has come
and gone, and even their imitators have cannibalized themselves into
oblivion. It can still be said of them that they did more to revitalize
rock and roll than any of their contemporaries who achieved comparable
fame and status.

You don’t have to listen to Pearl Jam, but please, for God’s sake, don’t go around acting like you’re better than them.

‘Cause you’re not.

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Previous 101s
Neil Young
Robbie Fulks
Indie Rock 101


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