It’s been years since I’ve been able to do a Pearl Jam album review, and damn if it doesn’t feel good. With twenty days of buildup and excitement, the day is finally here – the release of the Cameron Crowe directed “Pearl Jam 20” documentary, as well as the accompanying soundtrack. While I won’t be attending a screening of the movie tonight (the Brattle Theater down the street is showing it for a few weeks, plus I’ve got the Wilco show here in Boston tonight), I have been enjoying the soundtrack, which is up on Spotify, as well as the PJ20 textbook which I’ve been diligently consuming for the last week.
If you’d like a truly in-depth review of the soundtrack, head over to Two Feet Thick for their excellent map/timeline post (which was the 20th and final item in the PJ20 countdown). But if you want to hear my thoughts, keep on reading.
The album is split into two discs. The first is a killer set of rare or unreleased live songs. That the band was able to unearth so many unheard versions of these songs is quite impressive given that the band has released (almost) every show they’ve played since 2000 on official bootleg, and that more than half of the earlier decade of shows are floating around on unofficial bootleg. The second disc is a collection of demos, instrumental tracks, soundchecks, but also closes off with a few more live tracks.
Disc 1 begins with “Release” from the 2006 show in Verona, Italy. This was the opening song from that show, as the band took the stage just as the rain began to pour down upon the crowd. Do I think Crowe intended this as a meta-comment on the deeply soulful yearning of a band starting out during troubled times? No, but it’s a nice way to interpret the album opener. We move into “Alive” as performed by Mookie Blaylock on December 22nd, 1990 – the bands fifth or sixth show. It’s unbelievable that the song sounded so tight so early in their career, and how amazing their live sound was even back then. “Garden” follows; a pre-Unplugged unplugged recording of Pearl Jam’s famous acoustic Zurich show. The band showed up to discover that the stage was too small to set up a drum kit, so they got a bunch of acoustic instruments and played their songs unplugged. “Why Go” from Hamburg in ’92 follows, after which the band returns to the US to record MTV’s Unplugged. A riveting show in its own right, the highlight of the performance has to be the next song included on the soundtrack: “Black.” Though Eddie had already used the “we belong together” tag at the end of earlier versions of the song, this was the first time that masses of teenagers were able to see it performed as such. Though he refused to release this as a single because it was too important to him, Eddie didn’t shy away from pouring his entire body and soul into this performance of the song, instantly converting a legion of lost teenagers looking for someone to connect with.
From here we move past the Ten era into a Pearl Jam with a different sound. “Blood” as performed in Auckland in ’95 is a crushing scream of a song which may very well be the most fun song to lose your shit to when it’s played live, “Last Exit” (Taipei, 1995) showed that their songwriting talents went deeper than you initially expected, and “Not For You” (Manila, 1995) was their “fuck you” to everyone for whom the music was not intended. Their version of “Do The Evolution,” one of their more creative and experimental tracks, as performed on Monkeywrench Radio in ’98 follows, leading into a more subdued band, performing “Thumbing My Way” in Seattle in 2002.
What follows is “Crown of Thorns,” performed for the very first time, as Pearl Jam’s 10th Anniversary Show in Las Vegas. In an early Rolling Stone interview with Cameron Crowe, when asked about performing Mother Love Bone songs, Eddie responds that they won’t perform any of them, but he qualifies that by saying there is one song that he hopes to someday be able to play.
After this we’re transported back to Verona, where Eddie performs “Let Me Sleep (It’s Christmas Time)” with Mike McCready on the steps of the arena. The song was the A-side to their first ever Christmas Single. Neil Young’s “Walk With Me,” from last year’s Bridge School Benefit features Eddie and Neil sharing vocals, backed by Pearl Jam. The disc closes with “Just Breathe” from SNL last year, a beautiful but sad song that ends with a glimmer of hope.
And while the first disc is an exciting hit-parade of great live songs, it’s Disc 2 that includes the truly exciting rarities for me.
The album opens with the demo for “Say Hello 2 Heaven,” the Temple of the Dog song. The “Times of Trouble” demo follows, a song which should sound familiar to you even if you don’t have the Temple of the Dog music. According to the account in the PJ20 book, Stone Gossard included the instrumentals to this track in the tape he sent to Eddie, which he turned into “Fottsteps.’ Gossard also gave a copy of the instrumental to Chris Cornell, who added his own lyrics to it, giving us “Times of Trouble.”
Next we have “Acoustic #1,” a song that I’ve never heard before. It’s a gorgeous track that somehow never made it past the demo. Next is the demo of “It Ain’t Like That,” an Alice In Chains song, over which Eddie sings “I’m Abe Vigoda, and Alice In Chains rocks my world.” Following is “Need To Know,” a Matt Cameron demo which was turned into “The Fixer.” I have no idea where “Be Like The Wind” came from, but Mike’s talents shine through on it, as they do on his acoustic performance of “Given To Fly.”
Jeff Ament’s early “Nothing As It Seems” is an entirely different song without Mike’s wailing guitars, and transitioning from the demo into a gut busting 2001 version from Seattle makes that point quite effectively. “Indifference” may very well be the most emotional Pearl Jam song (certainly for me), and this version, heavy with crowd participation is a chill-inducer. An instrumental version of “Of The Girl” comes next, which sounds suspiciously like the actual track before the vocals were laid on top. “Faithful” from a soundcheck in Italy comes next, then the rarely played “Bushleaguer,” followed by a MSG “Betterman” (crowd sound doesn’t get better than this venue and this song), before the album closes out with “Rearviewmirror,” a track which Eddie initially described as good to drive to when you’re trying to get away from something.
A great all around album with superb rarities and excellent versions of live tracks. I just can’t wait to see the movie now.