Backspacer Acclaim Continues

by Kathy Davis on September 20, 2009

The internet is bursting with review after glowing review of Pearl Jam 2009 style, their latest release Backspacer.  Critics love it, fans are smitten – if there are passionate haters out there, they are – you’ll pardon the expression – in hiding.  May they stay there! It’s a big weekend in the PJ world – here’s a big old honkin’ recap of the latest avalanche of global critical response to Backspacer.

From Viva La Mainstream.com- Reviewed by TJ  8.7 of 10 stars “Stronger than ever” -   For nigh on two decades now, Pearl Jam have been at the forefront of rock n’ roll in all its forms. Each of the band’s evolutions has come not out of a desire to sell more records, but out of an organic desire for something different from the band. Pearl Jam’s ability to stay relevant from the grunge era to…whatever this phase of rock music will go down as is nothing short of remarkable. And now, with Backspacer, the band’s ninth studio album and their first sans record label, the band adjusts course again, turning in a reflective, upbeat, but ephemeral album that does its best to make a mark in its short running time.

Backspacer has no time to waste in making a first impression, and with “Gonna See My Friend” “Got Some”, two fast, raucous numbers that call Eddie Vedder’s trademark throat-scratching yell into play early and often, and evokes the urgency that made their self-titled 2006 album such a strong listen. Lead single “The Fixer” is equally energetic and begins to introduce the introspective, optimistic nature of the remainder of the album. As a single “The Fixer” is far from what we’ve come to expect from Pearl Jam; a snappy, catchy as hell 3-minute jaunt with a big chorus full of “yeah, yeah yeah”s. It still sounds like Pearl Jam, but its a Pearl Jam that have grown up and found a new outlook on life.

The meat of Backspacer, however, is less howling, and carries a different, more nuanced intensity. Album highlight “Just Breathe” features Vedder’s longing vocals and an acoustic guitar, reminiscent of Vedder’s contributions to the Into The Wild soundtrack. With pensive lyrics wrought with reflection and memories, “Just Breathe” is a gem in Pearl Jam’s extensive catalog, one I hope to hear frequently in future bootlegs. From there “Amongst the Waves” and “Speed of Sound” take on a sound and aesthetic similar to that of Yield or Riot Act, the band’s more subdued albums. The more laid-back tone allow for the band’s meaning and lyrics to shine and allows listeners to appreciate just how far Pearl Jam have come in 18 years. From start to finish Backspacer is a quality album that lets Pearl Jam look backward to move forward, while begging to be heard again and again.

But the problems with Backspacer lie in its start and finish; well, mostly its finish, and that it comes to soon. At a paltry 33:36, Backspacer is Pearl Jam’s shortest album to date, and while brevity may be the soul of wit, the music of Backspacer has enough wit about it that listeners may long for more well after the haunting reverb of “The End” closes out. Simply put, Backspacer is gone too soon, and while nothing feels underwritten or half-assed on the album, you can’t help but wish there were one or two more songs to keep the record hanging around a bit more, like a wise old friend who you love to see but can never stay long. To that end, Backspacer leaves me longing only for the next time Pearl Jam releases a new song, and may that new song be as strong as the best of this album.

Evan Sawdey at Pop Matters.com – “Shining a human light”  7 of 10 stars “Exciting to listen to”   You’ve heard the rumors, and the rumors are true: Pearl Jam have finally released a “pop” album.  Yet the phrase “pop” doesn’t mean what you think it does in the world of Pearl Jam. For certain purists, “pop” is just another way of saying that Pearl Jam have “sold out”, a theory that’s only furthered by the fact that Backspacer—the group’s ninth studio album—is getting the premiere of its physical release through big box corporate retailer Target, a sure sign that the group is now chasing the Almighty Dollar instead of their values, lurching forward as if their infamous battle with Ticketmaster never even happened. As if that isn’t enough, there are some that gladly point to lead single “The Fixer” as undeniable evidence that the grunge-pioneers have shed their white-knuckle trademark rock sound for something infinitely more accessible and upbeat, as if Eddie Vedder & co. are now desperate for a gigantic radio hit …

… to which the following response is generated: so what?

When Pearl Jam released their iconic debut album Ten back in 1991, few would have guessed that the group would become unintentional godfathers of the ‘90s grunge explosion, entering the gigantic world of mainstream rock radio before Kurt Cobain even had a chance to let the door shut behind him (which is incredibly ironic given that Ten came out a whole month before Nevermind did). Though Pearl Jam soldiered on—racking up #1 albums and radio hits in equal measure—things began winding down as the millennium came to a close, and their 2000 release Binaural was arguably the moment when the group hit rock-bottom, having finally released a disc that tried to sound like what the group thought people wanted to hear in a Pearl Jam album, instead of making the record that they actually wanted to make. That’s a theory that gains traction when you look at the rejected songs from the Binaural sessions that wound up on the 2003 rarities comp Lost Dogs—tracks like “Sad” and “Hitchhiker” that proved to be some of the poppiest songs that the group had penned in years.

Yet it seems that Pearl Jam was very conscious of the fan reaction to Binaural, and it is from this point onward that the group began getting a bit looser with their legacy, starting with the release of 72 “official” live bootlegs from their corresponding European and U.S. tours from that same year. In 2002, the group released Riot Act, a solid if not truly spectacular album, failing to reach the heights of Ten or Vs., but still showing the group taking steps in the right direction, opening up their sound a bit more instead of letting themselves get weighed down by their own legacy. This was soon followed by a contribution to the Big Fish soundtrack, a two-disc career retrospective called rearviewmirror, the aforementioned Lost Dogs rarities set, and two more rounds of live bootlegs. It’s as if Pearl Jam had finally embraced who they were, and were doing nothing but celebrating that discovery.

As such, their 2006 record—simply titled Pearl Jam—was nothing short of a revelation. For the first time in their career, guitarist Mike McCready was the principal sonic architect, and McCready made his intentions clear: he wanted to reconnect with the band’s early sound, penning powerful rockers that were more melodic than angst-ridden, more soulful than distortion-fueled. It was, in short, the album that patient Pearl Jam fans had been waiting for, and boy did it deliver. Shortly thereafter, Eddie Vedder released his first-ever solo album in the form of the Into the Wild soundtrack, and the group’s crowning achievement (Ten) was given the deluxe reissue treatment, not only reminding everyone just how influential that record was, but also showing that group had now officially moved beyond it—as great as Ten was, Pearl Jam were not going to let that disc define them any longer.

Which leads us to the novel thing about Backspacer: there isn’t a single disc in the group’s entire back catalog that it can even be compared to. Though individual songs can be referenced in order to give one an idea of what Backspacer sounds like (“Last Exit” from Vitalogy and “Wishlist” from Yeild being chief among them), Backspacer is its own unique entity: a scrappy little rock record that barely lasts 37 minutes, making it the shortest and most up-beat album in Pearl Jam’s cluttered discography. Yet, more critically than that, Backspacer is the sound of Pearl Jam actually having fun again, and it’s hard not to picture Vedder sporting a huge goofy grin on more than a few of these tracks, here rocking out with more passion than he did during his three-song stint as the Doors’ guest vocalist during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1993.

Backspacer starts off with the lurching strut of “Gonna See My Friend”, a ferocious little number that sounds like it was made by a much younger band, one that worshiped at the altar of ‘70s album rock instead of participating in the ‘90s Seattle grunge scene. Though the band’s love of their heroes has been apparent in just about everything they’ve done—ranging from their massively successful take on Wayne Cochran’s “Last Kiss” to their cover of the Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” from the soundtrack to the 2007 Adam Sandler movie Reign Over Me—never before has Pearl Jam made such a direct, deliberate homage to their influences. Hell, “Supersonic” even manages to do the sounds-ridiculous-on-paper feat of marrying the non-stop guitar strum of a Ramones song with a Tom Petty chorus and solo-filled bridge that would make Jimmy Page (and the makers of Guitar Hero) proud. It even concludes with a “yeah yeah yeah” chant …

… and that’s not the only time they use it either. “Yeah” makes up for a majority of the lyrics to the chorus of “The Fixer”, an unbelievably catchy rock single that even uses handclaps during its verses. No, this is not the same Pearl Jam that made No Code—far from it, in fact. As visceral as Pearl Jam was, it in no way could have prepared anyone for the radio-friendly pockets of joy that make up Backspacer, an album that moves from one Bic-lighter stadium anthem (“Amongst the Waves”) to another (“Unthought Known”) without as much as batting an eye.

Oh sure, some songs fall back on some tired rock clichés (“Force of Nature” relies on that wah pedal just a bit too much, just as how “Johnny Guitar” feels like a pastiche of other, less-interesting early-Pearl Jam rockers), but these moments are often over before they even have time to register, instead allowing us to just sit back and enjoy the six-string spectacle all around. Lyrically, Vedder focuses less on worldly woes and instead tackles relationship issues, getting caught up in his own contradictory promises to his lover during the lush folk-pop ballad “Just Breathe”, wanting to make things better for everyone during “The Fixer”, and then suffering the pangs of sexual inadequacy during “Johnny Guitar” (as in: “Oh and I had my disappointment / ‘cos for years I had been hopin’ / That when she came / She’d be comin’ just for me”). In short, Vedder has become vulnerable again, and for a record that’s so musically outgoing and forceful, the dichotomy between these two sides works extremely well.

Which leads us to why Backspacer is such a contradictory little album. Make no bones about it: this will not go down as Pearl Jam’s best album by any measure, but that’s because it’s not supposed to be. This is Pearl Jam’s “fun” record, a disc that was likely just as exciting as record as it is to listen to. Tracing things from Riot Act onward, it’s become apparent that Vedder & co. have truly rediscovered their passion for what they do, and even when Backspacer missteps, it never feels like it’s going to fall: it will just restudy itself and then crank the guitars back up to 11 all over again.

During the album’s closing song (the aptly-titled acoustic number “The End”), Vedder warns us that “The end comes near”, and just as the string sections swell during his declaration “I’m here”, all the music suddenly drops out, and Vedder—by himself—ominously warns us “But not much longer”. Then the album, rather abruptly, ends. Fans can read into this as much as they want, but if Vedder is actually telling us that Pearl Jam’s days are truly numbered, then we truly have a tragedy on our hands here: we’re about to lose a band that—after years of being lost in the alt-rock wilderness—have finally re-discovered who they are, and sound stronger than ever because of it.

latimes

Ann Powers, Los Angeles Times  4 out of 5 stars:  A thousand rock ‘n’ roll clichés have been built around the idea that guts and glory belong to the young. Pearl Jam‘s ninth studio album, “Backspacer,” due out Tuesday, makes the opposite argument. Its 11 breakneck rockers and candidly emotional ballads, adding up to barely more than a half hour of optimally toned catharsis, gain power from the band’s calm but constant awareness of life’s ticking clock.

“I gotta say it now, better loud than too late,” Eddie Vedder wails in “Amongst the Waves” — the closest thing to an oceanic jam on “Backspacer,” and at 3 1/2 minutes it’s pretty much a shore dump. More than half of the songs here feature fast beats and screaming guitars instead of the more contemplative ensemble journeys for which Pearl Jam is famous.

But speed isn’t the main point. Cellphone lifters such as “Just Breathe,” Vedder’s lovely celebration of life with the wife, don’t wander either; he still has a philosophical bent, this time the lyricist (writing all the words for the first in many years) mostly keeps things personal, considering the pleasures and tests of family life, love and his own mortal body.

The music remains complex, even when it seems like a beer party. Promoting the album, Vedder has been comparing the rhythm section of Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron to Motown’s fabled players, and he’s almost right. They’re more like a classic rock team (Entwistle-Moon, early Wyman-Watts), as sharp as the soul players but more hopped up and argumentative.
Peppered with hot little riffs from guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard, maulers “Got Some” and “The Fixer” have a punk edge, but they’re also pop — just like the prime work of Vedder’s favorite bands, the Who and the Ramones. Accessible without sacrificing sophistication, aggressive without flailing, the music on “Backspacer” testifies to the skill of a group locked into its groove but refusing to be bored with it.

That’s one thing about middle age: You are who you are, and either you have a crisis about that or you celebrate the fact. References to death, addiction and love as redemption abound on “Backspacer,” but it’s interesting to consider how those topics, so central to psychology and spirituality, motivate the album’s sound.

The lightness and dexterity of the playing throughout “Backspacer,” and of Vedder’s hard-driving, often playful vocals, come from Pearl Jam’s members taking this music seriously, honing in and nailing it. Brendan O’Brien’s production is radio-smart but not intrusive. The directness of these tracks is what Pearl Jam aimed for on its own, and there’s still plenty of attention to detail, including some of lead guitarist McCready’s best work of late.

This effort is not a throwaway, nor is it a switch-up simply meant to move units at the band’s big-box retail partner, Target. (“Backspacer” is also available at independent record stores and through iTunes, Rock Band and the band’s Ten Club.) It’s proof of what a bunch of grown people can accomplish when they know exactly what they want.

Darryl Sterdan, Edmonton (Canada) Sun “Back To Basics”  4 out of 5 stars

Everybody needs to step back, take a break and lighten up sometimes — even Pearl Jam.

Yeah, you read that right. After nearly two decades as the most earnest, serious and important American band in rock — and after the impassioned political content of their past couple of albums — Eddie Vedder and Co. actually sound like they’re enjoying themselves on their ninth studio set, Backspacer.

Reuniting with producer Brendan O’Brien for the first time in a decade and putting politics aside, the Seattle grunge icons have produced their shortest, sharpest, simplest and most streamlined set to date: A fat-free, 36-minute CD divided between punky three-minute firecrackers and slightly longer midtempo rock ballads — nearly all of which are fuelled by optimistic lyrics about living in the moment, moving toward the light and rocking out. As Eddie puts it, “I wanna live my life with the volume on full.”

On behalf of everyone else who’s fed up with hearing about lying politicians, corporate criminals and endless war, allow me to say, Thanks, dude. It’s about time.

Phil Udell – Irish music site The State magazine 8 1/2 of 10  It’s probably no exaggeration to say that I have lost my way with Pearl Jam of late. And when I say of late, I mean since 1994, when I eagerly snapped up my vinyl copy of Vitalogy two weeks before its release on CD. It completed a trilogy of great records that took in the stylised grunge debut, its assured follow up and a third album that suggested that Pearl Jam were given to fly any genre they were wrongly boxed into. I loved them. Why then I didn’t go with the band from there is a mystery, but the succession of new albums that followed simply passed me by. Rightly or wrongly, it seemed as if there was always something new coming out of the Pearl Jam camp, so much so that it all blurred into one. To paraphrase a great country song, how could I miss them if they wouldn’t go away?

Pearl Jam didn’t ever go away, of course, but 2009 finds them more entrenched in their own world than ever. Backspacer is to be released in the US completely by the band themselves, no label, no nothing. Such a step has proved one too far for the rest of the world, where they still find themselves in the arms of a major, but for a band of their stature it counts as a massive statement of intent and no small gamble. If this doesn’t work out for them, you suspect there might be no way back.

So, in some ways, Backspacer may be the most important record of Pearl Jam’s career. And, thankfully, quite possibly their best. It certainly doesn’t hang about, coming in at a tidy 36 minutes. That feeling of urgency is enhanced by the first four tracks, which come tearing out of the blocks like a punk rock Usain Bolt. For a band this far into their career to sound so fired up, so inspired is not just admirable – it’s nigh on astonishing. Whether it be thanks to complete artistic freedom, a post-Obama euphoria or the return of producer Brendan O’Brien, this opening quartet roll away the years in a noisy, spectacular fashion.

And if that had been it, if Backspacer was their snotty rock album, well that would have been fine. However, there has always been more to Pearl Jam than that and this is an album that has it in spades. ‘Just Breathe’ is just beautiful, full of acoustic guitars and strings and a vocal that makes you go weak at the knees – no matter what your persuasion. ‘Amongst The Waves’ is a suitably epic peon to the joys of surfing, while ‘Supersonic’ raises the tempo again but stands out like an invigorating yet sore thumb in the second half. Backspacer is the sound of a band first exploring its roots and then proving that they have utterly outgrown them. The likes of ‘Unknown Thought’ and the utterly gorgeous ‘The End’ are simply amongst the best things they have ever done, proof that there is no better mix in music than experience, belief and passion. Goodbye music industry, hello true greatness.

Heavy hitter Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune - 3 of 4 stars ”Pearl Jam enjoy the moment”   Pearl Jam, a band known more for bombast than brevity, plays it tight, short and fast on its ninth studio album, “Backspacer” (Monkeywrench), out Tuesday (ummmmm….-Kath). The Seattle quintet’s first self-released album after nearly two decades on major labels, it blows through 11 songs in an uncharacteristically terse 37 minutes.

        Not that anyone will mistake Pearl Jam for a punk band; the group made its millions by draping a flannel shirt and heavily introspective lyrics over slow-build, lighter-waving rock straight out of the “Quadrophenia” era, back when bands like The Who and Thin Lizzy roamed the hockey rinks of the world. But the taut songwriting on “Backspacer” is a bracing reminder of a less-celebrated facet of Pearl Jam’s personality, the step-on-it-and-go attack of “Spin the Black Circle,” “Lukin” or “Do the Evolution.”

        The defining thread in Pearl Jam’s songs since its 1991 debut is less sonic than spiritual; a question of heart rather than sound. They aren’t innovators so much as torch-bearers, five believers who think it’s still the classic-rock era. For their fans, it might just be.
       
        After a trilogy of early grunge landmarks beginning with “Ten,” the quintet followed with three diverse but unfocused albums, as if uncertain about direction. The George W. Bush presidency got the motor revving again, and produced two pretty good, overtly political albums:  “Riot Act” (2002) and “Pearl Jam” (2006).

        The back story on “Backspacer” was dominated by its delivery method. After leaving the majors, the band decided to self-release it by partnering with Target, a major chain store. The move had some fans howling “sell-out,” though the band’s first eight albums were also overseen by multinational businesses.
       
        As if to demonstrate that corporate tie-ins haven’t made it grow soft, Pearl Jam knocked out “Backspacer” in no-fuss fashion with producer Brendan O’Brien. Only “Amongst the Waves” and “Unthought Unknown” aspire to join Pearl Jam flag-wavers like “Alive” or “Love Boat Captain,” and “Force of Nature” sounds like a stolidly unremarkable outtake from one of their late ‘90s albums.
       
        Otherwise, the album’s tone is set by four quick opening shots to the dome: “Gonna See My Friend,” “Got Some,” “The Fixer” and “Johnny Guitar.” Matt Cameron’s drumming is the main attraction, his fills arriving at just the right instant to keep the songs rocketing along. The guitars are a thick tangle, with solos briefly shaking loose and Vedder singing like he’s cornered.
       
        Music is the drug of choice. In “Friend,” a junkie looks to get clean. In “Fixer,” the dealer is a problem-solver rather than a pariah. Later, “Supersonic” offers a panacea for anyone strung out on life: “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” Vedder yelps, which is exactly as profound as he needs to be.
       
        Three slower, more introspective songs give the rockers context. “Speed of Sound” is sung from the perspective of a lonely barfly. “Just Breathe” is an acoustic ballad flavored with subtle strings and intimations of mortality: “Hold me till I die/Meet you on the other side.”
       
        On “The End,” Vedder mines vulnerability by singing tenderly at the top of his range. “I’m here, but not much longer.” The bittersweet tone isn’t tragic. On the contrary, it’s a gentle reminder to enjoy the moment. And when the chorus of a vibrant new rocker such as “The Fixer” or “Supersonic” sweeps in, Pearl Jam does exactly that.

In the slightly-less-than-glowing categoary, eternally cranky about Pearl Jam,  but nonetheless respected Jim Derogatis of the Chicago Sun-Times   2 1/2 of 5 stars  “There aren’t any surprises here”

Much of the attention focused to date on the ninth studio album by Pearl Jam, a.k.a. the last grunge band still filling arenas, has fixated on the means of release: The Seattle group has broken with the major-label system that’s nurtured it since its 1991 breakthrough “Ten,” opting instead to self-release the disc through its own Web Site and an exclusive deal with a major retail chain. The rest of the advance buzz has held that this is the group’s “happy” album lyrically and snappiest disc musically since… well, pretty much ever. (Pearl Jam vocalist, Evanston homeboy and sometimes tortured soul Eddie Vedder has said the cause of his newly upbeat mood is the election of President Obama: “I’ve tried, over the years, to be hopeful in the lyrics, and I think that’s going to be easier now,” he told Rolling Stone.)

Neither of those quick takes tells the whole story. Pearl Jam is in bed with Target, true, but it broke ground by insisting that indie mom-and-pop retailers still be allowed to sell the album, too. And while the band’s old alternative-era producer Brendan O’Brien (returning to the fold for the first time since “Yield” in 1998) does oversee a number of quick-moving, good-time rockers–the opening trio of “Gonna See My Friend,” “Got Some” and “The Fixer” among them–there are almost as many stripped-down Vedder ballads, including “Just Breathe,” “Speed of Sound” and “The End” and his only slightly more up-tempo “Unthought Known,” all unimaginable without the quiet detour he made in 2007 when crafting his solo contributions for the soundtrack of “Into the Wild.”

This is to say, for better and for worse, there aren’t any surprises here: We’ve heard Pearl Jam in speed-freak mode before (“Spin the Black Circle,” say) and we’ve heard Vedder strumming and crooning ’round the campfire. Pearl Jam hasn’t sold out, but neither has it bravely reinvented itself; it essentially has given us more of the same–some strong, some filler, but nothing mind-blowing. If the group is capable of a daring late-career reinvention a la U2 circa “Achtung Baby,” reinvigorating both the group and its fans at the outset of the third decade of its career, it certainly would be welcome in this corner. But “Backspacer” is more backward- than forward-looking.

Pete Paphides - Great Britain’s The Times online - 3 of 5 stars Having borne the weight of the world on his shoulders for longer than many might care to remember, it’s startling to hear Eddie Vedder sounding so carefree on Pearl Jam’s ninth album. Prolonged sections of Backspacer leave nary so much room as a pause for breath — but infectious as the restive new wave energy of Got Some and Supersonic might be, their virtues are ultimately thrown into relief by Just Breathe and The End — two of Vedder’s most affectingly bare love songs.

Chad Swiatecki of The Statesman (Austin, TX) Grade: B-  ”Good but nowhere near great”  Having long ago shed any pretensions of operating as a radio- and singles-driven band in favor of evolving into one of the mightiest touring acts going, any new release by Pearl Jam almost has to be evaluated through a filter of “how will this fit into the context of its often-mammoth live shows?”

That’s especially the case here in Austin given that the new “Backspacer,” it’s ninth studio album, arrives less than two weeks before the Seattle quintet headlines Austin City Limits Festival and works some of these 11 new songs into a set that’s only supposed to last two hours but will almost surely run past that.

So as more live fodder, “Backspacer” is great. Recorded lean and mean but with plenty of off ramps for live stretchouts, the bulk of it will sound riveting cascading around Zilker Park in amongst material that’s almost two decades old. Album opener “Gonna See My Friend” finds lead singer Eddie Vedder as riled up as ever and rides on top of one of drummer Matt Cameron’s most propulsive showcases since his days with Soundgarden on “Spoonman.”

There are plenty of other keepers. The upbeat solo Vedder ballad “Just Breathe” is a fine candidate for an encore opener that could’ve appended his turn on the the “Into The Wild” soundtrack; “Supersonic” is a two-minues-and-change dumb-as-rocks raveup that’s not trying to be anything more, and “The Fixer” could be the shaggiest up-tempo single they’ve ever release. That’s a compliment, by the way.

As for how “Backspacer” will age after the masses depart on Oct. 4, it’ll probably wind up smack in the middle of the band’s canon (that’s between “Yield” and 2006’s self-titled album for this reviewer) suffering from a dearth of stand-out or even memorable lyrics (when has that ever been a problem for this band?) and a middle third that drags in too many places.

The end verdict, then? Good, but nowhere near great – and making me salivate even more for when the band marches on stage to put its stamp on ACL Fest. Which is pretty much the point of its albums these days anyway. Mission: accomplished.

PJ Fanboy Johnny Firecloud at The Antiquiet.com 4 of 5 stars Pearl Jam have hit a new stride and are still finding potent new strengths as a band, nearly two decades into their career.  Full review here.

Michael Hoinski, the Village Voice “half-awesome, half-blah” 

…with the release of Backspacer, Pearl Jam’s half-awesome, half-blah ninth studio album, Vedder and the boys from Seattle have come to the realization that maybe they are sellouts of a sort—and that there’s nothing wrong with that, if they’re comfortable with who they are as a band and with the contradictory decisions they’ve made.

The strongest evidence of the band’s newfound disposition lies in their unexpected partnership with Target. The big-box giant is the only place you can buy Backspacer, save for the band’s own website and randomly selected “indie” music stores. It’s a controversial, aggressively capitalist move after years of towing the line against corporate America. But this new music, too, proves that Pearl Jam aren’t concerned with living up to expectations. Instead of trendy Bush-bashing or third-person narratives about marginalized youngsters common in his prime, Vedder now favors first-person introspection and meditations on mortality.

There’s also a focus on the band’s prowess as a unit, as opposed to an all-Vedder-all-the-time approach. Prime examples include “The Fixer” (a song literally about collaboration, penned by drummer Matt Cameron) and “Johnny Guitar,” a grease-in-the-hair, cigarette-pack-in-the-T-shirt-sleeve jam with a totally unorthodox arrangement, also compliments of Cameron. Indeed, Pearl Jam are at peace here, but not yet complacent, diversifying in the autumn of their career, while contemporaries like U2 or Wilco are either getting more contrived or sticking with what’s tried-and-true.

Backspacer, a mere novella at only 36 and a half minutes, was produced by Brendan O’Brien, who helmed what many Pearl Jam connoisseurs consider the band’s four finest albums—Vs., Vitalogy, No Code, and Yield—before going on hiatus. O’Brien is responsible for honing the band’s ragamuffin sound into something that emphasized musical virtuosity, lyrical focus, and fewer cock-rock guitar leads, an excellent philosophy largely ignored on their last few albums and wisely resurrected here, albeit intermittently.

The first five songs are brilliantly sequenced, wide-ranging in texture, and ridiculously melodic. Furious opener “Gonna See My Friend” finds Vedder shredding his nodes as he riffs (maybe) on staging an intervention for a long-lost friend, followed by “Got Some,” with Vedder barking more words of encouragement, building on the previous song’s momentum. “The Fixer” is a total about-face, a pop song with just enough snazzy guitar licks to qualify as rock despite the buoyant “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” refrain that’ll have Jonas Brothers fans singing along en masse by Christmastime. Then comes potential sleeper hit “Johnny Guitar,” featuring some of Vedder’s most adventurous phrasing, rounded out by “Just Breathe,” an acoustic leftover from Vedder’s splendid Into the Wild soundtrack that finds him passionately lamenting, “Yes, I understand/That every life must end.”

The record’s second half unfortunately trades in retread topics and middling music that seemingly calls for everyone to play at once, on top of each other, without any regard for nuance. “Amongst the Waves” is yet another ode to surfing that tries—but fails—to live up to the epic, grunge-era classic “State of Love and Trust.” With “Speed of Sound” and “Force of Nature,” the titles pretty much speak for themselves. The only highlight, really, is the strings- and horns-inflected closing track, “The End,” and that’s because it ends like a ruptured aneurysm on the lines “I’m here/But not much longer.” Too morbid for comfort? Sure, but Kurt Cobain can’t say the same.  Full review can be found here.

Scott Kara, New Zealand Herald  4 of 5 stars ”They’ve been patchy in the past, but this one’s a hit”.

You can just imagine the back-slapping that went on after Pearl Jam recorded the song Johnny Guitar, the unassuming belter off the band’s ninth album, Backspacer.

And too right they should be pleased with themselves, because the song has everything – a steely and angular riff, a wild and gravelly Eddie Vedder vocal, and a hot chick as his muse.

This might sound terribly cheesy, but Backspacer is the sound of a band having fun making music – not bad considering it’s 18 years since their classic debut Ten came out in the sweaty heyday of grunge.

At just over 36 minutes, Backspacer is all over pretty quickly. But there’s not a lumbering moment on it, which has tended to happen on some Pearl Jam albums in the past, like 1998′s Yield and 2000′s often-lifeless Binaural.

It helps that there’s an 80s new wave mood throughout, with the frantic and panicky Got Some, a nod to The Cars, being the best example. It also borrows from Mudhoney, one of Pearl Jam’s more rough and sloppy contemporaries, for opening track Gonna See My Friend, with Vedder sounding more grungy than he has in years.

But on songs like the slower, almost ballad-like Just Breathe, which has french horns and a cute whimsical keyboard through it, and the beautiful Amongst the Waves, the subtlety and depth of the sound comes through. Then again, two-and-a-half minutes into the latter, they crank back into it, making for the heaviest moment of the record.

It also has some of Vedder’s most freakish singing yet, as he croaks, cracks and serenades. On Unthought Known he shreds his voice to bits with the line “Dream the dreams of other men, and you will be no one’s rival”; and on Got Some he has the urgency of Paul Weller in his Jam days. It’s that urgency and some outrageous wailing guitar moments that sum up the energy Pearl Jam conjure up on Backspacer - and while it’s hard to match the passion of their debut album, it still sounds like a band at the top of their game.

As an extra, the digital and CD versions of Backspacer come with an Ebridge allowing fans to download their choice of two Pearl Jam concerts from a selection of 11 of the band’s past US shows.

These days, Pearl Jam are a solid rock ‘n’ roll band – plain and simple. And let’s face it, they don’t make them like that much any more.

George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune  3 1/2 of 5 stars ” -”reinvigorate the music and themselves” The members of Pearl Jam don’t reinvent rock ‘n’ roll on their triumphant new album, “Backspacer.” But they reinvigorate the music, and themselves, with so much infectious joy and galvanizing force that they seem to have achieved a welcome new lease on life.

Not that this five-man band was gasping for breath or grasping for new ideas before making “Backspacer,” the band’s ninth studio album. But this is such a vital, uplifting work — even in its more introspective moments — that it signals a fresh new chapter in a 19-year career.

Moreover, for a group that helped write the template for angst-fueled songs that were embraced by a brooding young generation of grunge-rock fans in the 1990s, Pearl Jam’s members now seem to be at a palpably happy place in life. Of course, if you’d spent so much of the past eight years (on stage and off) railing against the Bush administration, you’d also be feeling a lot less bleak.

Or, as ex-San Diegan Eddie Vedder exultantly sings on “The Fixer”: If something’s old I want to put a little bit of shine on it / When something’s gone, I want to fight to get it back again.

One of the album’s most infectious and upbeat selections, “The Fixer,” was composed primarily by Chula Vista-bred drum dynamo Matt Cameron. His charged, Keith Moon-ish fills add to the song’s celebratory feel and Who-like flavor, which is enhanced by Vedder’s Roger Daltrey-like yowl and the booming power chords by guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard.

“The Fixer” is preceded by two similarly glorious rockers, “Gonna See My Friend” and The Police-inspired “Got Some.” Together, these three songs provide an opening salvo unmatched by any other Pearl Jam album.

The band soars just as high with such graceful, understated ballads as “Unthought Known,” “The End” and the country-tinged “Speed of Sound,” on which Vedder sings: I’m still holding tight to this dream.

That this veteran quintet sounds so optimistic and inspiring, without seeming remotely complacent, is one of “Backspacer’s most appealing qualities. Another is how crisp and lean the music is on this 11-song album, which clocks in at just 36 minutes — the most compact Pearl Jam album ever — and how the musicians makes every note count.

This focus and sense of purpose is matched by how finely honed and played each selection sounds. The band attributes this to the fact that, for the first time since its 1991 debut album, “Ten,” Pearl Jam rehearsed all of the songs intently before recording. They are aided by producer and keyboardist Brendan O’Brien, who hadn’t overseen a Pearl Jam album since 1998′s “Yield.”

“Backspacer” is the first album Pearl Jam has released on its own label, the first to be sold semi-exclusively at Target stores and through Rock Band and iTunes, as well as at indie stores. It’s a new business model from a veteran band that is clearly having way too much fun making music to even consider resting on its laurels.

Mini-review- Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly Grade: B ”If something’s old, I wanna put a bit of shine on it,” Eddie Vedder howls on ”The Fixer,” the first single from the band’s ninth studio album. Backspacer — named after a defunct typewriter key — is an ode to analog bygones, the sort of sweaty rock & roll that belongs in a bar with cracked-leather booths and $2 beers. The album grows same-y, but tracks like the surfing-as-life-metaphor anthem ”Amongst the Waves” do indeed make something old feel, if not new, good again.

Matt Murray, the Kentucky Kernel  ”Best album in over 10 years”  There was a time before Pearl Jam embraced their activism a bit too strongly; a time when the Seattle-based grunge band wrote poignant lyrics about relatable, transcendent topics rather than attacking politicians. The fun, relevant albums faded away at the turn of the millennium with the introduction of the Bush administration. However, when regimes changed, so did Pearl Jam’s muse, making ‘Backspacer’ the group’s best album in over ten years.
Over the span of their two-decade career, Pearl Jam has made it crystal clear that their art was to be dictated by no one. For years the group boycotted Ticketmaster for upping ticket prices on their fans. They refused to make a music video for much of the ‘90s, feeling that it distracted from the message in their songs. It just so happened this passion and disregard for mainstream trends allowed Pearl Jam to experiment with their sound over the course of their career. ‘Backspacer’ finds Pearl Jam coming full circle, returning to the days of ‘”Ten” and “Vs.”
Lead vocalist, Eddie Vedder, has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and for nearly a decade his emotions were wrapped up in the politics of the era. While Vedder was passionate about his displeasure for the Bush administration, nothing the band composed was half as haunting as the idiosyncratic lyrics that pervaded Pearl Jam’s first two albums.
While ‘Backspacer’ isn’t haunting, it is personal. Vedder deals with love, loss and the realization that life doesn’t go on forever. The last line of the album embraces all three of these concepts as Vedder passionately sings, “Dear, the end comes near. I’m here, but not much longer.”
The return to form allows Vedder to flex not only his lyrical muscle, but the quality of his voice is the best it has been in years. This plays an integral role in the sonic success of the album as Pearl Jam lives and dies by Vedder’s vocals. Songs like ‘Johnny Guitar’ and ‘The Fixer’ allow him to showcase the baritone punch that helped mold grunge music itself.
The fast paced rockers aren’t the only songs that allow Pearl Jam to shine on this album. The ballad “Just Breathe” offers an intermission from the heavy rockers that bookend it as Vedder expresses his gratitude for those he loves, “I’m a lucky man, to count on both hands the ones I love. Some folks just have one, while others they got none.”
After 20 years together, not only is Pearl Jam showing no signs of slowing down, but they in fact may be picking up steam. ‘Backspacer’ will be in stores on Tuesday (these reviewers don’t do their homework! -KD).

They like us! They really really like us!

They like us! They really really like us!

Elizabeth Rafferty – Blast Magazine, Boston   3 1/2 stars  It’s with equal parts anticipation and trepidation that some longtime Pearl Jam fans (myself included) react to the announcement of new material, a symptom of the band’s recent releases ranging from mildly to depressingly disappointing. 

It’s pretty much a given that the band will never live up to the high standard they set for themselves with their extraordinary first trio of albums in the early 1990s, but there are moments on “Backspacer,” their ninth studio album, on which they nearly do. 

“Got Some,” for instance, which the band debuted on Conan O’Brien’s first show back in June, harkens back to the hard-hitting “Vs.” era, while first single “The Fixer” could blend seamlessly with the band’s 15-year-old album “Vitalogy.” Other tracks like “Supersonic” prove that guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard still have what it takes to make their instruments wail like no other.

It’s a rock cliché, but Pearl Jam sounds older and wiser on its latest effort, out Sept. 20. (They’re also apparently no longer concerned with avoiding the “sellout” tag, having partnered with Target as the only big-box retailer that will sell “Backspacer” in the U.S., where it is being released without the help of a record label.)

Nothing conveys bittersweet nostalgia better than singer Eddie Vedder’s immediately identifiable strained baritone. He pours the weight of the band’s nearly 20-year career into the contemplative album closer “The End,” incorporating strings for a heightened effect. And the gorgeous, goosebump-inducing acoustic ballad “Just Breathe” finds the 44-year-old re-treading the musical territory he covered on his solo soundtrack to “Into the Wild,” singing, “I’m a lucky man to count on both hands the ones I love / Some folks just have one, yeah, others they’ve got none.” 

“Backspacer” is not without its weak spots. Leadoff track “Gonna See My Friend” reveals the band to be re-energized, but feels a bit lazy as it progresses, and “Amongst the Waves” causes the album to lag a bit in the middle. But overall, it’s the band’s strongest material of this decade. Credit for that might be due in part to one-time go-to producer Brendan O’Brien, who reunited with the band on “Backspacer” for the first time since 1998’s “Yield.”

On “The Fixer,” Vedder croons, “When something’s lost, I wanna fight to get back again.” He might be referring to Pearl Jam’s chutzpah — in which case, mission accomplished.

In the interest of fair and balanced reporting, here’s a not-so-glowing review from Matt Gardner – In The News, Great Britain 6 1/2 of 10 stars  “You won’t be angry, just disappointed”   Remember when Green Day released Warning and everyone loved it beca use of the title track and its use in Road Trip, only to realise that the rest of the album was practically the same kinda songs but because they liked Warning, it was bearable?

Yeah, Backspacer is Pearl Jam’s version. While it’s not quite as annoying as The Band That Never Ages’ 2000 release,  it’s still pretty frustrating.

The first four songs are a bit of a riot, most notably The Fixer, the well-publicised offering that’s been saturating radio waves over the UK for the last few weeks. Rightly so. Still, it all starts to wind down prematurely after Just Breathe.

It almost sounds like a CBeebies bedtime story song crossed with one of the softer, more introspective/pretentious songs from Shinedown or Nickelback, which isn’t the nicest thing to say. It just doesn’t fit their approach, though. It even builds up to a point where you think there’s definitely going to be some guitar, but oh no, wait… it’s the end of the song.

After that, it ebbs and flows; cleaved into two styles, if anything. You either get pure stadium songs which you can throw yourself into or the kind of quiet and calm songs you’d expect in a first encore at a gig, right before everyone in the audience begs them to come back out and do a “proper” song to end on a better note.

As a result, Backspacer all just kinda hangs together. It’s not particularly awful to listen to, it just doesn’t titillate throughout as it really should. While the likes of The End and Just Breathe will appeal to many people who are in the mood for that sound, most people don’t invest in a Pearl Jam CD for it and may be understandably let down. Especially for an album that’s so short, it’s a bit of a slap in the face that so much disc space is going spare and there’s so much heavier rock yet to be done.

A few of the 11 tracks exhibit hope for those too scared to buy the full thing. The Fixer has rightfully been chosen as the single and Amongst the Waves will likely be a follow-up should the album do well enough, which of course it will.

Supersonic also has a formidable riff after about a minute and a half; it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s one of the few moments where, for 20 seconds, you sit back and bask in pure grunge. Again, it’s all over too quickly, but it reminds you of the glory days.

In conclusion, three predictable words to sum up the offering: it’s not Ten. It was never going to be. Then again, not even the best bands nowadays on their top form could rival that album. Maybe it’s a bit of a crass comparison but whatever, the glory days are long behind Pearl Jam.

They can still string together a decent enough album, though – even if it’s over in a flash. Eddie Vedder’s vocals are still strong and the other band members are reliable enough. It could’ve done with a little more ingenuity, either way.

You won’t be angry, just disappointed.

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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