Part tribute, part chronicle, Pearl Jam’s new release PJ20 is also part movie soundtrack. In short, the double album is the aural equivalent of a biography/documentary celebrating the band’s 20 years of existence and owes its provenance to Cameron Crowe, celebrated journalist/director and fan.
Crowe’s vision was to create an updated version of The Who’s The Kids are All Right, a monumental, still inspiring and definitive film/soundtrack bio of the group, done fan style. This makes some sense, The Who being a rabid fan-magnet entity and a Pearl Jam favourite and inspiration.PJ20 may not be as raw as that earlier homage but for warts-and-all realism and honest display, hard core fans and the generally curious can be taken on a blistering ride from grunge kingdom Seattle to worldwide stages, raw demos to stately acoustic statements.
The demos (mainly on the second CD) reveal a sonically talented band awaiting the inevitable transformation to super group via the Cinderella appearance of singer Eddie Vedder. The band is interesting before (in Temple of the Dog era) but giant steps are heard at the door on Vedder’s arrival (the humble Acoustic #1). From here on, the shifts are memorable and the moods are monumental (Indifference) to abstract soundscaping (Of the Girl).
The band’s journey from acolyte reluctant grunge musos to rock heroes is highlighted in Bu$hleaguer, which casts Pearl Jam as political commentators and sincere risk takers.
Disc number one is a study in contrasts in both sound and direction, covering 1990 – 2010. Fans of aural purity and sound perfection will be affronted. As for the rest, they’ll be happy here, and rock fans with an ear to history will find unearthed treasure. The raw crap recorded quality of Alive adds nasty lustre to the mega-hit and the casual audience-based recording of Garden is telling, pointing to the force of this acoustic track – Vedder rising easily above the din.
From here on, the album is about time, confidence and the emerging acoustic-electric character that Pearl Jam would evolve into. Something happened quickly as detected in the scheisse-quality recording of Why Go in Germany and the muted-anthemic reading of Black in New York, both in 1992.
Other moments in this deep journey are startling, due to creative contrast. When people care, they can rock – Not for You is proof. And when they want to expand and reach out, they bring wooden hymns (Thumbing My Way) and hard-driving elegies to fallen band members to soothe the spirit (Crown of Thorns). To fill in the cracks, the rest is a pure form of rock, not some media spawned, game show grasping filler.
Dean Gordon-Smith is a Vernon musician who writes CD reviews in Street Sounds every Friday.