PEARL JAM celebrated their 20th anniversary recently with a documentary, an accompanying soundtrack album, a new single or two, record re-releases, and a massive coffee-table book.
In honour of their birthday, we've looked into what this influential and successful band got up to in their second decade together.
THE band were up to their fourth drummer when Matt Cameron took over on the Yield tour for Jack Irons. Strangely, Cameron (formerly of Soundgarden) was also their first drummer in a way - he had played on the band's early demos before Dave Krusen joined. Ever stranger, given Cameron's power and skill, the album doesn't get the most out of the new guy, as guitarist Stone Gossard later admitted. Instead, Binaural is a dark, subdued, almost claustrophobic album that's short on big rock power and made seemingly as an excuse to work with Tchad Blake (Crowded House, Tom Waits, Bernard Fanning) and his method of binaural recording, which aims to replicate the human ear and the listening experience through mic placement. Even the band isn't that enamoured with the album now. "We look back and think we didn't put some of the best songs on it," bassist Jeff Ament said. Certainly, some great offcuts would appear on the 2003 rarities collection Lost Dogs. But Binaural is not without its appeal. Lead single, the epic Nothing As It Seems, is one of their best songs. Penned by Ament and boasting some of guitarist Mike McCready's best work, it's a Pink Floyd-ish downbeat dirge that stands head and shoulders above the rest of the album. Other highlights include The Who-esque opener Breakerfall, the mid-paced pop-rocker Light Years, Gossard's acoustic anti-ballad Thin Air, and the stormy Insignificance. "I think there are some beautiful things that came out of it, but we're never going to remember that record as one of the greats," admitted Gossard.
Damn this is a chill-inducer... presenting Nothing As It Seems, live from the Pinkpop festival in 2000:
Riot Act (2002)
SIX weeks after Binaural's release and partway through a European tour, Pearl Jam suffered every band's worst nightmare - nine people were killed and 26 more injured during their performance at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. The tour eventually continued, but the band was left shaken. Roskilde is honoured on Riot Act through Vedder's heartfelt Love Boat Captain and the melodic waltz of lead single I Am Mine, with the latter being an album highlight. Ultimately the disaster of Roskilde brought the group closer together (as well as leading them to ensure it never happened at one of their gigs ever again) and as a result Riot Act is a more collaborative album than Binaural but it finds the band clicking into place with surprisingly eclectic results. Cropduster is a typically bent-rhythmed contribution from Cameron, You Are sees Pearl Jam almost veer into Radiohead territory thanks to guitar parts being run through a drum machine, new wave/punk influences creep in on Green Disease, Save You harks back to the rock of Vs with its Sonic Youth-like groove, Help Help is artfully arranged art-rock, while Bu$hleaguer sees the band give George W Bush the bird with a big dumb grunge riff and Vedder's spoken word delivery. The upshot of it all is that Riot Act is an interesting and intriguing album, but despite the band's unity it feels unfocused and lacking the hooks that have accompanied their past works.
Wow, there's actually a video clip for this one - here's I Am Mine:
Pearl Jam (2006)
"RETURN to form" gets bandied around a lot in Pearl Jam record reviews but it's really true of their self-titled eighth. Opening with a three-peat of throat-shredding, guitar-shredding raucous rockers (Life Wasted, World Wide Suicide, Comatose), the album kicks off like the long-lost older brother of Vs. The experimentation is not forgotten (the beat-short pop song Parachutes, the backwards guitars at the opening of Severed Hand, the reprise of Wasted, closer Inside Job) but Pearl Jam have remembered to bring the songs, the hooks and the electricity that made them famous. Even when they drop the tempo for the bluesy soul of Come Back, there's still a power that was lacking from much of Binaural and Riot Act. Having used their star power to campaign for John Kerry in the 2004 election, it's no surprise there was plenty of bitterness still to be directed at George Dubya, and it surfaces on the military-themed songs Army Reserve, World Wide Suicide and Severed Hand (Vedder has even said the album came close to being an American Idiot-style concept record). As their first record away from Epic Records and with its eponymous title, this album feels like a re-birth.
Here's the truly bizarre clip for Life Wasted:
THE rock continued on Backspacer, the first release on their own label Monkeywrench. It went top 10 in 21 countries, led by first single The Fixer, described in the new book Pearl Jam Twenty as arguably their catchiest song in a decade (Musicology agrees wholeheartedly). Even with a slightly odd time signature, it was a hit, sounded somewhere between Bruce Springsteen and The Cars, but with Vedder's unmistakeable vocals out front. The Fixer was just the thing to remind people Pearl Jam were still around, still viable and still making great music. So if their self-titled was a rebirth, Backspacer continued that idea, even bringing Brendan O'Brien to produce for the first time since Yield. Four big rockers (Gonna See My Friend, Got Some, The Fixer, Johnny Guitar) open the record before the folky string-laden ballad Just Breathe kicks in, sounding decidely un-Pearl-Jam-like. It's further proof that the band still has the capacity to surprise as much as they know what make them work the best. As a result, Backspacer is their leanest album, clocking in at just under 37 minutes - short on filler, big on killer. "If Pearl Jam is thinking too much, we're not very good," according to Gossard. So while The Fixer might have a bent time signature, it's still comparitively straight-ahead pop-rock, much like the more-direct Amongst The Waves, and the mid-tempo Speed Of Sound.
The Fixer - great track:
Their 270 live albums (2000-2011)
THAT might seem like a random number, but at last count, that's how many "official bootlegs" and live albums the band has put out. Starting with their Binaural tour in 2000, the band decided to give their fans access to better quality recordings than the many illegal tapes that were floating around (at a price of course). The final show in Seattle of that 2000 tour actually cracked the Billboard charts top 100 in the US and is their biggest selling bootleg - they hold the record for the most albums to debut in the top 200 at the same time, when seven of their live albums all made it into the chart at once. But with so many live albums, which ones are the best? Fortunately, Pearl Jam's wildly varying setlists mean there are roughly 100 songs that could be potentially played on any given night, so if you have your favourite tracks, simply find the bootleg that has those tracks on it. Also, the band designates their favourites of the tour as Ape/Man bootlegs, which is a designation assigned to only about a dozen shows on each tour. No matter which one you get though, it's likely to be full of gems - Pearl Jam shows are known to go for up to and beyond three hours, as befitting of a band regarded as one of the best live acts in the world.
There are so many great live clips of Pearl Jam on YouTube but we went with this one for no good reason other than Rearviewmirror is an awesome song: