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100 Albums: "Vs." by Pearl Jam

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Pearl Jam
Title: Vs.
Released: 1993
Genre: alt-rock post-glam grunge

In 1990, singer Andrew Wood died of a heroin overdose a few days before the scheduled debut release from his band Mother Love Bone. Wood's roommate, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, approached MLB's bassist and rhythm guitarist, Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard, about putting together a tribute album. They agreed, and brought on board Soundgarden's drummer Matt Cameron and couple of newcomers that Gossard and Ament had been jamming with, lead guitarist Mike McCready and singer Eddie Vedder. The tribute album was called Temple Of The Dog and it spawned two hit singles in Hunger Strike and Say Hello 2 Heaven. Afterwards, Cornell and Cameron returned to Soundgarden and the other four became Pearl Jam. (And, because the world is teeny-tiny, Cameron is now Pearl Jam's drummer, although he didn't join until 2002). Pearl Jam's 1991 debut album Ten came at exactly the right moment, releasing a month before Nirvana's Nevermind heralded the beginning of the grunge explosion. Pearl Jam rocketed to success and in 1993 released their follow-up Vs.

I've mentioned before that the grunge scene--even in a locale like Seattle--wasn't really one movement but a set of them, with punk acts like Nirvana and Meat Puppets being lumped in with metal acts like Alice In Chains and Soundgarden. Pearl Jam represented the glam-rock end of things, and it shows a lot in Ten, which is essentially a glam-rock album but dark and brooding instead flashy and pompous (that's not a dig, pomposity is a selling point for glam). But Vs. has them veering a little farther into hard rock territory and doing some sonic exploration. The only song that felt like it could have been on Ten is Dissident. Vs. has got some acoustic not-quite-ballads in Daughter and Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town, a couple of thrashing tunes in Blood and Animal, some speed-rockers with Go and Rearviewmirror, and also whatever the hell is going on with Rats. The album closer Indifference is just an emotional bomb, the penultimate Leash is a great hard rock anthem. This was also the era that saw the band being more forward with politics and activism--they stopped making music videos for MTV and broke ties with Ticketmaster. For another band either of those could have been career suicide. The activism spilled into their lyrics as well. Glorified G and W.M.A. are pointedly about gun fetishism and racist policing, respectively, two topics that are... let me check my notes... still very active in the discourse twenty-six years later.

While Vs. lacks the sonic cohesion of Ten, I think it has better songs. Daughter and Elderly Woman... are classics, and the only meh songs on the disc are Blood and Rats. (Seriously, what the hell is going on with that song?) Rearviewmirror is one of my favorite songs to listen to in the car. And the musicianship is really something to behold. McCready's silky leads and Vedder's vocals are easy to identify, but Gossard is an under-appreciated rhythm guitarist. And my biggest gripe about the record is that the bass is undermixed. Ament is a great bassist, and his sound is truly unique because he plays 8-string, 12-string, or fretless basses. You can hear that buzzy doubled string sound at the beginning of Go and the extra-smooth fretless sound during Indifference, but for the most part his contributions feel buried.

Further Listening: Ten is a pretty solid album, if a bit glossier, and while it's not well-loved, I really like Vitalogy. After that though, I find a lot of Pearl Jam's output cloying, especially subsequent singles Last Kiss and Wish List. If you can find it, the single for Jeremy produced two fantastic B-sides: Footsteps and Yellow Ledbetter. That last song became a radio hit when the band should have been promoting Vitalogy, but what can you do? It was included on their Rearviewmirror retrospective, so it's easy to find now. Footsteps, not so much. Finally. Also, the soundtrack to the 1992 movie Singles is worth checking out. It was very much about the then nascent Seattle rock scene and has music from Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and Chris Cornell--all of whom have cameos in the film--along with Mudhoney,  Mother Love Bone, and Screaming Trees. Pearl Jam contributed two songs to that soundtrack, notably State Of Love And Trust, which is a pretty epic tune.


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