Kick Out The Jams
Pearl Jam may never again sell five million-plus copies an album the way the band did in the early 1990s when their first three CDs, Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy made Pearl Jam the leaders of grunge rock and arguably the most important band in rock.
Today, the band's success level is far more modest-with recent CDs like Yield, Binaural, and the current release Riot Act-topping out at around one million in sales each. Pearl Jam are still a legitimate arena-headlining act, but their tours no longer generate the frenzy of attention that once surrounded the band.
But life within Pearl Jam is perhaps better than ever. At least that's a key conclusion one could draw from talking to bassist Jeff Ament about the past dozen years.
"It's the most tired analogy of all time, but you can compare it to a marriage," Ament said. "You have the honeymoon, which is our first record or two. Then all of a sudden it's like OK, we're five years in and we don't know how to talk to one another, so you have to learn how to communicate. And for a time after the initial rush of success, it was anything but a sure bet that Pearl Jam would survive the post-honeymoon period. Especially around the time of the band's 1996 CD, No Code, relationships within the band were frayed and several band members, including Ament, felt creatively stifled.
That obviously has changed, as the songwriting credits on Riot Act abundantly illustrate. While singer Eddie Vedder remains the band's chief lyricist and creative focal point, Ament has one sole songwriting credit ("Help Help") plus co-writing credits on two other songs. Drummer Matt Cameron has credits on three songs, and guitarist Stone Gossard has two co-writing credits.
"I think so much of it is kind of Ed's willingness to sing some words and to feel comfortable singing words that any of us might put out there," Ament said, elaborating on the shift in the writing process within Pearl Jam. "We know he's the guy who's the lyrical guy in the band. At the same time, it's pretty cool to have a voice. It's cool to have there be a song that really means something to you and actually put that out there and actually put it out there with a band like us that has a real audience and gets a response out of the stuff. For me, being a songwriter, that really makes me feel like a really legitimate part of the band. I think that's critical for everybody to feel that way."
For a time, that clearly wasn't the environment within Pearl Jam.
"There was a point during No Code where I was ready to quit the band because I felt like I had all these ideas that I wanted to contribute to making that record and people just weren't interested," Ament said. "Luckily I had a home studio and I was doing a lot of recording on my own, made a couple of Three Fish records (Ament's side band) around that time. If it wouldn't have been for that, I doubt if I would have stayed in the band. I probably would have quit.
"There was a point when, like Vitalogy and maybe a little bit of No Code, where it was kind of Ed's band. I think that was him just trying tosee what he could do, see how far he could take it. At the end of No Code, I think he was just so fried from trying to finish all these songs, that Eddie said 'I can't do this anymore.'"
The band's record sales may not reflect it, but Yield, Binaural, and now Riot Act have proven that each member of Pearl Jam bring a considerable amount of creative talent to the band.
Cameron, who after his stint as Soundgarden's drummer joined Pearl Jam for the Binaural CD, offers one of the most intriguing musical moments on Riot Act, a CD which stands up to the band's best previous efforts. "You Are," a tune featuring Cameron playing staccato guitar, makes the song one of the most striking tunes on the new CD.
"Get Right," another Cameron song, is one of Riot Act's most combustible rockers.
Ament makes his presence felt on "Help Help," a track that shifts between tense moodiness and full-on rock, and on "1/2 Full," a rocker that lumbers along nicely behind its jagged beat and sharp guitar line.
Vedder, of course, is also a prominent figure, as main lyricist and a primary writer of the folksy, acoustic track "Thumbing My Way," the blistering rocker "Save You" and "Love Boat Captain," an epic track that builds from an understated opening into one of Riot Act's most potent moments. As a vocalist, Vedder, too, has never been better.
"I think the last couple or three records, he's gotten more and more comfortable with his voice," Ament said. "I think he really does see his voice as an instrument. I think he's really confident about what he's singing about, and I think all those things combined, he doesn't feel quite as bad having his voice up front. We've always felt like that was the strongest part of the band."
Beyond opening up the songwriting process to the entire band, and each band member learning how to be more open in expressing his feelings and opinions within the band, Ament said that on a musical level he sees a considerable difference between Pearl Jam today and the band during the mid-1990s.
"I think the main thing is we're better musicians," he said. "And I think the reason that we're better musicians is kind of a few different things. A lot of it is playing (more), the repetition of it. But the other thing is really trusting one another. I think if you can trust one another on a friendship level, I think it can really kick the chemistry of the band up to the next level. You're up there, and you're not holding back."
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