More Backspacer Kudos

by Kathy Davis on September 14, 2009

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We’re days away from the “official” release of Pearl Jam’s latest studio  release, Backspacer… and we couldn’t be more excited to get our grubby little mitts on the pretty artwork and lyrics and have that marvelous New Album Experience.  As a person of the band’s age group, I particularly anticipate the joy of having the vinyl so I can absorb it old school.  

Yes, I have purchased all formats and singles from the Ten Club, and I’ll get the Target Backspacer and the I-tunes Backspacer and import singles and releases and what not…because, you know, I’m a Pearl Jam geek.

That said, I first resisted but ultimately caved in when the Backspacer music hit the ethers. I chose to inform my Key Arena shows and potential live Backspacer songs with a listen to the thing , because  Hey -Stone said they’d be playing  more of the album live, what kind a fan would I be if I didn’t thoughtfully rock out? :)

 Kathy D TFT’s review of Backspacer is simple:  I can see where Pearl Jam has been, and I can see where they are going. And I want to go there with them.  The record draws on my boys’ influences without sounding derivative, it communicates their musical evolution but still sounds fresh…the production is clean but warm, balanced - and by that I mean all instruments are forward, the vocals nestle right in the center of the circle. Complex, but not overly busy.  The music is a prime example of what I love about the band.  Accessible, urgent, honest.  Raw and polished at the same time.  It seems Backspacer is meant to be a little musical dose of the typewriter key metaphor – Pearl Jam backing themselves up a bit and undertaking a fresh start while still leaving a hint of what went before.   That works brilliantly for me.

Here are more great reviews of the short, sweet and to-the-point record from heavy hitters like Rolling Stone, Culture Bully and our compatriots at The Sky I Scrape as well as a couple of more-than-casual-fan bloggers.  We’ll keep sharing as we find worthy words…

From Rolling Stone.com’s  Rob Sheffield:  4 out of 5 stars

Have you caught that Pearl Jam MTV Unplugged gig on VH1 Classic lately? The 1992 set has Eddie Vedder jumping around, fluttering his rock-star eyelashes, scrawling the words “PRO CHOICE” on his arm, as the boys in the band flip their hair like hippie-chick hitchhikers trying to flag down a Camaro. “Jeremy” or no “Jeremy,” these were guys who wanted to have fun.

Backspacer, Pearl Jam’s ninth album, backspaces to that boyish spirit, with the shortest, tightest, punkiest tunes they’ve ever banged out. The whole album is done and dusted in 37 minutes, a record for these guys. Unlike your average long-running rock band, Pearl Jam started off specializing in slow, ruminative, rope-a-dope ballads and didn’t have any instinctive knack for playing it fast or loud. On their early records, punk nuggets like “Spin the Black Circle” were just filler, and you sat through them because you were waiting for the next awesomely slack-jawed torch song á la “Black” or “Daughter.” But Backspacer comes out swinging with “Gonna See My Friend,” “Got Some” and “The Fixer” — a nine-minute trio of gut-punchers that get the momentum rushing like no other Pearl Jam album openers ever.

Brendan O’Brien is producing the band for the first time since Yield, the 1998 gem that defines the parameters of the mature Pearl Jam the way Ten defines their frantic early days. Like Yield, this revs the tempo while adding classic-rock texture to the punk rush, with layers of Thin Lizzy twin-guitar raunch going on down below. The pile-driving solos that spin out of control at the end of “Got Some” could be nicked from the Stooges in “Gimme Danger” — but the Seventies-flavored cowbell-boogie charges ahead way too fast for anything to feel quaint.

Eddie Vedder’s heart-on-fire vocals are the main attraction, as always. He seems relieved not to have to go on singing about George Bush, and he loosens up enough to share his guarded optimism in the new songs. There’s a definite positivity to the “yeah, yeah, yeah” choruses that jump out of “The Fixer,” which evoke the old openhearted vulnerability of “Wishlist.” “If something’s old, I wanna put a bit of shine on it,” Vedder growls. “When something’s gone, I wanna fight to get it back again.” And the rugged acoustic ballads Vedder did on the Into the Wild soundtrack carry over into “Just Breathe,” a love song that deserves to become Pearl Jam’s wedding-song standard.

The songs seem to mess around with a loose theme of addiction and recovery. “Got Some” (with Vedder chanting, “Got some if you need it”) could be a dealer’s invitation, while “Speed of Sound” is the flip side, a late-night barroom lament from a guy who mourns that “Every time I get me some/It gets the best of me.” But the downbeat songs on Backspacer don’t get too grim — even the desperate drunk who narrates “Speed of Sound” ends up looking forward to a chance to start fresh tomorrow. Fans of Pearl Jam’s chest-beating angst mode might look for some metaphorical resonance in “Amongst the Waves.” Yet the more you listen, the more it just sounds like Vedder’s spending a nice day surfing. After toughing out the Bush years, Pearl Jam aren’t in the mood for brooding; at long last, surf’s up.

CultureBully.com’s Chris DeLine: Well-informed longtime Pearl Jam fan weighs in thoughtfully on Backspacer.

“It essentially covers the music that the band has made as it has transitioned through the past two decades, while not allowing you to forget that this is Pearl Jam in 2009.”

At that particular time in my life I had heard of Pearl Jam. I was familiar with whatever radio-friendly singles they had in rotation on the local classic rock radio station, and was a casual fan. But my first real introduction to the band came during the 1996 Grammy Awards. At the time I was a big fan of Primus—probably more of the music video for “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” than the band itself, actually—and had my hopes set on seeing the band win the award for “Best Hard Rock Performance” that evening. In the end however, Pearl Jam ended up winning with “Spin the Black Circle” (which was originally released in 1994; c’mon!). The short clip of the winning song which the house played as the band made its way to the stage immediately captured me though, and I ended up purchasing Vitalogy shortly thereafter.

The point is that everyone has different moments in time when someone or something makes a dramatic entrance into their lives. For some, their Pearl Jam moment came during grunge’s heyday, for others it came in the form of a blistering guitar riff at the ‘96 Grammys, but for some other people out there, believe it or not, it likely came when the band officially debuted “Got Some” during Conan O’Brien’s debut as the host of The Tonight Show. For those bold enough to call themselves die-hard fans, it’s likely extremely difficult to imagine the idea that there are people who haven’t actually sunk their teeth into a Pearl Jam album. But with 9.2 million people watching that night, chances are high that there was at least one person watching who would fit into that category. And chances are also good that there is one such person who had their Pearl Jam moment that night.

Following the release of a deluxe reissue of the band’s classic debut, Ten, this past spring, information began to trickle down regarding the band’s previously announced ninth studio album. And by the time the band was confirmed as the first musical act on The Tonight Show under its new reign, the internet was already abuzz as someone had leaked a rough recording of “The Fixer” following the Cameron Crowe-directed Target Commercial shoot. From there, fans were treated to the televised live performance, and additional bits and pieces began to fall into place.

The album—while still being an easily recognizable Pearl Jam record—parallels bits and pieces of the band’s previous releases this past decade, but is an animal all unto itself. The first step in shifting the band’s direction was returning to producer Brendan O’Brien for the first time since 1998’s Yield (O’Brien also produced No Code, Vitalogy and Vs.). The explanation behind the change had less to do with returning to a time period and more to do with the band necessity to be comfortable with someone who they could trust to do the job of trimming its songs down. And after initially reconvening at their first session for the album together in 2008, that’s exactly what he did. Previously the shortest Pearl Jam album had been the record-setting Vs., which runs about 46 minutes. Backspacer is 10 minutes shorter.

This trimming to the core attitude is immediately reflected in the band’s first three—maybe even four—songs on the record. Following the trend set by Pearl Jam, the band ignites Backspacer with the straightforward “Gonna See My Friend,” the previously mentioned “Got Some” and “The Fixer,” and the gritty “Johnny Guitar.” Though not as raw as the opening set of tracks on the band’s 2006 release, these songs nonetheless represent the core of the album’s energy.

“Got Some” and “The Fixer” are the two amongst the first few tracks that really stick out, though they do so for completely different reasons however. “Got Some” is a blazing track that is primarily attractive due to just that: its explosiveness. “Every time you can try/But can’t turn on/A rock song/I got some if you need it,” is a bit of a play on a drug dealer pushing rock (not plural), but ultimately the lyrics are dissolved by the pure enjoyment of the music flowing through the sound of Eddie Vedder’s voice. That last point could be made about “The Fixer” as well, had the song not been slightly slower and oddly funky. Throughout the song Vedder’s voice is highlighted, and despite the lyrics being fairly basic, with each new verse the attraction to them becomes greater and greater, “When something’s broke I wanna put a bit of fixin’ on it/If something’s bored I wanna put a little excited on it/If something’s low I wanna put a little high on it/If something’s lost I wanna fight to get it back again.”

“Amongst the Waves” and “Unknown Thought” both offer a ripple effect, allowing different aspects of the band to alternately take the spotlight throughout each song. Combining an increasingly booming musical presence with uplifting lyrics “Amongst the Waves” eventually blasts through an invisible roadblock and soars, “Riding high amongst the waves, I can feel like I have a soul that has been saved.” Similarly “Unknown Thought” builds slowly, the first two and a half minutes leaning heavily on Vedder’s lyrical focus towards embracing our universal surroundings while the band slowly chimes in behind him. As the song moves forward it again reverts to Vedder’s lyrics, “See the path cut by the moon/For you to walk on/See the waves on distant shores/Waiting your arrival,” before hitting another moment of cohesion before ending the song.

It’s songs like these last two that lend themselves as evidence of the band’s decision to “rehearse” at bassist Jeff Amment’s home in Montana; something Pearl Jam hasn’t done since Ten. As Vedder explained in the Backspacer short, the concept of playing and writing together before hitting the studio was “all based on the idea… ‘let’s write the songs before we record them.’” But just as the album seems to level off, we’re given “Supersonic.”

“Supersonic” opens with a riff that essentially adds a slide to that from “Mankind” before continuing the trend that was set by the album’s first string of tracks. Unlike anything on the record to this point, the song breaks down half way through into a fun trade-off between Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, the guitarists blending a heavy jam under a solo, before kicking back into the chorus of the track.

Ten years ago, had you asked what I thought Pearl Jam would have sounded like as it’s members grew into their early to mid-40s? My response would have probably been something close to what “Speed of Sound” and “Force of Nature” sound like. The songs are on par with much of the band’s output this past decade, but don’t necessarily reflect the same cohesion that is represented through the majority of the record. From there, the album ends with Backspacer’s second best delicate, brooding love song.

It’s funny that the album’s opener, “Gonna See My Friend,” was described by Vedder as something of a drug song, while the aptly titled “The End” tells a heartbreaking tale that is easily translated as something of a “drug song” itself. The track rests primarily on Vedder and an acoustic guitar, building up as a tale of lovers coming together, before their relationship collapses,

“Help me see myself, ‘cause I can no longer tell/Looking up from inside of the bottom of a well, it’s Hell, I yell/But no one hears before, I disappear, whisper in my ear/Give me something to echo in my unknown future/You see, my dear, the end, comes near, I’m here, but not much longer.”

While its pace and tone isn’t entirely different, the gentle sadness of “The End” is ultimately trumped by the album’s best track: the equally sentimental “Just Breathe.”

In first listening to Vedder and Corin Tucker’s rendition of Indio’s “Hard Sun,” released in 2007 on the soundtrack to Into the Wild, I felt as though I had found something that had touched me far deeper than much of anything had in quite some time. The lyrics are one thing—beautiful and deeply moving—but it was the execution of the song that resonated within me. And if “Just Breathe” had been developed along those same lines—Vedder performing a rendition of someone else’s song—I’d say the exact same thing; however, this isn’t someone else’s song.

Oh, I’m a lucky man to count on both hands the ones I love.” Connecting various aspects of life that are easily overlooked, Vedder continues the song by defining aspects of common ground that we all—at some point in time—share, “Under everything, just another human being/Yeah I don’t wanna hurt, there’s so much in this world to make me breathe.” After assessing the value of finding the humanity within us, strings accompany Vedder as he casts out a line that is repeated throughout the remainder of the song, “Everything that you gave, and nothing you would take.” Vedder himself has called “Just Breathe” the closest thing to an actual Pearl Jam love song, and after boldly addressing that for which he yearns the band safely chimes in, and the song ends as he quietly confronts their mutual morality. Each step in the song enables a touching moment that creates a bond between the songwriter and the listener, and as Vedder carefully allows his love to know that her selflessness is what he finds most beautiful in her, “Just Breathe”—which is lodged in the middle of the album—reaches its “Hard Sun”-moment.

Neither Pearl Jam nor “Spin The Black Circle” are for everybody. Had I not been so fixated on the television set that evening, I might not have developed the intrigue to explore a band that has since become one of my favorites. Chances are good that the majority of the viewers watching that episode of The Tonight Show didn’t make it through the entire episode, didn’t find Pearl Jam to be of their taste, or ended up completely forgetting all about it a few days later. But for some, that had to be their moment; their moment in time when Pearl Jam’s music reached out to them and demanded their attention. And to those people I say Backspacer won’t be a bad place to start. It essentially covers the music that the band has made as it has transitioned through the past two decades, while not allowing you to forget that this is Pearl Jam in 2009. While at times there are songs that pull away from the body of the record, Backspacer demonstrates that the band still has fire, it still has cohesion, and above all it demonstrates that Eddie Vedder is still lyrically able to crush giants. As Vitalogy was to me, I hope Backspacer is to at least a few new Pearl Jam fans.

Irish music site Drop-d.com’s reviewed by Paul Murphy - “Infinity out of 10″

They survive as soldiers of fortune from a bygone era of grunge. Some ridicule them, some loved them. They are a band born out of the overdose of glam grunge legend Andy Wood’s death, a band had Mother Love Bone made it, if their singer survived the days prior to their debut album release, would simply never have even been a concept.

Things never work out as planned and thank the almighty deity for it because for this Pearl Jam exist, a band who quickly grasped the concept of success as documented by Cameron Crowe for Rolling Stone during the recording of Vs. (the band’s second album) and yet have always shunned the shining lights of fame, never forcing their beliefs on fans unlike many rock bands of their stature who shove it down their following’s throats.

To Pearl Jam, as a band, a group of musicians, it has always been about the music, the melody and the tune, particularly on their latest album Backspacer. This album like it’s self-titled predecessor bares the band naked, for who they are: musicians with a cause, a cause to make love with an armour, an armour of soul, of feeling, of everything that makes life worth living, the spirit that is left to command what it is to have life and to be experienced.

Every song, on the album, is typically Pearl Jam, in a way that will see the Seattle grungers revered in the same way that the Rolling Stones are now, as leading heroes of rock music. Although without the same anti-government angst of the previous album, Eddie Vedder and co. deliver eleven songs that still demand a longing for more and not only that but much more, as if anyone could ever tire of hearing music and musicianship of this quality.

For all who know of frontman Eddie Vedder’s soundtrack to the inspirational yet tragic story of Chris McCandless, (from the Sean Penn directed movie, Into the Wild) Pearl Jam embrace the singers’ haunting, upsetting and grip you by the loose strings of your heart unique lyrical and vocal ability, on two tracks that make you, both sorrowful for your own failings as a human being and thankful that you are never alone.

From here into the never Pearl Jam’s latest album will take you from their rock and grunge origins though to the thought provoking, skin crawling truths of life. This is music that will separate you from those who accept the difficulties of the world and those who don’t. Every story sung here can be related to, even by the most rigid of personalities. Pearl Jam are the light for anyone with a doubt in music. A light to those who allow the lows and the roads they lead to swallow them, rather than feeling the air above, the air of blue sky, the air of love and a sky, a sky that they can walk on.

Backspacer will slot straight in by Ten, their debut, as one of Pearl Jam’s greatest albums, and indeed, deservedly, as one of the greatest albums of our lifetime. The most humbling part being that there isn’t even the slightest hint of effort here, this is natural emotion and sentiment from a group of Seattle rockers whose music has the ability to touch more people than the annals of the greatest musicians ever will. Drop-d Rating: Infinity out of 10

New York-based music blog Radio Exile, reviewed by  James V. Mitchell  “Backspacer sticks to your ribs”

On their 9th studio album, Pearl Jam complete the arc their career shifted toward back on 2000’s Binaural. If that album was the dusk to their youth, then Backspacer is the new sun most bands never see. Backspacer kicks off with the raucus “Gonna See My Friend”, a song pitting Pearl Jam’s strongest talents against one another to great result. Eddie Vedder barks and howls his way through Stone Gossard and Mike McCready’s guitars as drummer Matt Cameron and bassist Jeff Ament propel the rest of the band forward. It’s an odd feeling. For much of its early career, Pearl Jam seemed to rely more on volume than sheer energy, as if the two weren’t mutually exclusive. Aware of restraints the band has placed on itself over years, and even more aware of their strengths, Vedder screams the opening line to the record: “Do you want to hear something sad/We are but victims of desire/I’m gonna shake this day/I wanna shake this day before I retire”.

It’s the promising start and that makes Backspacer stick to your ribs. Not until the album’s fourth track does the band decide to slow down; “Got Some” rips through a metaphor describing rock music as a good drug, “The Fixer” is Vedder’s tongue-in-cheek description of his role in Pearl Jam, and “Johnny Guitar” finds Vedder rolling syllables a-la “Satan’s Bed” over a Soundgarden-esque arrangement.

Things pick back up after “Just Breathe”, a nod to Vedder’s instrumental “Tuolomne” off the Into the Wild soundtrack. “Unthought Unknown” builds to a soaring anthem, while “Supersonic” emulates early Elvis Costello. It’s strange and unexpected. Where Pearl Jam’s eponymous record screamed and sulked over “Bush Americana”, Backspacer seems to acknowledge his absence by simply not acknowledging it, the band filling its rage-shaped hole with upbeat, up-tempo songs celebrating life. Perhaps that’s the only flaw: that the majority of the lyrics stick to a 2-dimensional view of life (light good, dark bad, etc.). Maybe so. Or maybe for a band always seen as too serious for their own skin, perhaps affirmation of a lighter side is what they need to keep moving forward.

It’s fitting then that this record about life and those who champion it ends with a song about death. On “The End”, Vedder sits alone, save a backing orchestra and acoustic guitar. He ambles through the story of a man dying young from a “sickness” in his bones, leaving wife and child behind to fend for themselves. Vedder’s desperate, trembling voice is cradled by the music, beautifully crafted and executed. It’s a shocking piece in light of the rest of Backspacer, a reminder that this is still a band with a message, and no matter what that message is, they’re more than capable of delivering it.

Finally, Stip our compatriot at TheSkyIScrape, posted a brilliant write-up, encapsulated by this intro:

Pearl Jam knocked this one out of the park.  It’s obviously way too early to tell how these songs will age (S/T did not age well), and what will strike a long term chord once the novelty wears off, but for the first time in a LONG time (if I exclude the art tracks in Vitalogy this would go all the way back to Ten for me) Pearl Jam has released a record where every song is pretty good to great.  They flow together beautifully, and the band almost never misses a note. Even the songs that I don’t love do what they’re supposed to do—it’s just that what they’re supposed to do doesn’t necessarily appeal to me.  It’s definitely a record by a band with a long history—almost every song harkens back in part to something that’s come before, but in a way that sounds familiar and comfortable rather than repetitive.  They’re also trying enough that’s new that the record feels very fresh without really deviating much beyond the conventional 2-3 guitars, drum, bass format (BoB does do a really nice job dressing up a bunch of these songs though).  The whole album has a bit of an 80s/New Wave feel to it which helps give it that feeling of newness.

Read the whole TSIS review here.

Kathy Davis ( Twitter: @CrookedArm23 )
A Bay-Area based entrepreneur, co-editor Kathy conceives and writes her share of TFT’s articles and sections. She was co-editor/co-founder of one of the first Pearl Jam fanzines "Footsteps" (1992-1997). Kathy’s first Pearl Jam show was at the Bridge School Benefit on November 1, 1992.

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