Pearl Jam Twenty: A Review

As Pearl Jam Twenty peels back the old footage and interviews, one thing is clear from the band’s early days: Eddie Vedder is an intense and volatile personality who is constantly at odds with his own band, his vision of what rock and roll should be, and his own audience. . Lead guitarist Mike McCready explains that Vedder wanted Pearl Jam to be like Fugazi and other underground punk bands, “and while we like those bands, we didn’t want to be them.”

Vedder’s war with his image as something of a spokesman for Generation X is nothing new to those who grew up listening to the band’s first two albums – Vs and Ten. The decision to scale back and do things on their own terms is a storied affair. Whatever you think of Vedder’ disposition to stardom (and there are instances in the movie where you could make the case that he was a complete dick), Pearl Jam Twenty proves that in the end, despite all the odds, somehow Pearl Jam persevered. And just like their hero, Neil Young they managed to garner respect because they said “no” to anything that they felt could possibly strangle them.

As a rock and roll documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty ranks up there with some of the best. Crowe’s use of archival footage from early live shows proves what a great live band Pearl Jam was even in the early days. While Pearl Jam Twenty is mostly chronological in its storytelling, some aspects of the band are distilled into montages. The history of drummers is given a quick (and amusing) overview. Similarly, Pearl Jam’s politics are anchored by a 2003 performance of “Bu$hleaguer” where the band actually got booed.

Because Crowe is accomplished as both a director and music journalist, he’s not afraid to ask the hard questions. In turn, the usually shy band members open up. Guitarist Stone Gossard admits to feeling bitterness towards Vedder in the early years, as he lost control of his own band to the singer. McCready talks candidly about his addictions. As for Vedder himself, the 2011 version is humble and careful with his words. As evident from recent live performances, the intensity is still there – but now it seems reserved for the shows.

For all of the anger and intensity associated with the band, there are some hilarious moments in Pearl Jam Twenty. At one point, Crowe asks Gossard if he has any Pearl Jam memorabilia. Gossard sheepishly admits that he doesn’t really have anything, because bassist Jeff Ament is the band’s resident collector. Gossard points to some DVDs and CDs – which he has in case he forgets how to play a song – and then pulls out an extremely dirty PJ mug which looks like it hasn’t been washed in years. The band’s drunken performance for the premiere of 1992’s Singles (which Crowe directed and Gossard and Vedder appeared in) is wildly entertaining. The drunkenness is evident in Vedder’s eyes as he grumbles, “everybody loves us!” He then proceeds to tear down a curtain on the side of the stage as the band tears through a sloppy version of “State of Love and Trust”.

Pearl Jam Twenty makes a great case for how Pearl Jam has turned into one of rock’s greatest bands. That much is evident if you’ve ever seen one of their shows or listened to their albums (even the post Vitalogy ones are great). However, Crowe seems to hammer that it into the ground a little too much by incorporating clips from Don’t Look Back, and The Kids Are Alright. At one point, even Vedder shows off pictures of himself with Joe Strummer, and Pete Townshend. As a fan of rock and roll, there’s no doubt that Vedder still thinks of himself as a kid who got lucky enough to meet his heroes. But underneath, both Crowe and Vedder still seem to want to tell everyone who left the band in the mid-90s: “these guys love us, so should you.”

As a portrait of a band, Pearl Jam Twenty is a rare feat. This is the story of 4 guys, whose wild different personalities conflicted with each other, and still managed to have their integrity. Varying set lists rewards the fans that stuck around – Gossard refers to this as “a gift” – and the belief that rock and roll can be salvation. Twenty years on, Pearl Jam finally get to be the band they always wanted to be.

 

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Ten Overlooked R.E.M. Songs

 

I’ve spent the past day trying to figure out how to pay tribute to R.E.M., who all things considered are probably my all-time favorite band. So I decided to create a list of “Ten Overlooked Songs”.  They’re not necessarily my favorite R.E.M. songs, but these songs add a lot to the myth of the band and deserve another look.

“Lightnin’ Hopkins” – Document, 1987

Document is the first album where R.E.M. decided that they actually wanted to “rock” and this song might be the rockiest of them all. Bill Berry pounds the drums into submission, Peter Buck trades in his signature ringing style for some fiery licks, and Michael Stipe gives one of his fiercest vocals as he shouts out “Lightning one! Lightning One!”  The closest thing the song has to a chorus is an eerie chanting of the word “crow”.

“Letter Never Sent” Reckoning, 1984

Another R.E.M. song that doesn’t contain a proper chorus – just Michael Stipe singing “oooh” repeatedly in its place. A great version of this song can be found on the 2008 live album Live at the Olympia. “You love my clothes?” Stipe asks an audience member mishearing her adoration for the “oooohs”. “That was just go “oooh and ahh” and let Mike and Bill do their thing,” Stipe explains after the mishap.

“I Remember California” Green, 1989

I used to hate this song as a kid. It seemed to go on forever and never do anything. I came around to this song several years ago in part because of Peter Buck’s ringing guitar that floats it way out of the song. It’s the same riff played over and over again – and it perfectly suits the melancholy and nostalgic view of the song.  “I Remember California” is one of those songs that conjures up the ending of an era, whether it’s summer turning into fall or moving to a new destination and looking back.

“Texarkana” Out of Time, 1991

Mike Mills has always been one of rock’s most under-appecriated bassists, and on “Texarkana” he completely dominates the song, taking over lead vocals and also showing his impressive bass breaks though out. “I would give my life to find it, I would give it all,” He declares. “Catch me if I fall.”  “Texarkana” was always a song that I should have been one of the singles off of Out of Time.

“Ages of You” – Dead Letter Office, 1987

“Ages of You” off of the b-sides collection of Dead Letter Office takes the murky sounds of Murmur and gives it a Reckoning-style punch. Even though this song never appeared on any proper albums, it’s got all the hallmarks of a classic R.E.M. song – Stipe’s indecipherable lyrics, Buck’s guitar lines chiming after each line Stipe delivers, and of course the tight-knit rhythm section of Berry and Mills.

“Just a Touch” Lifes Rich Pagaent, 1986

“Just a Touch” is one of R.E.M.’s most infectious songs. R.E.M. are many things, but the word “fun” hardly ever comes to mind when you think about them. The song had been around since Murmur before the band finally recorded it for Pageant. The version found there is pure glee. The band sounds like they’re having a blast as they tear through this rocker.  Stipe lets out a rare and unexpected “wooooo!” in the middle of the song. The song ends with Stipe’s tribute to his hero Patti Smith as he yells out her immortal line: “I’m so goddamn young”.

“The Aiportman” Up, 1998

I really wanted to like Up when it came out in 1998. Whatever grievances I had about the album, I found it hard to forgive this noise of a song. Where was Michael Stipe?  There were no guitars. The song seemed to be the very antithesis of everything R.E.M. sounded and stood for.  I’ve since come around and think it’s a very bold move for the band to start out their first post-Berry album with this song. I’d also like to point out that in retrospect, it seems very likely that Radiohead probably spent hours listening to this song when making Kid A.

“West of the Fields” Murmur, 1983

“West of the Fields” is the probably closest track on Murmur to jump out of the murk in an attempts to gain some energy.  Like many early R.E.M. songs, “West of the Fields” makes use of Mill’s “lead bass”. The vocal interplay between Stipe and Mills is fantastic, and hints at the heights these two would reach over the years.  A scorching live version can be found on the iTunes Live from London EP.

“Wendell Gee” Fables of the Reconstruction, 1985

Fables of the Reconstrucion was R.E.M.’s attempt at digging up the ghosts of the American South. Ironically, it was recorded in England. The poignant ballad “Wendell Gee” closes out the album. It’s almost a lullaby. Stipe notes that “there wasn’t even time to say goodbye to Wendell Gee”. Even though the song might have been inspired by the death of an old man, the song now feels like a good bye to the band itself.

“It Happened Today” Collapse Into Now, 2011

Collapse Into Now is a pretty decent album, but this song is the definite highlight of the album. For such a catchy song, it is damn weird. There’s no chorus and the entire last two minutes of the song consist of wordless harmonies. If there were ever a song that showed how well Stipe and Mills sing together, I’d put this one on the top of the list. Eddie Vedder also appears in the background as well, providing a deep compliment to the higher register of the other two.

 

 

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RIP, R.E.M. You Will Be Missed

According to their web-site and various news sources, R.E.M. have broken up. I can’t even begin to describe what this band has meant to me over the years. They were pretty much the first band I ever really listened to. Sad Day.  More later.

 

 

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Exclusive Q&A With New York Songwriter Edward Rogers

British-born, New York-bred songwriter Edward Rogers has announced the release of his fourth solo album, Porcelain, on November 8, 2011 with the premiere of the title track and a new video.  Early last week, Blurt Online premiered the title track on their site ( http://blurt-online.com/news/view/5401/).  The new video is for another track off Porcelain, “The Biba Crowd”, and set to footage from Jean Luc-Godard’s 1964 film Band of Outsiders (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoSSUSH_T4o).  “The Biba Crowd” will also be featured on the free November CD from the UK’s Word Magazine.

Rogers, who has been extremely prolific, began his career playing drums in several garage bands.  When a subway accident in October 1985 left him without his right arm and right leg below the knee, he turned to songwriting and found that he enjoyed singing and writing more rewarding than playing drums.  In addition to his four solo albums, Rogers has also released two with Bedsit Poets, a folk/Brit-inspired trio whose name was given to them by The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone.  He has played extensively in New York, Los Angeles, London, Canada, and along the East Coast both solo and with Bedsit Poets.

 I recently caught with Rogers, who discussed his new album, working with Roger McGuinn, and influences such as David Bowie and Ray Davies.  

 

Music has been such a dominant force in your life – you turned to songwriting after your accident.  Do you still find it as powerful and encouraging now as you did then?

 Both listening to and writing music are two of the most fulfilling ways to spend my time. I think since the accident, I’ve become much more aware of how precious life is, and this encourages me to spend more time on writing. There’s an amazing feeling when you write a song, finish it and feel that it’s good. I still love to hear new music of all types, currently The Horrors, Noel Gallagher, Laura Marling, the new Glen Campbell, as well as going back and rediscovering classics from the past and vibing to the sounds of old T.Rex, Martin Newall, Sandy Shaw.

 Though you had been doing songwriting for a long time – why did you suddenly decide to delve into a solo career in 2004? Was this something that you been thinking to do for a long time?

 I always saw myself as a member of a group, but when I met up with singer-songwriter, George Usher, he encouraged me and generously devoted his time to helping me discover my own songwriting potential. So writing and recording my first two solo albums were a learning process for me, with George as a great musical partner and mentor. I had the luxury of having a lot of my musical heroes join me on those records, such as Roger McGuinn, Colin Blunstone & Rod Argent and Marty Willson-Piper, just to name a few.

You also have released two albums with the Bedsit Poets – what’s your role in that group and how does it differ from your solo work?

 I started Bedsit Poets as a way of working on a collaborative project with Amanda Thorpe. Our British backgrounds and sense of humor were very similar. We later added Mac Randall. I was the driving force in the group and one of the principle songwriters. We had a lovely time together, releasing two albums with a third set of demos, but there came a shelf life and we just took different directions. Bedsit Poets (who got their name from Colin Blunstone) still remains one of my favorite musical projects. That group enabled me to learn harmony singing and opened me up to another type of songwriting, mainly British acoustic, folk-pop.

 “Porcelain” recalls the albums you grew up with as a kid.  My first thought was that many sounded like a lost-Kinks songs.  Where they a major inspiration?  

 Funny you picked up on that. My last album, “Sparkle Lane”, was definitely intended to be a nod to  (The Kink’s) Village Green Preservation Society/Arthur from being a kid growing up in Birmingham, England to arriving in the U.S. of A., whereas Porcelain is a more guitar-driven, forceful album, with a few soft diamonds, reminiscent to me of the music I listened to during the period of 1972-1975. This album is actually more influenced by writers like Ian Hunter, John Cale and Kevin Ayers, so you are not far off the track. Ray Davies is obviously a major influence on my work.

 You’ve been busy over the past decade, releasing several albums.  Porcelain seems to culminate everything you’ve done so far.  Would you agree that is a fair assessment?  

That’s very perceptive. Each of my solo albums has been a learning process, trying to move myself forward. With this album, I feel I have finally reached a new level and something I’m going to have to work hard to match next time through, but I’ve got about 20 new songs waiting to be demoed. I think a large part of the difference comes with the musicians who were kind enough to play on Porcelain and also give their creative input. You really can’t go wrong when you have people like Don Piper producing, James Mastro, Don Fleming, Pete Kennedy, Sal Maida, Konrad Meissner, Ira Elliot and Joe McGinty and many other friends giving their time and support.

You’re British-born but currently live in New York City.  Your music seems to pick the cool vibe of New York with the sonic textures of England. Does that combination come naturally to you?

 You really have been listening! Again, very perceptive. That’s exactly the vibe I was looking for during the making of Porcelain. Sonically, the music is New York City and lyrically, it combines experiences I’ve had in the last 18 months. Yes, I’ve lived in NYC most of my life but my roots are still in England. If you listen to “Porcelain” the sax solo was definitely an attempt to channel the energy of Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay’s sax solo from “Virginia Plain.”

 “Tears Left in the Bottle” is such a beautiful song.  Is that an autobiographical song?

 Thankfully, the song is not written about myself, but about several really good friends of mine who have bottomed out and have had to fight the battle to get their lives back in order. It seems the environment surrounding music and the creative process often gives license to indulge whenever and as much as you can or can’t handle. There’s even a mythical element to that indulgence. Look at all the people we’ve lost at the age of 27, most recently Amy Winehouse.

 “Silent Singer” is a great way to the end the album. It’s got one of your best vocals and melodies contrasted with a biting guitar line.  How did that song come about?  It sounds like a David Bowie song.  

This song is really special to me as it was inspired by my late Dad, who I lost last October. As he was fighting for his life with lung cancer, he kept telling me about the singer who was taking him to a bar at night. And, he could hear the songs in his head. That’s what inspired the demo, with very soft vocals. Again, I must credit the producer, Don Piper, and musician Don Fleming for transitioning the song into a “Spiritualized”-like ending to the album. Thanks for your musical reference to David Bowie, another major influence.

“Porcelain” comes out in November. How are you going to celebrate its release?  Any plans after that?  

I just booked a record release show at the new Cutting Room in NYC on November 17th with all the musicians on the album. Before that, I’m going over to London in October to do some promotion (the album comes out there in January). For the New York show, Syd Straw, who did some backing vocals, will be on the bill, as will my producer Don Piper with a don piper situation. After that, depending on how the album is received, we will continue to play live dates. I would love to get this band to play in Europe, as well as the United States! Always have to have the aspirations and dreams to make the reality happen. Thanks for listening to the record. For those of you reading this, give it a spin. Cheers.

http://www.edwardrogersmusic.com/

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Kick Out the Jams

 

 

Found this video recently, and in my mind its shows everything that is awesome and strange about The MC5. To say the least, they were definitely a band that existed in their own world in the late 60s. With the exception of fellow Detroit-ians, The Stooges no one was playing music as aggressive as this.

A friend of mine once suggested that the world wasn’t ready for The MC5. If you look closely at the faces of the some people in the crowd there’s a sense of shock there. It’s also amusing to see how the band looks – they still look like hippies but are playing something that is more akin to the Sex Pistols than say, Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Grateful Dead.  Singer Rob Tyner also looks like a pissed off Art Garfunkel with his huge afro.

You can see the beginnings of punk in this video – as the band pushes itself to its limit and test their audience. Of course that musical revolution wouldn’t happen for another five or six years.

Check out the video, and kick out the jams, motherfucker.

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“Revolution 9” vs. “Stupid Mop”

 

I once fell asleep to The Beatles “Revoution 9” on repeat and had some pretty fucked up dreams. Nothing seemed to make any sense. People who were talking to me suddenly disappeared into violent colors. At some point, I woke up in a Russian prison – only to realize later I was actually asleep. Needless to say, I don’t recommend falling asleep to this song.

Ever since it was put to wax, “Revolution 9” has been a polarizing piece of work. Many have argued that it belongs on John and Yoko’s infamous Two Virgins album and doesn’t belong on any Beatles album. There’s some certain truth to that. It’s hard to even call it a song – its mash of tape loops, screaming and feedback is starting and disturbing.

I’m certainly no huge fan of “Revolution 9”, but is certainly adds to the myth of The White Album. At that point, each Beatle was so focused on their own individual songs. Many of them are brilliant, others are quite good. Others barely even resemble songs – they’re more like ditties. Each Beatles’ songs on that album are a representation of their mind-set circa 1968. Paul was hammering out songs like nobody’s business, and John was struggling to bring his new-found creativity with Yoko into the fold. George, it seemed desperately wanted to be taken seriously by the other Beatles.

“Revolution 9” represents John at his most caustic – to his bandmates and audience. He had already put on Two Virgins, and only hard-core fans would attempt to listen to that. Putting “Revolution  9” on The White Album was his way of saying that he was done with The Beatles. Even though it would be another year before he was actually out, “Revolution 9” was the sonic equivalent of a middle finger. It practically screams “I’m done”.  It’s a declaration of the now, versus The Beatles of the past.

Pearl Jam have a heavily “Revolution 9” influenced track off of 1994’s Vitalogy called “Stupid Mop”. Like its predecessor, “Stupid Mop” is full of strange noises and feedback. If Lennon wanted to say he was out and showcase his creative side, Pearl Jam (and specifically Eddie Vedder here) use “Stupid Mop” as a way to confront their fans, many of whom they felt were strangling the band. Like Lennon, Vedder was struggling with being seen as a spokesman and trying to maintain what he saw as artistic credibility. “Stupid Mop” is even more alarming than “Revolution 9”. Even if you disagree about the artistic merits of “Revolution 9”, that was clearly in Lennon’s thought process at the time. “Stupid Mop” offers virtually no artistic merit. In “Not For You” off Vitalogy, Vedder directly confronts the casual fans: “This is not you. Fuck you.” 

Ultimately both artists would eventually come to terms with their fans and their own creativity. Lennon would make two more albums with The Beatles, before eventually going solo. Pearl Jam decided to cut down their accessibility, do less promotion and continue to make several more albums.

Maybe that’s why both “Revolution 9” and “Stupid Mop” are both so jarring. They’re not pieces of music – but rather a chance for both artists to exorcise their demons.

 

 

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Remembering The Man in Black

I missed the anniversary of his death a few days back, but it’s still hard to believe that Johnny Cash died eight years ago. A year or so before he died I watched the video for “Hurt” with some friends in college. “He’s going to die soon,” Someone said. Everyone was silent. He had said what everybody else was thinking, but no one wanted to acknowledge. We were possibly witnessing what could very well be Johnny Cash’s final moment on screen.

About a decade earlier, when I was in middle school I got my first introduction to Johnny Cash. I was watching a music special on PBS with my parents. The announcer said the performer’s name was “Johnny Cash” to a loud applause. I laughed a little bit at the thought. That can’t possibly be that dude’s name, I thought. When Cash actually appeared on screen, he was totally different than anything I was expecting. There was something commanding about him. The look in his eyes exuded a certain coolness.  Slinging his guitar across his shoulder, he launched into “A Boy Named Sue”.  To say, I had never heard anything like it would be an under-statement. It had everything – revenge, a misunderstood kid and a sense of humor.

I borrowed a collection of Cash’s greatest hits from my brother. Musically, it was different than anything I was listening to at the time. I did not want to listen to anything remotely associated with country. Billy Ray Cyrus and Garth Brooks were still huge at the time. I would never admit to any of my classmates, but I secretly liked it. There was an element of danger in Cash’s lyrics. He took a shot of cocaine? Damn, this guy is out of his mind. And then he shot his woman down? 

Thanks to Rick Rubin’s American series, by the time I got to college it was cool to like Johnny Cash again. Several of the American albums were constantly played in the background as parties winded down. The stripped down covers brought out the best in Cash’s aged voice and sometimes even bettered the original – “Personal Jesus” being a perfect example.

The night after he died, I went to see Bruce Springsteen in DC. When we running a bit late, but as we climbed the stairwell we could hear Springsteen open up the show with a solo rendition of “I Walk the Line”. It was a beautiful arrangement, and a poignant moment. Springsteen’s voice seemed to ache as he sang the words. “I Walk the Line” was transformed from a declaration of love to a goodbye.

It seems that in the eight years since his death, Cash’s popularity has only increased. He was of the few American musicians whose influence and adoration reaches across generations and genres. Country artists love him as much as hip-hop artists. The photograph of Cash with his middle finger in the air, face snarling has become such a popular t-shirt image that it has almost replaced the Ramones logo shirt in popularity.  It’s also obligatory for people to say they like all kinds of music but country  – “except for Johnny Cash”.  Even my mother likes Johnny Cash – which is totally surprising.

Certainly Cash’s outlaw image has played a significant part in this popularity so. His infamous “Reno” line has become something of the musical equivalent of Scarface. But more than that, Johnny Cash represents a certain defiance with an every-day attitude. Playing for prison in-mates wasn’t just an act of going against conventional wisdom, but one of solidarity.

And that, I think is the real reason people love Johnny Cash so much. You never got the idea that he was faking it.

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