Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Everyone's a critic

Listening to: Yield - Pearl Jam

‘Rip it Up’ was once essential reading to me. Between 1994 and sometime this year I only missed purchasing one issue. In the past year or two though, I noted I was reading it less and less, was finding the content not as relevant as I once did, and I was really buying it just out of habit. So I stopped, and consigned it to the ‘interesting issue’ only purchase department, along with several other magazines I used to get regularly.

This months issue being guest edited by Eddie Vedder qualified as interesting so I picked it up. Actually ‘ghost edited’ might be a better term, since the editorial is something of a generic reminiscence, making me wonder just how much input Eddie actually had into the content (if you are reading Eddie, please feel welcome to elaborate in the comments).

Amongst the elevated Pearl Jam content is the regular ‘Essential’ guide, which is a rough lowdown for newbies to an artist’s work, with categories like ‘Start with', 'Follow with', ‘Then get’, ‘Wild card’ and ‘Avoid’.

Comparing your tastes to a critics is a crummy way of self assessment, since it usually winds up with me questioning my own calibration and taste, which is stupid, but there you go. Case in point, Pearl Jam’s 1998 album ‘Yield’ is consigned to the ‘Avoid’ category.

Say what? But I love ‘Yield’! Is my musical sense somehow out of whack and I am the only one who does?

Calming down a bit I realise that ‘Yield’ is only marked as ‘Avoid’ in the sense that it is perhaps not essential if trying to experience an overall summary of Pearl Jam’s body of work. Although the potted summary is damning with faint praise, saying things like “a hard hitting rock collection...rather straightforward....solid...contains no interesting voyages and has no hits at all...first record since 'Ten' not to hit number one on the Billboard chart". ‘Yield’ is probably my second or third favourite Pearl Jam album. I can’t think of it without remembering the hot summer of 1997-1998, driving places on warm nights with the windows down listening to mellow tracks like ‘Wishlist’ and ‘Lowlight’, turning it up for tracks like ‘Given to fly’ and ‘In Hiding’. It doesn’t seem to be a critics fave but I think it is a pretty good album, and it was given good reviews on its release. Later that summer the tour for that album reached Wellington, and on a blistering hair product meltingly hot night they played an awesome set (link to that nights setlist here) to a full house at the horribly acousticed tin shack then known as the Queen’s Wharf Events Centre (now known optimistically as the TSB (Taranaki Savings Bank for the non NZ readers) Arena, still with the same crappy sound). ‘Yield’ also deserves credit for getting me into Led Zeppelin, after a random hearing of ‘Ramble On’ reminded me of ‘Given to Fly’, and got me thinking that an obvious influence on one of my favourite bands might be worth checking out. Later I would discover that ‘Given to fly’ is itself pretty much a homage/reimagining of Led Zeppelins ‘Going to California’ (the verse melody is almost identical), but I’m getting off track.

‘Ten’ on the other hand is unsurprisingly listed as essential, with the qualifier that "it is largely regarded by Pearl Jam's fanbase as their greatest record", which besides being kind of a put down in itself for a band that has been recording for nearly twenty years (“Yup, you guys peaked way back then, and nothing you have done since is quite as good, sorry about that”), isn’t an opinion I’d agree with (as one of said fans). Of course that isn’t to say that debuts can’t be an artists best work (and they often are), and ‘Ten’ is an incredibly accomplished first album for a young band. I just think some of their later stuff is better. Like for example the second album ‘Vs’, released in October 1993 (and the first album I got as soon as I could after it came out. On cassette of course, being that this was 16 years ago and I wouldn’t get a CD player for another year).

I prefer ‘Vs’ to ‘Ten’ for a bunch of reasons. ‘Ten’ is great, but sometimes feels a little unfocussed and sprawling. ‘Vs’ is tighter and leaner, without being any less uncompromising. I think it is a more rounded collection of songs, with stronger songwriting. Opening track ‘Go’ grooves along quietly for the first twenty seconds or so, then the drums come in and its full noise pedal to the metal stuff for the rest of the song. The next track ‘Animal’ maintains the pace and noise, respite only coming in the form of track three ‘Daughter’ , which showcased the bands willingness to evolve and try new things, one of the things about them that has kept me a fan for all these years. They could have easily released ‘Ten II’ (‘Eleven’?) and had another monster. The material in the form of tracks like ‘Alone’, ‘Yellow Ledbetter’, ‘Wash’, ‘State of Love and Trust’, ‘Breath’, ‘Crazy Mary’ and ‘Footsteps’ for example was certainly there for the compilation. They chose the more creative road though, and made a much better album for it. ‘Vs’ is a damn good listen (even if I now skip ‘Daughter’, due to hearing it just too many times after it became a crossover mainstream hit).

Like ‘Yield’ would do later, ‘Vs’ would become the sound of my summer of 1993-94. I listened to it for the first time in a while the other night and was struck by how undated it feels. Tracks like ‘W.M.A’, ‘Leash’, ‘Rats’ and ‘Rearview Mirror’ still sound fresh at the same time as being highly nostalgic. And that’s why I like it.
Maybe I should be a critic or something :)


Andrew said...

another downside of those "essential" guides is when you *are* a newbie, and you take them on trust, and then you eventually get round to listening to the "caution" records and discover the critic was an idiot and you shouldn't have taken their advice.

Jon said...

Yeah, I dig Vs. as well. I'm not sure if I'd say it's better than Ten, but I'd rate it equal. Go, Rearview Mirror, those two tracks get me going any time. Daughter and Elderly Woman were awesome although not as frantic as the former two.

I never gave Yield much of a listen, or Binnaural (sp?). Where as No Code I would rate as their third best album - similar to you, I listened to it extensively one summer and those songs really grew on me.

Just my 2c.

grizaham said...

good post. it's not a bad option to start with ten bc isn't that what we all started with??
pearl jam is the greatest in my opinion.
just got back to Nashville from four shows in Philly.
great time!

Off-Black said...

Hey man thanks for the compliment and the comment. You're not wrong about Ten as a starter for a Newbie. If you want to have context for the rest of the albums you have to hear where they started from. Gee, I can remember when it was the ONLY album hehe boy does that make me feel old! Four nights in a row! Sweet!