Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pearl Gem

This week, I'm listening to the new album by Muse and also a review copy of the excellent Massive Attack EP, released digitally next week. But one album I'm really digging, which I wouldn't have expected, is the new Pearl Jam album, "Backspacer." As it turns out, the band have utilized the record for a brilliant Trojan Horse strategy (more on that in a second).

The evolution of the band is a fascinating one. The band's out-of-the-gate success on a big record label irked many music cognoscenti. Then Kurt Cobain, the messiah of Grunge himself, accused Pearl Jam of a corporate entity trying to cash-in on the alternative scene. And, whereas other grunge acts openly professed their love of punk while quietly hiding their love of 1970s bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam's two guitarists -- Stone Gossard and Mike McCready -- were clearly in thrall to classic rock just as much as The Ramones.

Personally, I liked the band's debut, "Ten." It wasn't a full-on love affair, though, and within a year or two of its release and traded the CD in for something else. That was the last Pearl Jam album I bought for a very long time. It seemed like the band was doing everything it could to distance itself from memorable melodies, perhaps in a bid to rough off that early production sheen and the big rousing anthems. And the one time they did come up with a golden tune, "Given to Fly," it was a rip-off of "Going to California."

But my interest in Pearl Jam was mildly roused by the band's previous self-titled album (its cover image of an open avocado is as beautiful as it is perplexing). I had to review "Pearl Jam" and I was pleasantly surprised how good it was. Not a perfect record by any means, but it included enough killer cuts (among them, "Unemployable" and "Gone" and "Army Reserve") that it hasn't left my iPod since its release.

The just-released "Backspacer," though not flawless, is even better and could just be the band's best record. It has so many thrilling tunes on it -- I get a visceral rush just listening to "Amongst the Waves" and "Unthought Known." Both are great anthems without being at all bombastic or overwrought. "Johnny Guitar," perhaps a song about bluesman Johnny "Guitar" Watson and his many girlfriends showcases a playful streak at odds with the band's frowny persona. And "The Fixer," is a ripping single (Be sure to check out the video, directed by Cameron Crowe, above.)

I bought the album at Target for $11 and the big-box retailer's version comes with free downloads of 2 full Pearl Jam concerts. You plug your disc into your computer and it takes you to a site where you have the option of choosing two from 8 concerts, recorded between 2006 and 2008. (It tells you what the setlists are and includes sound clips.) A brilliant idea, frankly, since it not only maximizes the value of my $11 purchase but it's also a great advertisement for the band's tour and also their official bootlegs. More bands oughta do this.

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