Wednesday, May 4, 2011

TSIS Review: Ukulele Songs

Full disclosure: I don’t like the ukulele. I think the sounds it can produce are somewhat limited, and while it can do an excellent job conveying a sort of quiet sundown campfire feeling (whether it’s a party or something more quiet and meditative), and has an innocence to it that is charming in small doses, it doesn’t offer much more than that. Eddie’s lost ukulele record from the early 2000s was never my holy grail. In fact the only one of those songs that ever connected to me was Can’t Keep, which was dramatically reworked into the stellar version that appears on Riot Act. So Eddie was going to have a hard sell with me to make this work. A record that pushed what the ukulele can do might have ended up being very interesting. 15 different variations on the same basic song would wear a little thin before the end. This is unfortunately more of the later than the former. That’s not to say that Ukulele Songs is a bad record. It’s exactly what you might expect, and Eddie does the best he can within the limits he sets for himself. Some of the songs are appealing, none are excellent, and the sameness starts to drag.

In fairness since the musical platform is so basic the lyrics have to do a lot of heavy lifting here, and since all I’ve had access to are leaked copies I can’t really dive into those. So this experience will be somewhat akin to listening to an album on headphones with one broken ear piece. You know what’s there, but you’re not getting the full effect. I am expecting my first official listen in a few weeks to be an improvement, especially since there seems to be a lot of thematic continuity running through these songs—the bitter memories of lost love, and the honeyed promise of new love. For a light record Ukelee songs also carries an incongruous amount of weight—as all these songs are invested with the mixture of held breath and grateful exhalation that comes from finally articulating previously hidden burdens. I’m just not convinced that the uke can pull it off.

Anyway, onto the songs.

Can’t Keep: The record starts off promising with a song anyone reading this is already familiar with, so this is an easy sell. This is a pretty breathy version on a fairly pretty breathy record, which is too bad since this is not a vocal style of Eddie’s that I personally care all that much for. Still, it’s cool to hear Can’t Keep re-imagined this way (even if I knew this version first) and I like that he’s trying to push the boundaries of the instrument. Nice crackling version of an excellent song. Less atmosphere, more attitude.

Sleeping By Myself: This is what I was expecting the record to sound like. The sudden start without any instrumental build is striking. The way Eddie plays the uke compliments the causal, confessional immediacy of this song. It does get old by the end of the record, since it also gives the songs a kind of weightlessness that may not mix well with what lyrically sounds like a very personal record, but this was a nice song. ‘I believe in love and disaster, sometimes the two are just the same’ is a nice lyric.

Without You: This was also a decent number, the record already starts to feel a little repetitive by the third song. Some likeable rhymes here (sunsets on the ocean, never on my devotion is a little over the top, but it’s delivered in an appealing way, and the ukulele offers latitude for cheese), although they punctuate an otherwise forgettable vocal melody. ‘For every wish upon a star that goes unanswered in the dark there is a dream I’ve dreamt about you’ is another strong lyric. The problem is that since he wrote so many songs about the same theme that these lyrics are sprinkled throughout a record, giving each song a few bright spots, but coming at the expense of having fewer, stronger songs.

More Than You Know: Oh man, the Tuolumne sounding start to this song got me excited for something different musically, so going back into the same sing songy feel of every other number is a letdown. The middle third of the song changes things up a bit but it feels a little too staccato and out of place. More Than You No is a bit boring, with the highlights being a few seconds of shimmering harmonies. The first misfire on the record.

Goodbye: I’ve always really liked these lyrics and wish they got a full band treatment. This version seems more engaged than the previous version that surfaced. Eddie is much more invested here. “And for what feels like the first time I don’t know where you are tonight” is a great lyric. This was a pretty good song. The problem is that by now the ukulele is already a little stale, and part of the appeal of this song is the alone on the beach at sundown feel of the song—but since every song has that feel the impact is muted.

Broken Heart: Dropping down to the lower register was a nice touch here since it mixes up the record a bit and contrasts nicely with the sparkling notes he’s playing—twinkling stars on a warm clear night. This is a decent song, but it sounds like a cross between Long Nights and The End (and it makes me miss the lack of his lower register on Backspacer), two superior songs—and the sped up bit at the end of this sounds totally out of place, almost like Eddie started developing an idea for a new song that he just tacked on to the end of something else when he couldn’t finish it, and it kills the mood created previously.

Satellite: Haven’t I heard this song already? You can’t easily tell when Broken Heart ended and Satellite begins, and that’s not a good thing. At this point the record is really starting to drone. Actually after the start this one starts to mix itself up with the time changes and the layered vocals, but I’m not quite sure what effect he’s going for here. The song sounds different, but I’m not sure why. There were a few moments here that were almost catchy, but not quite. “days turn into nights turn into days turn into today” speak of a world finally moving after a long pause, but the song doesn’t convey the sentiment.

Longing to Belong: Turn off your cell phone before you hit record, Eddie. Some people like those little flourishes, but they feel more like affectations to me, and take you out of the sunset intimacy the record is trying to create The cello and uke mix together in an interesting way, although I’m not sure if it’s successful or not. The thing is that I feel like this is the same song I’ve already heard 6 times, except this time it has a cello (as opposed to a sudden time change, or a layered vocal, or some other minor twist on the same theme). I like the lyric ‘when the wind gets tired’ another buried gem. Again I wish there were fewer songs here so he could have combined the striking images sprinkled into memorable songs, instead of sprinkling memorable moments into forgettable songs.

Hey Fahkah: Well, this was necessary…

You’re True: Here’s the same song I’ve already heard but sped up slightly faster. I suspect this is supposed to be a lighthearted, slightly tongue in cheek romantic song (maybe not) but if so it doesn’t sound that way. The limits of the instrument (and to be fair, the vocal performances) make it hard to sustain multiple moods. Those high notes were unfortunate. If Eddie can’t hit them the song would be better served writing around them. This song is runs too long, and it’s only three minutes and twenty seconds. I actually liked the outro to this one—the last 20 seconds or so of finger picking. “You could be the one to liberate me from the sun, so please give the moon to me” is another charming lyric.

Light Today: Ohhh, sound effects. Is this a Bright Eyes record now? Once I got over that initial conceit I found I liked Light Today, which has a a peculiar sort of immediacy to it. It feels very in the moment, like Eddie just experienced something really powerful and only had a moment to chronicle it before he loses it forever. The way he whispers the word ‘break’ on the ‘I’ll bleed but won’t break’ lyric is a moment of quiet power on a record that needs more of them.

Sleepless Nights: The uke makes this feel like a curiosity, which is too bad, since I bet if this duet was given a more conventional bed it would sound really good, since . I like the points where Glen Hansard and Eddie are singing over it—less so when they’re underneath it. Eddie is a bit too breathy in this one for my tastes. This also might have worked better if Eddie was lower in the mix and Glen was louder. Since Eddie seemed to be signing the lower part and had more volume Glen got swallowed a bit and sounds more like an echo than a partner. I have to say that this is probably the song that improved the most dramatically upon a second listen, so hopefully this continues to grow.

Once in a While: This has one of the more graceful vocal melodies on this album, and it made a favorable first impression, but felt too light on the second listen. This deep in the record songs need to offer me to grab me.

Waving Palms: This was a pretty little instrumental, and would have made an interesting song.

Tonight You Belong To Me: Cat and Eddie sound good together, and there is a charming innocence to this one. I think I preferred this to the other duet, in part because it sounds like they’re singing alongside each other, rather than on top of each other.

Dream a Little Dream: This was great, the highlight of the record. Eddie Vedder channeling his inner Tom Waits. Ironically enough it reinvigorates the record just as it closes it out.

This is a pleasant vanity record. I can’t imagine feeling the need to go back and listen to it, but it might fill in the occasional quiet space serviceably well. The biggest problem I have with it is the paralyzing sameness of the ukulele. This record existed solely in one dimension, which means these songs either need incredible lyrics (which I suspect they don’t have), memorable vocal performances (and Eddie played this pretty straight and subdued, which would be fine for a song here or there but wore thin over the course of an album), or terrific vocal melodies (also lacking). This is a 35 minute record that felt like an hour. This will certainly get more listens and I have no doubt some songs will grow on me, especially once I have lyrics to sing along with and make me more of a participant in the songs, but this was not a particularly compelling record. I had fairly low expectations going in, and so I can’t say I was disappointed (what can you expect from a ukulele record?), but I’d take Into the Wild over this any day of the week.

A smaller EP with Can’t Keep, Sleeping by Myself, Without You, Goodbye, Broken Heart, Longing to Belong, Light Today, Sleepless Nights, Tonight You Belong to Me and Dream a Little Dream would have been a lot more effective. There are some fairly worthwhile love songs here, but given the uke’s limited range the record can’t really absorb a weaker song. A tighter record would have given the songs momentum to pull the listener out of the admittedly hypnotic but often uncompelling and occasionally tedious 35 minutes of broken hearted love songs performed on a ukulele.

Ukulele Songs will be available May 31st and is available for pre-order via Pearl Jam's Ten Club.