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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Album of the Week: Pearl Jam - "Vs."

Rating: 8.7/10

Let's get this out of the way first; Vs. is by a decent gap my favorite Pearl Jam album, and one of my favorites from the grunge era as well. So, as the album celebrates it's 20th birthday this week, I thought I would take a deeper look at the Seattle group's sophomore effort. Serving as a smooth transition between Ten's arena-rock anthems and Vitalogy's darker and experimental themes, Vs. was Pearl Jam's first record made after the band were launched into superstardom by their 1991 debut. Hyped heavily after Ten's stunning commercial and critical success, the record did not disappoint those who wanted a more raw, natural Pearl Jam record. Lead singer Eddie Vedder was wild onstage, but internally was uncomfortable with this new-found fame. He turned off by the music business and how it abused musicians' art for personal gain, trying to dictate a movement they had no part in creating or following. He felt the divide between bands and their fans was widened significantly by music labels, who corporatized music that spoke out against those very actions.

Vedder vocalizes his concerns throughout Vs., which on the surface seems like a record about a relationship between two people, but actually represents the bond (or lack thereof) between bands and record labels. The person Vedder appears to be singing to on the album isn't a singular person at all, but the music industry as a whole. The themes clearly resonated with people, and Vedder's lyrics on Vs. received wide distribution: the album sold nearly one million copies in its first week of release alone. Of the songs on the record, the two that most directly examine these ideas are "Animal" and "Blood." The former, eventually released as a single, contains the refrain "I'd rather be with an animal." The lyric represents the intense desire and desperation for Vedder to leave whatever relationship he's dealing with, in this case the one between him and the media. The singer howls through the track as Dave Abbruzzese flys off the handle with his drum kit. "Blood" follows a similar vein as "Animal," incorporating funky guitar playing from the duo of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready and a malleable song structure. Vedder's primal scream at the end of the second chorus lasts an astonishing 10+ seconds, as he shouts "It's my blood," metaphorically chastising the music business for trying to control what is his personal property.

Vs. also contains Pearl Jam's first politically-charged songs. "Glorified G" is a scathing critique of American gun culture, employing lyrics such as "feels so manly when armed," "kindred to being an American," and "I can steal your heart from your neck" to the cause. "W.M.A." tackles racial profiling as tribal drums pound along for six minutes. The song tells the story of a time Vedder was with a black friend of his and his friend, but not him, was harassed by police for doing exactly what Vedder had been doing: nothing. Sonically speaking, the song grooves and swirls throughout as Gossard interjects with the occasional guitar flourish.

The album's two most well-known tracks, perhaps, are also its lightest. The fully-acoustic "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" tells the story of, well, an elderly woman behind the counter in a small town, who recognizes a long-lost friend's face after decades of not seeing them. It's an amazingly realistic take on this perspective, considering Vedder was at the time not even thirty years old. The other light song is only partially acoustic, the song of course being "Daughter." Albeit overplayed, "Daughter" still charms with every listen. Vedder's lyrics here recall those of Ten track "Alive."

Vs. on the whole is a very lyrical album, as Vedder simultaneously opens himself up to and shoves away from the world. My personal favorite song on the album, "Rearviewmirror," discusses the feeling of leaving everything behind, probably something the singer was pretty much ready to do at this point. The jumpy riff propels the track forward as the chorus sets Vedder free. "I couldn't breath/holding me down," "time to emancipate," and "saw thing clearer once you were in my rearview mirror" all reveal the vocalist's displeasure with the way fame has treated him and his band. The desperation turns up a notch for the last two minutes of the song, as the guitars play higher and Vedder screams more. Often considered one of their best, "Rearviewmirror" is a fan favorite, and remains a staple in the group's ever-changing live setlist.

"Go" is another roarous tune from the CD, as a jam opening morphs into a more developed verse. Jeff Ament's bass line dominates the majority of the song, and the rest of the band races ahead, trying to keep up. "Dissident," though a radio hit, is one of the album's weaker tracks. A decent guitar riff is repeated too many times, though in totality the song still has some strength behind it.

At the backend of the record, "Rats" and "Leash" offer more firepower before the slow ballad "Indifference" concludes everything. "Drop the leash, get out of my f---in' face" orders Vedder on "Leash," a continuation of Ten's "Why Go." For a group so clearly trying to escape superstardom, it's odd Pearl Jam would harken back to what made them so popular in the first place on Vs. "Rats" is another funk-inspired track, as a loose band jams along to Eddie Vedder's signature growl. "Indifference" closes on a somber note, with instrumentals only backing Vedder's vocals in a minimal fashion.

Vs. is one of those albums that, though twenty years old, just as easily sounds twenty days old. Besides "Dissident," which still holds its ground, every song is great if not stellar. Tracks like "Rearviewmirror" and "Go" are undeniably Pearl Jam, and thankfully will never go away. Not dated and often imitated, Vs.'s raw sound is one of the highlights of the early '90's, and certainly a high point in Pearl Jam's illustrious career.

Key Tracks: "Rearviewmirror," "Go," "Glorified G," "Daughter"







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