With more than 25 million copies of the first three Pearl Jam albums in circulation, it’s safe to say that even the most casual fan had an in-depth knowledge of their discography up to that point. The fact that a Ten-era B-side (“Yellow Ledbetter”) bubbled up to become one of the group’s radio hits is proof of that. However, just because the band’s popularity waned following the five-times-platinum Vitalogy doesn’t mean the music did as well; it just means that the good songs are sometimes harder to find. Here are 10 diamonds in the rough from the lesser known portion of Pearl Jam’s catalog.
For a song that’s ostensibly just another “woe is celebrity” sob story, “In My Tree” employs a refreshingly light touch. Replace the newspapers and cameras Eddie Vedder’s complains about with whatever ails you, and this polyrhythmic (and semi-psychedelic) tune becomes a playful and persuasive call to arms for anyone who just wants to run away from it all.
“There ain’t gonna be/ No middle anymore/ It’s been said before.” This zinger, recalling a line from Ten‘s “Porch,” might be an oasis of self-awareness amidst the song’s ponderous concerns about who’s going to save the world from its primary residents. But the song’s bluesy swagger – courtesy of Matt Cameron’s drumming and some on-point faux-Neil-Young solos – makes the song’s overwrought message easier to swallow.
“Playful” isn’t a word one would use sparingly to describe Pearl Jam, especially when it comes to lyrical concerns. As the group got older, however, they definitely loosened up musically in the studio. “Rival” bears that notion out: The audio of a dog snarling and tugging at some unknown object that kicks off the track, the loping piano jab that show up every few bars, and especially the drunken-holler backup vocals. It’s nice to hear serious musicians not take themselves so seriously.
This song was recorded during the album sessions for both Vs. and Vitalogy; the Vs. version was eventually released on Lost Dogs, while the Vitalogy session was released on the soundtrack to a little-known indie film called Chicago Cab. While its meandering and spacious ambiance was at odds with the stripped-down approach taken on Vs., its modest grandeur would have been welcome on either of the albums from which it was excluded.
The complaint levied the most at post-Vitalogy Pearl Jam is that they forgot they were a rock band. While that’s up for debate, there’s no question that, as the group’s reign as rock royalty faded into the rear view mirror, they became very good at writing ballads. “Thumbing My Way” is one of the group’s best, marrying Vedder’s fascination with the open road to a bittersweet tune about lost love and regret that simply tells it like it is.
If “Thumbing My Way” tells the story after the girl left, “Thin Air” is the story while she’s still there. The song’s lighter and more hopeful, but there’s still an undercurrent of fear and loneliness. It’s that emotional contrast that gives the song its strength, and prevents sweet sentiments from becoming too saccharine.
The Zep-nodding “Given To Fly” was Yield‘s lead single, and “Do The Evolution,” with its Todd McFarlane video and its “Pearl Jam’s… being funny?” novelty, was its most memorable track. But by leading off with this all-systems-go tune (its odd, and quickly discarded, concern with JFK’s gray matter notwithstanding), Yield definitely put its best rock foot forward.
Pearl Jam’s fondness of Neil Young, as both a musician and an artist, is no secret, but it doesn’t make the Crazy Horse moves on “Smile” any less surprising. It would take some work for Vedder to approximate Young’s indomitable singing voice, but with Jack Irons’ bucket-footed drumming backing up some spot-on heavy/sloppy solos by both Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, this is as flattering an imitation of their idol as one could ever hope for.
Here’s the R&B/soul standard you never knew you wanted Pearl Jam to write. Some might say that this is the sort of tune that needs to be put into the hands of a more aesthetically-pleasing vocalist in order for it to realize its truest potential. And while I’m all for some multi-octave singer to give this tune a spin, please note that “Come Back” did just fine in the hands of these upstanding gentlemen.
It might not be the most upbeat or chipper tune, but as a “theme song” or mission statement for what Pearl Jam’s been about these past 20 years, few songs work as well as “All or None.” Quoth Eddie: “To myself I surrender/ to the one I’ll never please.” It’s that eternal state of non-satisfaction that’s fueled their engine through thick and thin, and it’s why, for better or worse, Pearl Jam is the group that they are today.