Pearl Jam - “Ten” (1991 / 2017)

This probably seems like a weird thing to write about. I’m clearly not going to move forward the discourse on Ten, or Pearl Jam’s place in music and society, or what former basketball player Mookie Blaylock feels about the whole thing. But then again, this blog is as much about me as it is about music, and I have an odd relationship with PJ in that:

  • I was in high school and living in the Seattle area when grunge was bubbling under, and in college in Seattle proper when Nevermind and Ten were released
  • I’m definitely into grunge (though personally I’ve never thought of Pearl Jam as a grunge band)
  • I have two close friends who are massive Pearl Jam superfans, at least one of which has traveled to multiple foreign countries specifically to see PJ shows
  • I am, generally speaking, ambivalent about Pearl Jam’s music

The last bullet is the key here. People are often very surprised by this, and I in turn am surprised by their surprise. Clearly I am perceived as the kind of person who should love PJ. And I think they’re fine. They have some songs I like, I’ve certainly heard them often enough on the radio, and I’ve seen at least one PJ documentary, and enjoyed it. But I’m fairly confident the only Pearl Jam album I’ve ever owned is Ten, which I bought on CD when it first came out primarily because I couldn’t get enough of the song “Alive”, a song I still think is their best. Some people are confused by my general lack of enthusiasm for the band. Often they’ll dismiss me with a, “well, you have to see them live”, much like Springsteen fans do. Or they think I’m simply being contrarian as an affectation, which I hope isn’t the case because I’m way to old to be behaving like that. A small minority seem almost offended, and a few think this completely discredits any thoughts, opinions, or tastes I may have when it comes to music. I have come to accept this, even if I don’t entirely understand it - nor, to be fair, do I entirely understand why I’m not into Pearl Jam… but why do we feel the way we feel about specific art or artists?

Ten is probably the only Pearl Jam album I’ve listened to start-to-finish, and the last time I did so was probably in 1991, maybe 1992. So since we’re all stuck at home in double-secret-quaranteen and I have a week off from work, I figured why not order a few things for curbside pickup from Easy Street Records and help my local shop out. And one of the things I decided to order, at the last minute, was Ten, since I have no idea what happened to that CD.

I do have one piece of major praise for Ten - I think the lyrics of “Alive” leading up to the first chorus are among the most perfectly written and expressed that I’ve ever heard.

Son, she said
Have I got a little story for you
What you thought was your daddy
Was nothin’ but a…


While you were sittin’
Home alone at age thirteen
Your real daddy was dyin’
Sorry you didn’t see him
But I’m glad we talked

This is the part of the song that is primarily autobiographical, prior to the narrative taking a very troubling turn in the song’s second half as part of the narrative arc of the “Alive” / “Once” / “Footsteps” trilogy, one of incest, murder, and execution. It’s the mother’s sheer casualness and emotional detachment that Vedder captures perfectly. Have I got a little story for you… it’s not bad enough that she belittles what she’s about to tell him by calling it a story, but even more by describing it as just a “little” story. What you thought was your daddy, was nothin’ but a… but a what, this man who I thought was my father… a what? Sorry you didn’t see him, but I’m glad we talked… Yeah, sorry I intentionally never let you know who your dad was, but he’s dead now, so, yeah, good talk. See ya. Even the very first time I heard this song it struck me - a young man being told in an offhand way by his own mother that the man he thought was his father wasn’t, and that his real father died. You can feel her callousness and his pain in the words and Vedder’s voice.

Sitting down and listening to Ten today is odd. It’s a seminal rock album, one almost 30 years old, and I know all the hit songs that still get radio airplay today - “Even Flow”, “Jeremy”, and to a lesser extent “Alive”, which seems to be having a resurgence on local Seattle-area rock radio right now. What I didn’t realize is how many of the PJ songs I know are actually on this record and not their later ones, most notably “Black” and “Why Go” (and I’d forgotten what a great song “Black” is). In fact, Ten‘s A side is truly great, the only song I don’t particularly care for being “Jeremy”, which is clearly a me thing since it was arguably the highest charting single from the album.

Do I have a new-found appreciation for PJ after listening to Ten again? Yeah, I do. I’m not sure if that will translate into me working my way through their catalog, but I’ll almost certainly come back to Ten and spin it, at least the A side. But who knows. Maybe this old dog still has a new trick or two to learn.

2016 Tad Re-Releases - “God’s Balls” (1989) and “Salt Lick” (1990)

There was a time in my life, right around 1989-90, that if you asked me my favorite Seattle-area band I’d have said Tad. Timing-wise this is hard to wrap my mind around, since God’s Balls came out the same year I graduated from high school and I feel like this was during my pre-college years… but obviously that wasn’t the case. I was still hanging with my high school crew during my first few years of college, though, snowboarding and skating, so it probably all just blends together as if my senior year was actually three years long.

My self-professed love of Tad was, I think in hindsight, two-fold. First, the music is pretty fantastic. Early Tad was something that I don’t know that anyone else was doing. It wasn’t like anything I’d heard before, and quite frankly since. Loud, abrasive, aggressive, and vocally strange, with just enough structure to call them songs. If songs are like boxers who train fastidiously, sparring and working on well-laid-out combinations, Tad is the dude behind the Circle K at 2AM who will fight anyone and doesn’t even remotely care if he wins or loses. Both the boxer and the Circle K guy can be called fighters, but one is very different from the other. The other reason for my Tad-love, if I’m being perfectly honest, was probably rooted a bit in being contrarian in that sort of late-teenage way. Grunge wasn’t widely popular yet, and even within grunge circles I didn’t hear as many people talking about Tad as there were about Nirvana or Mudhoney or Soundgarden or Green River or The Fluid, so Tad sort of became one of my self-defining “things”. Saying “I’m into Tad” would generally get you a head nod from the kind of people I wanted to get head nods from at that time in my life, from members of the tribe to which I aligned myself. I used to have a Tad sticker on my car, and one day as I walked back to it in the university parking lot I saw someone had left a note on my windshield. “Crap,” I thought, “someone must have hit my car.” Nope. The note was a concisely written three words. “TAD IS RAD”. The tribe had spoken.

When I got back into vinyl I made a sort of rule that I wouldn’t buy records of albums I already had on CD, and since I had the God’s Balls / Salt Lick CD I never bothered with picking up these two. I was tempted when Sub Pop re-released them in 2016, but held firm. At least I did until last weekend. With coronavirus lock-down making it impossible to go record shopping at the local stores, the stores have turned to mail order and pick-up as options. Easy Street Records in Seattle, however, took it one step further, offering delivery. And when they announced they were going to be doing a drop off in the town adjacent to mine I decided to place an order, both to help them out and because I’m jonesing for records. I need to chase that vinyl dragon. And two of the records I decided to buy were the re-mastered re-releases of God’s Balls and Salt Lick. As you can see below Easy Street is also down with Tad, having a Tad sticker right on their van (and for people seeing this years down the road, the mask I’m wearing is due to the coronavirus recommendations not because I robbed the van… these are some seriously strange times).

God’s Balls (1989 / 2016)

They came on down for no reason,
Just for fun, lust for blood.

God’s Balls opens with what I think is Tad’s best song, “Behemoth”, a song about getting the hell beat out of you for no reason. OK, I guess the reason is just for fun, lust for blood… but that’s not a good reason. The music is as brutal as the lyrics, a sonic beating about the head that leaves you staggering and wondering why… why is this happening to me?

You will fall down, Behemoth,
Mother fucker,
You will fall down!

Grunge production guru Jack Endino did both the original God’s Balls sessions and the 2016 re-masters. My buddy Travis told me that the re-release sounded great, but I sort of shrugged my shoulders. How much production are you going to do to Tad, after all? Turns out a shit-ton - this thing is hot as hell, the vocals emerging from behind the chainsaw-like wall of fuzz and distortion that defined Tad’s sound. You can feel the pain and surprise and his voice on “Behemoth”. Tad’s voice leaps from the songs, moving out into space in front of your speakers and giving the whole thing a three dimensional feel. Honestly, it’s like listening to a different album than the one I remember. The metallic clanging that opens (and continues throughout) “Cyanide Bath” and the Sabbath-esque riffs… the weird bullhorn-like vocal parts of “Sex God Missy”… the whole thing is tremendous.

Was God’s Balls this good when I heard it when it first came out? I don’t know. But I’m falling in love with it all over again. It feels more sonically cohesive as well, not as all-over-the-place as I remembered.

Salt Lick (1990 / 2016)

While God’s Balls has my favorite Tad song on it, I prefer Salt Lick top-to-bottom. The three-song A side of “Axe To Grind”, “High On The Hog”, and “Wood Goblins” is Tad at their very best. Right form the opening Sheee’ssss allllrrriigghhhttt… of “Axe To Grind” you know you’re getting hit with a buzzsaw, the guitars unrelenting, the drums snapping at your heals like a hungry croc. And the all-consuming vocal assault that is the chorus of “Wood Goblins” is like having your head swallowed whole by an actual woodland monster, something green and nasty and uncaring. The B side is no slouch either, the quiet intro to “Glue Machine” (Talkin’ shit all day… talkin’ shit all night...) exploding outward into the song proper like a crate of TNT.

Endino also handled the re-mastering of Salt Lick, though this time he wasn’t revisiting his original work but instead the production of the also-legindary Steve Albini. This one doesn’t sound as strikingly different from the original than did God’s Balls, but that could just be ear fatigue on my part. Regardless, this still sounds great.

Soundgarden - “Live From the Artists Den” (2019)

I pre-ordered the colored vinyl version of this release, and unfortunately production delays meant that while the black edition was in the stores earlier in the summer mine just arrived in the mail a few weeks ago.  This was kind of a bummer, but it is what it is, and now that it’s here and I can see the attention to detail and quality of the overall package, I have to say it was worth the wait.

Somehow despite living in the greater Seattle area (though never actually in Seattle) since 1984, I never saw Soundgarden live.  Clearly I have no excuse for this.  I was buying their records before anyone outside of Seattle even knew who they were and there were plenty of opportunities to catch them.  But such is life.  Fortunately there are some great live recordings out there, like Live From the Artists Den.

I love that they opened with a sludgy classic from their debut, the weighty “Incessant Mace”. Those first three Soundgarden LPs (and the assorted EPs and Sub Pop singles) are my favorite parts of their catalog.  One of the great things about Soundgarden live is that they don’t make an effort to sound polished - of course the songs are recognizable, but there’s a rawness as well, a sense that anything could happen at any time.  Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the vocals, with Cornell’s voice lacking the prettiness that came to define it on the band’s later albums.  This is aggressive Chris, singing like a caged animal.  This might be the one bummer I had on the collection as well, though, as he can’t (or maybe won’t) hit the high notes on one of my all-time-favorites “Jesus Christ Pose”.   Other than that, though, this one is solid from start to finish.

Mudhoney - “Morning In America” (2019)

This one came as a surprise - announced out of the blue in early August and on my front porch by September 14, like some kind of musical ninja.  Pretty much all of the info I can find online about Morning In America is what Sub Pop communicated when announcing it.  The seven songs were recorded during the Digital Garbage sessions.  One is an alternate version, three are outtakes, and the other three are songs that have appeared on various singles and/or limited edition releases (one of these, “Ensam I Natt” is a Leather Nun cover).

America hates itself.
America hates itself.
America would rather be someplace else.

— “Morning In America”

Morning In America is definitely in the same vein as Digital Garbage, a disappointment-laden description of today’s America.  Now, certainly not everyone in America is disappointed by how things have gone over the last few years.  The racists seem to revel in being able to be out in the open with their views.  Personally I was surprised to see so many of them crawl out of the woodwork, and while it’s disappointing, at least now we know who they are since they don’t seem to feel the need to hide anymore.  Mark Arm casts his venomous net wide, covering the racists and ignorant, the liars and the corporate thieves, the zealots and the image-obsessed, while the sludgy and fuzz-drenched music carries the emotional content in viscous waves.

My heart is breaking,
My mind is racing,
And now I’m bracing
For the terrible things to come.
— “Vortex of Lies”

Sonically Morning In America is at times oppressive (“Morning In America”), but at others triumphant (“Let’s Kill Yourself Live Again”, a different version of “Kill Yourself Live”), though I suspect the latter is more ironic than literal.  After all, the song is about the perceived importance of portraying the perfect digital image, regardless of what your real life is like.  The only time the music doesn’t feel like an integral component of the overall message is on the cover, “Ensam I Natt” (“So Lonely Tonight”), a refreshingly straight-forward punk song reminiscent of Mudhoney’s early career (Mudhoney, like Green River before them, always pick great songs to cover and do them justice).

The Loser edition comes on white marbled vinyl and includes a download card.  If you want a sample, you can stream “One Bad Actor” for free over at the Sub Pop website.

Green River - “Live At The Tropicana” (2019)

Lots of people hate on Record Store Day.  I sort of get it given all the re-releases of stuff that frankly didn’t need a 57th version entry into Discogs.  Many see it purely as a money grab.  To be fair, record labels and stores aren’t non-profits, and I for one like having some local record stores, so if this gets some extra people through the doors and helps them keep the lights on, great.  RSD also has had the positive effect of shaking loose some recordings that otherwise might not have seen the light of day.  A case in point is Seattle’s ground-zero-grunge-rockers Green River, the band that spawned Mother Love Bone, Mudhoney, and Pearl Jam.  For RSD in 2016 we were treated to 1984 Demos and this year a recently unearthed live show from 1984, Live At The Tropicana.  I doubt anyone would have bothered with these if it wasn’t for RSD.

greenrivertropicana

Live At The Tropicana was one of my top two or three “wants” for RSD 2019, but unfortunately I struck out locally.  This isn’t a surprise since I live in Seattle and, well, it’s Green River.  I waited a few weeks for the post-RSD nonsense to die down (copies were selling for $60-65 on eBay on RSD) and scored myself an unopened copy for $30, just a bit more than the retail price.  And you know, it’s a damn good record.  The sound quality is surprisingly good for what was basically a punk show in 1984.  The only downside is that it’s so early that it lacks some of the band’s best material, which hadn’t been written yet.  I’m a bit surprised some of the stage banter was left in, like probably two minutes of Mark Arm asking if anyone had any duct tap (though I enjoyed the part where he said their next number was a dance song, so put on your leg warmers), but whatever - it’s still a fun listening experience and a chance to hear a young band coming into its own.