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“Examining Pearl Jam’s 1990s Material Toward a Conclusion That They Lived for the Live Show”

Pearl Jam is an impossible entity to figure out, I’m convinced, and that’s why they’ll always be a vital mainstay of alternative rock, as well as the overall historical canon. They’re composed of numerous gifted songwriters, from Jeff Ament (“Nothing as it Seems”) to Eddie Vedder (“Off He Goes”) to the terrible twosome of Gossard and McCready, who, according to Pearl Jam Twenty, put together “Faithfull,” my favorite Pearl Jam tune, conjunctively, during a telephone conversation. Mike McCready on lead guitar is going away the best guitar soloist of the ’90s. Their shows were BIG in every sense of the word, with a charismatic singer toting a proclivity for stage banter and charm. 

Much of this, almost without question, feeds into why so many people hate them. I routinely hear people refer to Eddie Vedder as an “egomaniac.” I mean, when you listen to music, you’re not selecting a person to spend time with or to hire for your job, so I don’t know why his “egomania” would be a pertinent discussion point. Nonetheless, that’s one complaint I observe leveled against them, as well as Kurt Cobain’s that they were a “real commercial rock band.” So people are going to hear them, in other words? 

Still, all my defenses withstanding, it’s true that sometimes it’s tempting to say that they lack identity. In a sense, they have the schizophrenia of a supergroup, with singer and microphone-strangler Eddie Vedder having grown up in California, Jeff Ament from Montana and Stone Gossard a Seattle boy formerly inhabiting the band Green River. Vedder’s a punker surfer eager to invite the Buzzcocks on tour in 2003. Many of the early Seattle grunge bands, on the other hand, are just as quick to cheese out to some arena rock like Aerosmith or Queensryche, thereby implicitly endorsing the sense of bombast and five-minute-song epic that we hear so active in, at very least, the first Pearl Jam record, Ten. Even staunch Pearl-Jam-heads like myself would be foolish to deny that this stylistic chasm rears its ugly head, sometimes, in the band’s work. 

As pertains to production, then, certain metamorphoses and variables present themselves as, respectively, aligning with these differences in musical styles. The recording techniques used on the band’s debut album, Ten, of separation and loose, grandiose snare sound, can be associated with mainstream ’80s heavy metal. Their next producer, then, Brendan O’Brien, who would work on the second album, Vs. as well as their next five after that, brought a more live recording technique, typically associated with punk and the DIY (do-it-yourself) or low-budget approach to making records. Now, you might ask, if this second method is “cooler,” for lack of a better term, why would any producer choose the former, crusty strategy of doing every part separate and clean, in a vacuum? The answer, while perhaps somewhat elusive, probably has to do with the fact that to record live, you need exact, precocious mike placement, to gather all the parts to within a reasonable volume, and the band has to be great — practiced, skilled and all on the same page, to nail the run-throughs and not require a million takes. Without question, Pearl Jam was the band for the job, just as Nirvana did Bleach and In Utero all live, for that opaque, gelatinous sound.

And just as Nirvana put on blistering, awe-inspiring live shows, so does Pearl Jam, to which I can personally attest by having witnessed two of them in person. (Conversely, I’ve met one person in my life who’d attended a Nirvana concert, and, believe it or not, it was on the Bleach tour in 1989, at the Pearl Street Pub, which probably boasts a maximum capacity of 60, in Boulder, Colorado.) Pearl Jam’s live albums will affirm this statement, as well, in most shining colors the brilliant Live on Two Legs from 1998, which highlighted some of the best versions from the summer tour of that same year. Mike McCready tends to be the alpha male who shines most brightly on recordings like this, with the loose song structure and spontaneous compositional attitude lending themselves to some seriously verbose and impressive guitar solos. In my opinion, the live version of “Even Flow,” with its accelerated pace, saturated, instrumentally intermingled mix and wild, wolverine vocals from Eddie Vedder, renders the studio version from Ten almost unlistenable. The important foil track to this, then, is “Go,” which, while also galloping along at great pace and volume like a twisted KISS-Iron Maiden marriage, pays off sufficiently in its studio version, with O’Brien peppering its Vs. treatment with that amusing initial entrance and exit of the drums, and some relatively guttural and submerged drum sound, mocking the aural landscape of a pub show.

Cover versions were also a common facet of the Pearl Jam live show, usually to pretty commendable results. The “Fu**in’ up” run-through, a Neil Young song, which closes out Live on Two Legs, is something to behold. Live on Ten Legs features a proud rendition of “Arms Aloft” from Joe Strummer and the Mescalleros, as well as, unrelated but tickling still, not a single song that also graces Live on Two Legs. And of course, many of us know about the half-butchered Wrigley Field “I’ve Got a Feeling” (Beatles) high jinks, which ultimately made for a pretty head-noddin’ time, by and large.

Another reason why I claim that Pearl Jam phenomenologically favored the live show over studio albums as their true calling, aside from, of course, Vedder’s teeming, maniacal battle with Ticketmaster in the mid-’90s, is that, God da**, they’ve never really made the perfect studio album. I’d even take it so far as to say that sometimes it seems like they don’t really care about the final product of their studio LP’s at all. In the ’90s, it was a way to make money. Those CD’s would ship by the 10’s of 1,000’s and the livelihood would roll right in — no more day job, more time to practice your craft or take up an ulterior hobby. In the case of their last release, then, Gigaton, it almost seemed like the band just went in and made an album because of all the Facebook pages desultorily demanding one out of them. The quality of the music would certainly not rule out such a vendetta. 

And maybe it’s the case that with a band whose songwriting input is so democratic as Pearl Jam’s, featuring as it does up to five different songwriters for a given album (Matt Cameron is credited for the “Evacuation” which graces Binaural, the first Pearl Jam album he drummed on), it’s just harder to compile a whole LP that seems like something coherent and excessive in significance of its parts. I’m envisioning something like the opposite — the emotional journey of an Elliott Smith recording, done all in a bedroom, to then yield inconsistent, fumbling and unreliable live shows, perhaps, Smith easily interchangeable with any other emotionally vulnerable muse prone to creative solitude. The album No Code, in particular, while never being really a record I’d put on and enjoy straight through, is undeniably what I’d call a collection of great songs. “Hail, Hail” is a stout enough tune as to occupy the third slot on Live on Two Legs. “Off He Goes” is a great acoustic anthem, concert staple and fan favorite and even “Who You Are” is a song so brilliant, catchy and textural that you’re bound to wonder why it’s not more famous. The band were tired from playing their 35-song shows, probably. 

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