Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pearl Jam Rough Cuts: A Review

It looks like Christmas came early this year. A series of 11 very rough cuts from the S/T sessions has come to the surface. It contains very early versions of Life Wasted, Severed Hand, and Big Wave, two more songs with vocals - Open Road and 10 Billion Years (stone) - and 6 additional instrumentals. An impressive amount of material, though only 10 Billion Years is at the level of completion we got with Cold Confession and Let it Ride.

Still, even with the rough state of these songs this is a revelation that sheds a whole new light on the S/T sessions. The closest parallel we have was the way Lost Dogs expanded Binaural’s universe. But those new songs felt like they belonged on Binaural. While throwing on Sad or Fatal or Education might have enhanced the album, it didn’t fundamentally alter it. You could mix and match the songs to make the album your own, but it’s still Binaural.

This is something different. These songs, for the most part, don’t really belong on S/T—not the finished version of it, anyway. They’re looser and sloppier, more open, organic, playful—and on occasion thoughtlessly beautiful. Granted what we have are songs in their early stages, but they are less intense and focused. They document the experience of guys playing in a room together for the love of making music, rather than people coming together to make a statement. And these songs can’t help but make you wonder what else S/T could have been if the band didn’t feel that Riot Act required its musical negation, or what Pearl Jam would be if they didn’t feel the need to always sound like ‘Pearl Jam’. If nothing else, these songs bridge the gap between the record and a song like Cold Confession, whose presence in the S/T sessions now makes sense.

What it means when Pearl Jam says they write songs for their live show also becomes apparent with this leak. These songs are long, meandering, and easy to get lost in. They could have made for an excellent album, but probably would be out of place with the revival atmosphere and dynamic pacing of the shows that defines the Riot Act -> live experience.

Okay, so let’s take a look at what we have:

2X4 (instrumental) (4:24) 
Pretty cool song—has some of the jagged elements of Tremor Christ refracted through a punk sensibility that circles around itself in a lighthearted way that feels sharp without ever actually cutting.

THE ONLY CLOUD IN THE SKY (instrumental) (4:49)
I’m pretty sure there are parts of this song used in the Immagine in Cornice DVD. One of those songs that starts pointing towards Cold Confession. Pretty without being showy, and thoughtful without being overly pensive, like a radiohead song minus the claustrophobic alienation. A mature song, in a good way. It seems to be grasping for something while being self-aware enough to question whether or not it deserves to have it—though in the end it decides that it does.

LIFE WASTED (vocal rough mix) (4:13)
Very rough vocal mix. The melody is there but the lyrics are incomplete (or different). Slightly less abrasive than the studio version, which will be a plus for many people, but it still has the same gritty attitude. And we get the whole outro solo (though sections are absent during the final chorus) without the second most irritating fade out in the entire pearl jam catalog (Lightning Bolt has it beat). Life Wasted has always been one of my very favorite Pearl Jam songs, so it’s a bit of a treat to watch it develop.

SEVERED HAND (vocal rough mix) (4:12)
Like Life Wasted this is still in its pretty early stages. Part of my issue with the final studio version is that it didn’t sound as huge as it wanted to be. The home recording feel of these demos steers this away from anthem and closer towards garage rock, which probably does the song some favors. In particular it gives the final solo a bit more life. I always thought it disappointed a bit on the record, especially when you had the monstrous Life Wasted Solo occurring just a few songs prior

THE BIGGER THE WAVE (vocal rough mix) (3:01)
This is Big Wave before it was about crustaceans. This may have been my favorite discovery. It’s rougher, but somehow groovier, than the studio version. It also feels more natural, has a better bridge, and rocks harder by trying less hard. Big Wave was always a pleasant enough but ultimately forgettable track. But The Bigger the Wave is actually pretty strong.

OPEN DOOR (Vocal rough mix) (6:24)
This sounds exactly like one of those meandering improvs from the late 90s/early 2000s period that people used to go nuts for. There’s a compelling, plaintive edge to Eddie’s vocals that call to mind Cold Confession. The song starts out slow and overly familiar, but the fact that it is in no rush to make its point or take the listener somewhere means that you get the time and space to get pulled in, and by halfway through the song I’m committed. The ‘bridge’—which basically feels like a less clean version of what we’ve been hearing—drags a bit but I’m immediately sucked back in when Eddie starts up again. This is a lovely performance by him. Odd ending though—it sounds a bit too much like the start of Education.

REARRANGED FURNITURE (instrumental) (4:04)
Has the muscular feel of Let It Ride but without being so deathly serious. These ‘lighter’ songs definitely benefit from the scruffier production.

REARRANGED PRIORITIES (instrumental) (4:19)
I like this one a lot. Flows nicely from Rearranged Furniture, further softened with an acoustic guitar, and even more playful. If the Fixer was less earnest it might have ended up sounding a bit more like this. It’s really a shame this never turned into a song (or one we’ve heard, anyway). There’s a palpable ‘joy of playing music with my friends’ feel to this song that rarely makes it onto the albums but is all over the live experience.

10 BILLION YEARS (vocal rough mix) (6:00)
Stone’s on vocals here, and he sounds really good. This is a very pretty song, in the same slightly country vein of a song like Off He Goes or Thin Air (I may like this one more than those two, actually, though they were never favorites of mine). Simple repetitive lyrics that end up becoming fairly poignant by the end. This was a gem.

LUCKY 13 (Litho demo) (4:29)
I presume this is a Matt song. It sounds a bit like a Wellwater Conspiracy number.

BREEZE IN D (instrumental) (5:10)
A friendly barroom handshake of a song.

Overall this was an awesome little surprise. I really like the Big Wave demo. 10 Billion Years is Beautiful. 2x4 and Rearranged Priorities are very solid instrumentals. The Only Cloud In the Sky could have been a great song if they wanted it to be. There’s a different band on display here then we’ve gotten on the last three albums. And while Backspacer and Lightning Bolt are two of my favorite Pearl Jam albums, I definitely wouldn’t mind hearing them spend some time exploring this side of the music.