By Benjamin Leatherman
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Nirvana or Pearl Jam?
It's the Beatles-or-Stones query of the flannel era, a sort of musical litmus test, almost a line in the sand. Nirvana, of course, has the tragedy going for it (like The Beatles), and the successful followup projects (Foo Fighters is Nirvana's Wings, and Eyes Adrift is, I don't know, a pretty good version of Ringo's All Starr Band that people don't remember very well), a place in the canon, and the dubious distinction of having an upcoming CBS sitcom named after their breakthrough hit (from the guy who brought you Big Bang Theory, naturally).
But Pearl Jam, the Seattle combo of vocalist/guitarist Eddie Vedder, guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, bassist Jeff Ament, and current drummer Matt Cameron, is indeed the Stones of the equation. The band has survived lineup shifts and sea changes in the music industry, yet remarkably have maintained an air of punk rock cred (no small feat considering that Ten, the band's massive debut, is about as blooze-rocky as you'd imagine from Stevie Ray Vaughan and Hendrix devotees), dragging along bands like Sonic Youth, Bad Religion, and Ted Leo and The Pharmacists on tour and covering The Ramones, Dead Moon, and Split Enz live.
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They've cultivated one of the most passionate fan bases in rock music, encouraging Grateful Dead-style fanaticism with their live record series, and they continue to inspire rabid defense from even the most "indie" (whatever that means) listeners. (Case in point: While camping near Florence earlier this year, I climbed a rock to get enough cell-phone reception to debate the band's best album via Twitter with a member of Phoenix power-poppers Kinch, a staffer from Yucca Tap Room, a local blogger, and one former New Times music editor).
As we near the 20-year anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death, much of the ink spilled regarding him wonders where the songwriter would be if he were alive today. I think he'd be making the same kind of records Eddie Vedder's making right now.
Though Pearl Jam's records have continued to roar (the last, Backspacer, was as fiery as anything they've put to tape), Vedder's solo work has been quieter, the work of a recluse in his element. His solo debut, the soundtrack to Sean Penn's 2007 adaptation of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, found Vedder singing in the voice of a sympathetic character. Like the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, much of Vedder's career has been spent rejecting the norm. As the voice of the anti-TicketMaster movement, Vedder positioned himself as an artist first and a moneymaker second. But like McCandless, he's a contradictory, flawed character, too: Backspacer's release included an exclusive version sold at Target and unavailable at independent record stores.
Thankfully, the same call wasn't made regarding Ukulele Songs, Vedder's proper solo debut. Over sparse accompaniment (provided by the titular uke), Vedder sings a collection of sad songs, hinting softly with doo-wop melodies and his husky baritone at the big, bloody heart that's always resided at the center of Pearl Jam's bluster. Vedder's joined by like-minded guests, including Glen Hansard of The Swell Season and The Frames, and Chan Marshall of Cat Power.
It's a document that resides comfortably apart from Pearl Jam, that steady, long-running workhorse, and complements it rather than upstages it. To resort again to Stones analogies, let's say that Into the Wild was Vedder's Performance soundtrack and that Ukelele Songs is his . . . Paul McCartney's Ram?
Huh. Might need to repostulate.
Actually, if memory serves (and having been a PJ fan since '92, i.e. old I can't totally swear it does) I believe PJ's Target exclusive album was available only at Target AND indy music stores. The band makes kind of a big deal about supporting the mom & pop record stores that we/they remember from the vinyl days.