Pearl Jam’s Vitalogy

Let’s go deep into my personal archives for another piece that’s never seen the light of day before.  When I attended Mohawk College between the years 1993 and 1996 I was a volunteer writer at The Satellite, the college’s student newspaper.  Essentially, I was continuing where I left off in high school:  writing movie reviews.  Although, later, I would also supply the odd news and entertainment article and even music reviews.
I would find myself hanging around the office chatting with the staff (some of whom were classmates) and playing the odd game of computer Jeopardy (and always losing).  Looking back, I probably should’ve been a hell of a lot more prolific.  I don’t think I did nearly enough writing during that period.  Most of the stuff I submitted found a home in the paper.  Here’s a rare exception.  This is a review of Pearl Jam’s 1994 album, Vitalogy, which was rejected by the paper.  It may have been the first CD review I ever wrote.
Before this album, I was never into Pearl Jam.  In fact, I was not into cutting edge music (with the exception of U2).  In high school I remember being totally drawn into the whole Golden Oldies thing on AM radio while my friends were constantly talking about the Red Hot Chili Peppers and other bands I just didn’t care about.  After I saw the movie Love Potion #9 (starring Tate Donovan and the lovely Sandra Bullock) in 1992, I wrote a review for myself where I cut up a whole bunch of alternative groups like the Chilis and Alice In Chains, calling them "pathetic".  I praised the old stuff, which I listened to on a water-proof radio every time I had a shower, and buried the new stuff without giving any of it a chance.  It wasn’t until I started volunteering at Mohawk’s radio station (then called CHMR Mohawk Cable FM) that I realized how wrong I was.  The station’s mandate (it’s now called C101.5 FM, by the way) is to play alternative music and I soon found myself immersed in the stuff because it was so different and exciting. 
It’s funny.  I’m looking at this old Love Potion review and I’ve completely changed my mind on all the bands I dissed.  (In the same review, I single out Def Leppard, Guns ‘N Roses and Van Halen for being "terrific musicians."  Curiously, I haven’t changed my mind about that sentiment.)
I think the reason this Pearl Jam review was rejected was because it was written several months after the album’s release.  Usually reviews are published to coincide with the arrival of new music.  Still, it wasn’t a bad first attempt at playing music critic.  If you’ve read any of my previous postings, you’ll realize I’ve come a long way since writing this in 1995.  By the way, I still like Vitalogy very much and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s never heard its many pleasures.  (I also recommend buying every record the band has put out. I have all their 90s albums.  Now I just need everything from 2000 onward.)
I’ve decided to put this on my site since the band will have a new record out soon, their first since departing from Epic a few years back.  People have written them off for years now but as anybody knows, all it takes is one dynamite album to put you back on top.  Here’s hoping the band will deliver on that promise in May when it comes out.
By Dennis Earl

If there was one word to describe VITALOGY, the new CD from Seattle rockers Pearl Jam, it would be this one: strange. Taking a rather bizarre and unconventional approach to recording a studio album, the band succeeds a lot more often than not in these rather unique experimentation sessions on this, their third release for Epic records.

Released 14 months after the blockbuster album, VS., VITALOGY is the first Pearl Jam album I’ve cared to listen to and it is definitely worthy of continuous listenings. With a total of 14 new songs and a total running time of exactly 55 1/2 minutes, the album is quite entertaining. Besides the wonderful music that is nicely mixed on this CD, there’s a 38-page booklet full of bizarre articles such as, "Whom Not To Marry", another article on how to conceive beautiful children and a letter to President Clinton concerning the recent shootings at several American abortion clinics. (By the way, the President is looking into the matter and will probably set up a special task force for security purposes).

As the CD opens, a gradual fade-in invites us to what sounds like, at first listen, a rehearsal. A number of seconds pass when the drums suddenly pound into the foreground and the band immediately rips through an engaging number called "Last Exit."

It’s not long before we’re pulled into Pearl Jam’s other killer hooks, nearly all of them humable. "Spin The Black Circle," the first single (minus a videoclip), openly embraces the band’s love of vinyl. (Indeed, VITALOGY was initially released on vinyl two weeks before the CD and cassette reached record stores). "Tremor Christ" and "Corduroy," the best songs on the album, reflect Pearl Jam’s sudden growth and maturity as musicians. Both lyrically and vocally, these two numbers showcase the considerable talents of Eddie Vedder, the key element to Pearl Jam’s success.

Getting back to the weird elements of the album, there a few songs here that defy a one-word description. "Bugs," a darkly amusing and downright twisted number which features a fine performance by Vedder on the accordian, is essentially about a dirt-infested grub who feels trapped by these hideous bugs that just won’t leave this person alone. The song feels like a metaphor for Pearl Jam’s relationship with the media: "Bugs on my ceiling/waiting, waiting/a few block the door/bugs on my skin/tickle my nausea/bugs in the way I feel about you." "Satan’s Bed" focuses on Vedder’s distaste for waif models like Kate Moss. Here’s a sample: "Who set the standard? Born to be rich? Such fine examples/skinny little bitch/Model, roll model, roll some models in blood/get some flesh to stick, so they’ll look like us." It’s a terrific number, full of pitch black humour and some well-written lyrics.

The first 13 songs on VITALOGY (which means the Book of Life, by the way) are all compelling tracks. By the time you reach the final track, however, you’ve hit a dead end. Depending upon where you look, the 14th song is either called "Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me" or "Stupid Mop." Nevertheless, it’s literally a stupid, pointless and overlong spoken-word track that doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. After listening to it 3 times, I’m still in the dark. Fortunately, that’s the only misstep on an otherwise terrific CD from Pearl Jam, a talented band I never felt deserved my full attention. Until now.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, March 3, 2006
3:40 p.m. 

Published in: on March 3, 2006 at 3:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

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