The Over/Under: Pearl Jam

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With nine studio albums and more officially released bootlegs than any band in history, Pearl Jam has managed to not only escape the grunge pigeonhole and the shadow of Nirvana but also cement itself in rock history as one of the most uncompromising and captivating live bands of all time. Sure, Pearl Jam has inspired whole, terrible sections of the radio dial, and I cringe to imagine who will give its Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction speech (Eddie Vedder has done it for R.E.M., the Ramones, Neil Young and the Doors), but these guys were almost the only thing I listened to for several formative, angst-filled years growing up, and there’s something to be said for being such a major influence on mainstream modern-rock radio, just like there’s something to be said for having sold more than 50 million albums. Pearl Jam’s debut album was 1991’s Ten, and it was the first CD I ever owned. At one point, this was the biggest band in the world, but then the group decided to make a conscious effort to cut back on the videos and press and take the ride at a pace it could digest. Now the guys seem to spend most of their time surfing, skateboarding or with their families and working with various charities, but they’re still at it: Pearl Jam’s latest, Backspacer, hit Target and iTunes this week. Here are the five most overrated and the five most underrated works from the last band standing from the ’90s Seattle grunge explosion. Read our 2006 Q&A with Vedder.

:: The Five Most Overrated Pearl Jam Songs
1. “Better Man” (1994)

Supposedly Vedder wrote this song when he was only a teenager while sitting on his bed, and that makes sense. The worst part about this song is seeing it live. It is not uncommon for the entire crowd to drown out Eddie with its singing, and he’s been known to completely give the performance of the song over to the audience. I’m not against crowd participation, but during “Better Man,” it can get a bit obnoxious. Also, it’s not a love song, as i think it’s often misinterpreted; I don’t know how many times I’ve seen couples slow-dancing in aisles to this song or singing it to each other at shows, either missing the meaning or possibly having some issues they need to work out.

2. Ten (1991)
Radio has killed a good number of the songs on this album along with a handful of other great Pearl Jam tunes. “Evenflow,” “Alive” and “Jeremy” are so overplayed that my parents probably know all the words. When you hear a song for the 1,000th time in the cereal aisle at the grocery store, some of the meaning has probably been lost. Obviously, the band knows this and it has made efforts to fight overexposure as much as any rock ‘n’ roll band ever, but it’s a hard battle to fight. What rock band doesn’t want fans? Despite it being Pearl Jam’s bestselling album and the whole reason for its existence, without the recent remixing, Ten sounds dated and cheesy. When the band plays these songs live, they’re usually more aggressive and amped-up, but I’m so sick of hearing them that I’m usually just wondering what’s next.

“Even Flow”:

3. “Daughter” (1993)
Very few Pearl Jam songs stay at one level of intensity. Aside from a quick electric guitar solo, “Daughter” goes almost nowhere. There might be a reason the band used to use this song as the improv section of its sets, jamming the song into a cover or something else entirely. It’s probably because the guys get bored playing it. How many songs can one band write about dysfunctional parent/child relationships? Nothing speaks to disaffected youth better than songs about disaffected youth, I guess. Troubled souls unite.

4. “Bee Girl” (1993)
When I caught Pearl Jam in Berlin last month, the band pulled out this rarity, and the crowd went nuts. I have no idea why. Originally recorded as part of a radio appearance, Vedder wrote (improvised?) this song about the girl from Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video who wears a bumblebee costume. The song had been a throwaway novelty that appeared on early bootleg compilations until the guys dusted it off for 2003’s Lost Dogs b-side collection and it started to make its way back into sets. It was cute for what it was: a one-shot tossed-off joke of a song. But Pearl Jam shouldn’t use it to open the first encore. It diminishes the greatness of the songs the band actually put effort into writing.

5. “Yellow Ledbetter” (1992)
Speaking of putting effort into writing songs, this song doesn’t even have lyrics. If Vedder had taken 15 minutes to sit down and put pen to paper, this could have been one of the greatest rock songs of all time and a massive hit. As it is, it’s a jumbled, mumbled mishmash on top of a guitar line nicked from “Little Wing.” The band usually saves this for last at its shows, and I’ve always found it as the signal to start heading for the parking lot in hopes of beating some of the traffic.

:: The Five Most Underrated Pearl Jam Songs
1.
No Code (1996)
When this album was released, I remember many Pearl Jam fans claiming that the band had lost it. “Who You Are” as the lead single was a strange mid-tempo choice for a band whose last album was the jagged, punky Vitalogy, and this was the point where I started to hear the rock-critic cliché of “I liked their early stuff.” Former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons is partially credited with the band’s slight stylistic departure. His tribal-influenced drumming gave the group a whole new dynamic and one that it never completely lost post Irons thanks to reverent renditions by Matt Cameron. As a whole and compared with the band’s entire discography, I don’t think there’s another album that better embodies Pearl Jam’s sound. No Code is full of every kind of great song the band can write: rockers (“Hail, Hail”), ballads (“Off He Goes”), ones sung by other members (“Mankind”), quirky experiments (“Who You Are”) and anthems (“In My Tree”).

“In My Tree”:

2. “Brain Of J.” (1998)
One of the best political songs the band has done and here’s why: It’s non-specific. Pearl Jam is just raging against the machine in general here, and lyrically, Vedder has always been more interesting when he leaves spaces for listeners to fill in their own lives. This song originally surfaced during the 1995 tour but for some reason did not appear on an album until three years later. A short, paranoid, conspiracy rocker that seems to preach to the Bush administration before they even got started, this song opened Yield with a false start and then a promise: “The whole world will be different soon/The whole world will be relieved.”

3. Merkin Ball (1995)
This single (two-song EP?) came out of collaboration with Neil Young for Mirror Ball, and it is a crime against rock that these guys haven’t gotten back together for another round. Stylistically, the album’s songs show a more gradual evolution between the dark, jagged Vitalogy and the roomier, eclectic instrumentation of No Code. Almost all of the tracks were written and recorded in four days in the studio, and Mirror Ball is still one of the best things PJ or Young has ever put to tape. Unfortunately, only two Pearl Jam songs came out of the session, “I Got Id” and “Long Road,” but they are two of its strongest. Young plays guitar on “I Got Id” and organ on “Long Road”.

“I Got Id”:

4. “Satan’s Bed” (1994)
The opening riff to this song is scary. It just sounds nefarious and angry. This is Vedder’s best lyrical response to fame and the temptation of money: “I shit and I stink/I’m real, join the club.” Recorded at the height of the band’s popularity (just mere months from Vs. becoming the fastest-selling album of all time) and containing some of its most angst-filled lyrics, aggressive guitar lines and powerful drumming, “Satan’s Bed” simply rocks. There must be a good reason why Pearl Jam doesn’t play it live very much, but I cannot fathom it.

5. “Fatal” (2000)
Originally a Binaural outtake and later released on Lost Dogs, this infectiously catchy acoustic song has no excuse for not making it on a proper album and becoming a huge hit. I remember the first time I  heard “Fatal.” I was sitting in a parking lot in Bonner Springs, Kan., in the conversion van of some truly insane superfans who had been following the band on tour. They played me this song and three others, and no one would tell me where the songs came from. (And no, I definitely could not have a copy.) I remember not being sure who I was more frustrated with, the “elitist” fans who taunted me or the band that kept the song off Binaural.

—Edward Fairchild

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