Pearl Jam: Celebrating 20 years of uninterrupted awesomeness.
I can’t explain why I love this band so much. I mean, I can – I could try to convey the intensity of the live shows, or the chord progression in “Hail, Hail,” or the incendiary YouTube clips, or Stone’s duckwalk, or the 4/3/1994 bootleg, or the congregational vibe of the Ten Club. But we’d be forever. My favorite Seattlites have settled into a middle-aged comfort zone since the turn of the century, and though their 40-something exploits – release record every 3 or 4 years, surf, bang out solo projects, support obscure political cause, bring MSG to knees – aren’t typical for a band of said age, they are in fact becoming something of a routine. At this point, we’ve long known where PJ is heading: off into the sunset with a three-guitar attack, an immeasurable reservoir of goodwill, and a grungy pair of Doc Martens.
So you can imagine my SECOND CHRISTMAS!!!-like excitement when an “unreleased track” leaked on the band’s Monkeywrench Records website a few days back. The dotcom’s since become an impenetrable fortress of password protection. Speculative Rolling Stone reports emerged unvetted. Feverous internet fodder pegged the song a lost “Riot Act” relic. Fan club geeks lost their respective heads. Now “Better Days” is on radio backed by a steady stream of hyperbolic truths, the collective likes of which suggest Pearl Jam might actually save the world with rock ‘n roll. Via Antiquiet:
“Best thing you’ll hear today, tomorrow, and for a long while.”
“Day went from bad to good as soon as the chorus kicked in.”
“Happy as a clam.”
“Well. This changes my whole week. What a song.”
“Holy frickin heck. Love Pearl Jam as much as I can possibly love a band.”
Yeah, what they said. And you know what? In this case, all the fanboy hype is 100 percent justified. “Better Days” is pretty f*ckin’ awesome. It’s just not a Pearl Jam song. Incendiary analysis forthcoming, but first the facts: some dude in PJ management accidentally posted the track to the band’s record label site, the site wasn’t secure, a hacker took advantage (making a bunch of people’s lives incalculably more awesome in the process), and a handful of prominent publications jumped on a fansite hunch that the song was in fact an outtake from 2002’s “Riot Act” (even though it sounds almost nothing like the rest of those sessions). Deep breath. Shorter sentences to follow.
Well it turns out that a bunch of mainstream news outlets got it wrong. Shocker. As Nelson would say, “Haha! You’re medium’s dying.”
Then somebody from Entertainment Weekly got around to actually calling the band, subsequently breaking the not-so-shocking news that “Better Days” is Ed Vedder’s contribution to this summer’s Julia Roberts chick-epic “Eat Pray Love.” I say not so shocking because 1) Vedder is buds with “EPL’s” Javier Bardem 2) The vocals bear a strong resemblance to EV’s “Into the Wild” soundtrack and 3) I’ve been in love with Julia Roberts since age 10, so it’s not surprising that two of my favorite entities are combing to form a super-duper entity.
So what does it sound like? You mean other than “brilliance”? Well first off, it has this tribal, Eastern-tinged, where’s-Nusrat-Fateh-Ali-Khan-when-you-need-him thing working for it that makes me think “No Code” or “Merkinball.” Ed showcases his accordion chops (been practicing since “Bugs”), his inimitable way with a high note and that intrinsic feel for song structure. “Better Days” builds. And builds. And builds. And before you know it, Vedder’s turned a framework of delicate mandolin, maracas and Spanish guitar heroism into a soaring transcendental workout that sounds not unlike the spiritually-charged offspring of “Long Road” and “Parting Ways.” There’s a little “Unthought Known,” “Strangest Tribe” and “Hard Sun” in here as well, and if the spine-chilling flamenco solo at 1:30 doesn’t reduce you to a puddle of goo, the belted crescendo of chanted falsetto should finish the job.
At this point, Ed’s like a late-career Michael Jordan – doesn’t have the raw athleticism anymore, but makes up for it with guile and an unstoppable array of low-post moves. So while the pipes aren’t what they once were, he’s actually a far superior singer to the guy who made stage scaffolds his own personal jungle gyms.
Meditative refrains like “My love is safe for the universe/see me now I’m bursting/on one planet so many turns/different worlds” make chicken soup for the soul sound like child’s play, especially when funneled in between high-pitched croons and that signature baritone roar. If you get to the “our future’s paved with better days” climax without welling up or exploding, uh, you probably have no nerve endings.
Just kidding… But seriously, you might want to check that out.
So, all this “NEW PJ!!!” hysteria got me thinking: If “Better Days” was a neglected outtake like originally reported, where would it rank among the other classic PJ castoffs? Think of the following as my forceful suggestion to pick up a copy of “Lost Dogs.” My father bought it on vinyl. That’s when I realized he was cool.
5) Strangest Tribe – Stone’s achingly beautiful campfire hymn that would’ve been the best quiet track on “Binaural,” but instead got the stocking stuffer treatment for the ’99 Christmas Single. It’s dark and gentle (like Michael Clarke Duncan!), crafted of sparse guitar plucking and Ed’s throaty melodies.
4) Wash – From the “Ten” sessions, this one’s a slow-breathing blues dirge in the “Garden” mold that takes off with Ed’s blood curdling wailing in the final 30 seconds. Didn’t see a proper release till the ’95 “Alive” single, but those visceral early live versions properly tow the grunge-era line between anguish and catharsis.
3) Black, Red, Yellow – So what do you get when you mix slash-‘n-burn garage guitars, Dennis Rodman and the hottest Chicago summer on record? Probably a call from the cops.
2) Sad – It’s worth noting that a good number of the band’s best leftovers actually came from the “Binaural”/”Riot Act” sessions. The former record could’ve been something of a crowning achievement had songs like this (and “Fatal” and “In the Moonlight”) replaced the likes of “Evacuation” and “God’s Dice” on side 1… A muscular hard rock offering built on a haunting pseudo-surf riff and some of Michael David McCready’s best work.
1) Footsteps – Part of a themed trilogy of songs that includes “Ten’s” “Alive” and “Once.” That sentence alone should be enough to get you off your ass. Far superior to the same era’s much beloved “Yellow Ledbetter.” If you call this a top five PJ track, you’ll get no argument from me. Vedder’s finest hour.
Oh, and here’s “Better Days.” Have an exaggerated Monday.