Monday, September 19, 2011

Pearl Jam 20 Soundtrack - review

I'm off to see Pearl Jam 20 on the big screen tonight - and I'm certainly looking forward to it.  Pearl Jam have always had a special place in my music collection - I grew up with their early albums and I like a lot of stuff from their later albums too.  I finally got the chance to see them live in Auckland a couple of years ago, and what a fantastic show it was (and they played Severed Hand too, STOKED!).

It's hard to imagine a better choice of director for the film than Cameron Crowe (who was responsible for Singles and Almost Famous).  But in the meantime, I'm tiding myself over with the soundtrack, comprising a slew of Pearl Jam live recordings, demos and rarities

Pearl Jam releasing live stuff is nothing new, really.  Since Live on Two Legs came out, the band pioneered the concept of making concert recordings available to fans - first on CD, then later digitally.  In true Pearl Jam fashion, this was because they didn't see why fans should have to tolerate expensive, shitty quality bootlegs when they could make cheaper, soundboard-quality recordings available (remember kids, this was before camera phones and YouTube).  Hell, I have 9 or 10 of their shows from various tours myself, including that 2009 Auckland show.

But you know, the (unintended) consequence of that is that it's hard to get excited about a new Pearl Jam live album because there's so much quality stuff already floating around.  Unless it's something a little different, like the mostly-acoustic Live at Benaroya Hall from 2004.

PJ20 is different for a number of reasons.  Firstly - it's a soundtrack to the documentary.  Having not yet seen the film, I can't really say a lot on this particular angle.  But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, PJ20 is career-spanning, and that is what makes it really interesting.

The first disc puts together 14 live recordings in (basically) chronological order, and it's fascinating listening.  See, there is a version of Alive that dates back to when the band was still named Mookie Blaylock.  And equally, there's a version of Just Breathe that was recorded only last year.  There's a version of Garden that was recorded in some tiny venue in Zurich and you can hear the crowd talking in the background.  There's a version of Black lifted from their hard-to-find MTV Unplugged performance.

Comparing those earlier shows with a huge 2010 performance of Betterman from Madison Square Garden where the crowd sing the first verse highlights just how popular the band have become - despite being content to follow their own creative path, which led in a different direction from the massive commercial success of their first three albums.

Ironically, it's a track originally by Mother Love Bone (which featured a pre-Pearl Jam Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard) that provides the biggest highlight of the first disc, an awesome performance of Crown of Thorns recorded in Las Vegas during PJ's 10th anniversary concert.

The second disc has some live material as well, but it's more oriented towards demos.  Generally I don't find a lot to like about demo versions - but there are some gems here, such as a rugged demo version of the Temple of the Dog track Say Hello 2 Heaven that feels so unbelievably 1990 you'd swear you were listening to it on a cassette, and a similarly cool demo of Times of Trouble, its loping main riff somehow made more enjoyable by the sense it's just a few guys mucking around in the studio recording a demo.

From the same era, there's a highly amusing (further) nod to the Seattle scene in the form of a demo cover of Alice in Chains' It Ain't Like That, that carries on until someone starts noodling the main riff from Put You Down.  Later highlights include a solo instrumental acoustic performance of Given to Fly by Mike McCready.

I get the impression that the second disc is intended to give some context to Pearl Jam in the studio versus Pearl Jam live - the first half is all demo versions concluding with a really dark Jeff Ament demo of Nothing As It Seems from 1999, which segues straight into a 2001 live performance of that song.  It wouldn't surprise me at all if these tracks were used as a backdrop to the film's coverage of the 2000 Roskilde tragedy, given the sombre nature of the song and the fact that the dates of the demo and live performances straddle that sad, sad moment.

The remainder of the second disc is a selection of well-chosen and relatively recent live performances, aptly concluding with a great version of live staple Rearviewmirror.

All things considered, it's not a record that will win the band any new fans, nor is it intended to.  The whole premise of PJ20 is to celebrate one of the most influential and unique rock bands of the past two decades, because, frankly, you get the distinct impression that they're the sort of guys who wouldn't make a big deal of it themselves and are happy just writing and playing music.  And in that regard I think the soundtrack succeeds admirably - with memorable live and demo recordings spanning the band's career, and highlighting their evolution.  I'd go so far as to say it's essential listening for any long-time fan of the band.

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