Remaster-Reissue / Retro Album Review
By Anthony Kuzminski
- Read all Pearl Jam reviews HERE
Before the invention of Soundscan in 1991, record labels would claim staggering sales and shipments of the records. However, with Soundscan, you had a system that (for the most part) would show pretty accurately how many records would sell week to week. Much has been made over debut weeks in the last decade, but in 1993, Pearl Jam sold 950,378 copies of their sophomore release vs. during the third week of October. Then and now, it is an astonishing feat. It held this record for five years with only Vitalogy (which sold 877,000 copies) released a mere thirteen months later coming close to eclipsing it. Rappers and teen stars would break this record eventually, but all of them did it in a vastly different media world where the act would be on every television station possible the week of the release to ensure record sales. Pearl Jam were nowhere to be seen the week vs. hit stores. In fact, they shunned MTV and radio by refusing to release singles and do music videos. At the time, it was revolutionary to see any act give the middle finger to the powers that be. No one had done it before and only with the dismantling of the recording industry are other acts brave enough to do it today. Taking a page from Led Zeppelin in the early 1970’s, Pearl Jam did everything they could to help extinguish the colossal interest placed on the band. They stopped doing interviews, no videos, limited touring, no proper singles and they didn’t even put a name on the album cover. The LP edition didn’t even mention the band’s name (except for the spine, once again, the same thing Led Zeppelin did with their IV record). Despite all of this, as I remember that time, the buzz in the air was intangible. It wouldn’t have meant a thing if the music fell flat, but despite enormous expectations, the band delivered and many people, including this writer, believe vs. to be their magnum opus. Much is spoken about Pearl Jam’s clash with corporations during this time, but what many overlook is the stride they reached musically which is now documented on a magnificent 3CD reissue of this 1993-1995 period. vs. and Vitalogy have both been remastered with bonus tracks and an extra live CD of the band’s final performance of the vs. tour from 1994 in Boston. Under the direction of producer Brendan O’Brien, Pearl Jam found their footing as a band and the songs written and recorded during this period are the result of the pressure and the intensity they faced. The final result is nothing short of devastating.
The time between Pearl Jam's first ever gig (October 22, 1990) and the release of their debut record Ten (August 27, 1991) was a mere ten months. Despite the eclectic and seriousness of their first record, it was recorded and released in such a whirlwind that the songs in essence came before Pearl Jam were really a band. Between the release of Ten and their second record vs. in October 1993, their world changed more than any of them could have ever imagined. Almost overnight Pearl Jam became a band who was deemed the voice of their generation, the ones people looked to for answers and a money making juggernaut for promoters, radio programmers, their record company and MTV. Everyone wanted a piece of them. These types of strains are what break up bands. Pearl Jam could have suffocated under this weight, but they did the opposite. Originally titled Five Against One, vs. is a collection where the five members indeed reverberate like a band ready to take on the world. While the songs are still intimate and personal, their scope went from full screen to widescreen with a rage reserved for the darkest of metal bands. Because of the way the Ten album, the live performances on the Lollapalooza tour and the "Jeremy" video took off, everyone was in the band's ear offering advice. The band wanted none of it. The polished studio essence on their debut was absent replaced with a much more potent and acerbic sonic force. If Ten was a heavy weight boxing match, vs. was Fight Club on speed. On the previous record, the music felt almost classical in its composition, on vs. it felt like the Ramones meet the Clash meet U2 (circa 1983). The band was taking no prisoners and when I tuned into the MTV VMA's in 1993 and heard the band tear through "Animal", I knew changes would be abound on the newest record. Their ire flew off that stage in a way I'm not sure if I have ever seen before or since. Some felt it was an act, I knew it was anything but. The stakes were higher, the rules had changed and more importantly, Pearl Jam was a band. With two years of gigs (approximately 175 shows) underneath their belts the band was more brazen and brash. Rare is an artist who can sell as many records as Pearl Jam did and then to create a record that isn't just as good but in many ways, superior to Ten.
Right from the prayer-like opening punch of "Go", the band proves to be obstinate in its need to leave their prior album in the dust. The classic rock stimulus of Ten was pushed to the side with the band taking up more of a punk rock mind-set as featured on "Animal", "Blood" and "Leash". The tribal ecstasy of "W.M.A." makes up for what some see as one-dimensional lyrics and yet it's impossible to deny the way the song seeps into your psyche because of the zeal with which they were executed. The band took to the recording studio ready for a fight and with bloody knuckles fought their way through twelve compositions ranging from simple storytelling to rage to a heightened understanding of the world around them. They didn't merely compose about divisive topics, they let their rage vent up from within them shouted it from the top of their lungs and instruments. "Glorified G" has a beat and enlivening riff made for the radio, but it's a stinging declaration against guns. "Daughter" and "Leash" give voice to the misunderstood hearkening back to "Jeremy" and "Why Go" from the debut. "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" is a perfect mid-tempo ballad of a woman trapped in a small town who comes eye to eye with an old flame who doesn't even remember her. It's the misfortune and ache that I could relate to when I heard the record. It's dressed up for FM dials and evokes a sing-a-long every night in concert, yet beneath the picturesque melody is pain. These universal themes are ever so simplistic, but it's not the songwriting that made this record a source of salvation for me, but the fever within it.
Pearl Jam was writing at a higher level of consciousness with vs. and when you're lost and in need of direction, a compilation of songs that feel as if they were written to resuscitate your life prove to be not just fortifying and invigorating, but resurrecting for your soul as well. No song better epitomizes the emancipation than "Rearviewmirror". Delivered in a breakneck speed, the song takes the listener on a fervent getaway and may be one of the utmost driving songs ever laid to tape. Hitting the road, leaving your past in the dust and seeing the future with a clear head is something too many of us fail to do, but if anything the song inspires. I learned that sometimes it's best to confront my demons and at other times, to look away from situations that couldn't be resolved and to never look back. There's middle ground between reconciling your past with your present and leaving a bad situation in the dust. Pearl Jam may have been on top of the musical heap at this moment in their career, but they were equally protective of what they had built. They weren't looking for an easy buck or unnecessary celebrity and even if they had recorded these same songs with a tenth of the passion, it wouldn't hold up today. Fortunately for us, the music reigned supreme and Pearl Jam proved their worth with vs.
In a rather amazing turn of events, Pearl Jam followed up vs. in a mere thirteen months with Vitalogy when it was released on vinyl on November 22, 1994. The CD version was released two weeks later and sold 877,000 copies, once again, with virtually no promotion by the band themselves. Vitalogy finds the band determined even further to challenge their audience and defy those who wanted a piece of them. Often deemed one of the band’s stronger works, I must confess to always having an issue with the album. After a month of listening to Vitalogy on a consistent basis, I ultimately found it terribly unsettling. Over time, I have come to welcome the album’s intricacies and quirkiness but I still find the experimental tracks of “Pry, To”, “Bugs”, “Aye Davanita" and "Hey Foxymophandlemama, That's Me" (now listened as “Stupidmop”) as superfluous exercises best left on the cutting room floor or merely as hidden tracks on a CD. Admirable experimentation that doesn’t really add anything to the band’s fury or the album and ultimately is why Vitalogy doesn’t quite hit the peaks of Ten or vs. . Even “Satan’s Bed” while deeply courageous and unrelenting, are ultimately self-indulgent. While vs. featured the band as masters of their craft, Vitalogy is a more from-the-gut collection of songs, which makes for a intense first listening experience, but the filler doesn’t warrant multiple repeats. >. The album starts with furious concentration and these side steps drain the album of its impact and power in the midsection before “Corduroy” and “Better Man” once again elevates the album’s force.
Like an impromptu jam session, the songs on Vitalogy purge themselves from your speakers and it’s the band’s most unrelenting, experimental and uncompromising. There is huge diversity where certain songs are sung in a hush (“Nothingman”) and others are executed with wailing bellows (“Spin the Black Circle”). There appears to be no compromise on the record (for better or worse). Vedder’s vocals congeal with the band’s vicious sledgehammer sonics. This is the sound of a band bursting at the seams with frustration and anguish best exemplified on the album’s opener, “Last Exit” and on their scathing attack at their fair weathered fans, “Not For You”. Drummer Dave Abbruzzese is especially pungent in his drumming duties giving the band rhythm section a punk rock texture not heard on a Pearl Jam record since. The end result is still one of their truest records, but their self indulgence and experimentation keeps it from making Vitalogy a bona fide classic in the same league as Ten and vs..
2011 marks the twentieth anniversary of Pearl Jam and it is shaping up to be quite a year as the band looks back. There’s a feature film directed by Cameron Crowe in the works later this fall, a weekend of festivities (still to be announced) and this next set of remasters packed tightly in a 3CD box and of course, in a more elaborate limited edition box available exclusively at Pearl Jam’s website, with a 80-page book, pictures, LP’s, CD’s, a download of most of the Orpheum show and a cassette of a special radio broadcast from 1995. Considering how conclusive the Ten reissue was two years back, expectations were high for these records. It’s a tiny bit disappointing that the bonus cuts don’t dig deeper. It would have been nice to receive full demo alternatives or all of the B-sides the band put out. However, one must assume some of it is being held back for a box set of some sorts. It’s just that the band did such an immense purge on the deluxe edition of Ten you can’t help but wish both of these records had separate discs full of unreleased and hard to find gems. That being said, having them packaged together makes sense. They were both born off-the-cuff from a band that held the world by the jugular.
As for tracks that didn’t make the cut, “Hard To Imagine” would have been a nice addition (the Lost Dogs version is from vs.) while the version from Chicago Cab has yet to find a home on an official Pearl Jam release. Of the six bonus tracks spread out over the two albums, none are definitive, but all are welcomed additions. “Hold On” is presented in an alternate acoustic version that allows the lyrics to breathe and surge to the forefront. “Cready Stomp” is filled with fury from the band on this instrumental outtake. “Crazy Mary”, a cover of the Victoria Williams song also appears. The demo of “Nothingman” is spare with an elevated vocal from Vedder delivered with hypnotizing focus. There is a guitar/organ only version of “Better Man” which finds the song restrained and without the kicking drums steering the band onto the highway. It’s a reserved version and shows the song in a new light. An alternate cut of “Corduroy” finishes the extra tracks. However, for most, the 3-CD package is worth its weight in gold for Live at the Orpheum Theater, Boston, April 12, 1994. While the show in incomplete on CD, most of it appears on the special edition box set.
Surprisingly, this is the first full CD release of a live show with Dave Abbruzzese on drums. Matt Cameron may be the ultimate Pearl Jam drummer, but Abbruzzese has never received his due credit as the basher behind the kit on not just vs. and Vitalogy but in concert, the Abbruzzese swings the same way Steven Adler of Guns N’ Roses did early in their career. There band sounds almost primitive compared to the hundreds of official bootlegs released since 2000. This is a reminder of a time gone by when Pearl Jam was one of most sought acts on the planet in 1994. Live at the Orpheum Theater, Boston, April 12, 1994 only includes a portion of the show and there is a reason why. There are a further six songs to be available for download to those who buy the mega box set available on the band’s website, but even then, three further songs are missing. One may assume the band is playing tricks, but that’s not the case. Back in 1994, the band did not record it show on multitrack recordings and as a result of tape flips, three songs were cut. Regardless, the live disc is enough to warrant buying these albums once again, as it finds the band in their youthful prime. The live disc features an especially emotionally sweltering performance of “Immortality” and a scathing “Not For You”. The remastering on both studio discs is pristine where instruments are deciphered beautifully and despite no remixes or extensive tracks, this new aural upgrade and the added live disc makes this an essential purchase even if it doesn’t reach the heights of the Ten reissue, but then again, how many albums have had a reissue that definitive?
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. His daily writings can be read at The Screen Door. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter