53rd Favorite Album

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Riot Act. Pearl Jam.
2002, Epic. Producer: Adam Kasper, Pearl Jam.
Gift, 2003.

IN A NUTSHELL: A complex album that grows more interesting with repeated listenings, and that best works – for me – as a complete unit instead of individual songs. The playing is excellent, particularly drummer Matt Cameron and guitarist Mike McCready, but it’s Eddie Vedder’s stirring baritone voice that really carries most of the songs. There are rave-ups, some slow jams, and even a bit of the blues, and together it all sounds great.
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There was a delicatessen in West Philadelphia in 1985, somewhere around the corner of 42nd and Chester. Google Streetview makes me think it must have been right on the southeast corner, as the other buildings in the vicinity clearly have never housed a business like a deli. It wasn’t a deli as one might imagine, with a display case of cold cuts and cheeses, side dishes and salads, and chalky salamis in slender nets hanging from the ceiling like catawba tree cigars. It was really just a convenience store that had a small sandwich station inside, but they did have a sign outside that featured the word “deli,” and that sign caught my eye when I arrived in the neighborhood that fall for my freshman year of college.

There were no delicatessens, as such1, where I grew up, but I’d seen enough TV shows set in big cities, John Belushi skits and Woody Allen movies to know what they were2. From these entertainment touchstones, I was familiar with terms like “pastrami on rye,” and “grilled Reuben,” and “potato knish,” but they were exotic to me, akin to lions on the Serengeti, or Dutch wooden shoes. I knew neither my parents, family members nor friends had ever experienced a delicatessen, or if they did it had been as part of a trip to somewhere else, a captivating detail that would help to clinch a successful story about a journey taken: “… and on the way to The Empire State Building, we rode in a taxi and ate a sandwich from a real delicatessen!” I walked past that West Philly deli on my way to class every day, and at a certain point that fall it dawned on me: Hey, right there’s a delicatessen, and I’ve never been to one!

I tend to overstate my meager upbringings in 1970s steel-town Pennsylvania. My family didn’t have a lot, and there were struggles at times, but there were plenty of folks whose families were worse off than mine. But when I got to college, I was really broke – as were most college students. Sure, there were a few people with weekly allowances from well-to-do parents, but for the most part everyone at college was forever near-penniless. I had a work/study job at the gym refereeing intramural sports and keeping score at school basketball games, and after socking away what I could to help pay for school, and spending the odd couple of bucks each week on coin-op washing machines, or blue test booklets at the bookstore, this left me – like most of my classmates – with a few bucks for the weekend to meet the $3 admission3 to the all-you-can-drink frat parties. I still can recall the joy at finding a random dollar bill somewhere – in a pocket, on the street – and adding it to the short stack of one dollar bills that I kept in my desk drawer for spending money!

I didn’t have much money to spend on food, and in fact I knew my folks had purchased the college’s full-time meal plan for me so that I WOULDN’T spend money on food. But there was that damned delicatessen that I walked past every day, and I became fascinated with the idea of going in there and getting myself a sandwich. I couldn’t shake my enchantment of being a big-city guy and going to a big-city deli; or better yet becoming – among my friends and family – THE big-city guy who GOES to the big-city deli, not just someone who breathlessly tells his friends about the one time he ate a pastrami on rye.

It seemed like a decadent idea. First, the fact that I would spend money that I knew I shouldn’t on a sandwich; but also the idea that someone behind a counter would prepare it for me. A sandwich! Simply bread, cheese and meat, yet I’ll have someone else make it for me? Decadence! And when I finally overcame my niggling morals and entered the deli, rationalizations having scrubbed away images of slathering my hard-earned money with brown mustard and greedily shoving it into my mouth while at the same time I flushed down the commode a nicely prepared, pre-paid, multi-course meal from the cafeteria; that’s when I realized just how decadent this sandwich would be: FOUR DOLLARS AND TWENTY-FIVE CENTS!!!! Why, I could buy two loaves of bread and a pound of pastrami for that amount!! And another thing – what the hell even IS pastrami??!! Or rye bread, for that matter?!? I had no idea. I was a lunatic for doing this thing. It was madness.

I left the deli with a heavy, taped-up, wax paper ball containing a sliced turkey and provolone on rye. At the last second, the word pastrami had lodged in my throat, enmeshed in a wad of shameful dread at the thought of realizing I hated the stuff and being forced to toss it in the trash, and so “turkey” sprung forth instead4. The deli man was amused, or confused, by my denial of all the amenities he offered: no lettuce, no tomato, no onions, no mayo, no brown mustard, only yellow. No cole slaw. I was excited by the realization that the two pickle spears were free. And I was further encouraged by the later realization that, in fact, I was not further impoverished by this sandwich purchase – I still had some money the following week. Also, my parents didn’t know about it and they didn’t need to know – I’d bought the thing with money I’d earned, after all. Decadent or not, it was my decision and I had no regrets, felt no remorse. Instead I felt good, relieved, proud; like I’d arrived at some station toward which I hoped I’d been traveling on a train I wasn’t sure made the stop. All things considered, it was the most satisfying sandwich I’ve ever eaten.

I’ve been surprised, as I approach 50, that this sense of arrival, of finally finding yourself on-course and situated when you never even felt off-course and restless, recurs regularly with age, over events and actions both large and small. The birth of children, helping with a small home repair, navigating the rough seas of elderly parents, starting a daily exercise routine – each of these have provided me a version of that “First Decadent Sandwich Decision” feeling, a sense that I’ve joined a group that I was unaware existed.

As a music fan, I felt this sensation in my early 20s when I realized the artists I was hearing and enjoying were no longer older than me but were now my age and had lived my life. Until my early twenties, the music I’d enjoyed my whole life was made by people older than me5. But with the introduction of “grunge” and “alternative” music, I began listening to songs that I enjoyed by people my own age.

Much has been written and produced over the years about the impact of Nirvana’s Nevermind album6. I’ve already written about how much I love the record, but something I didn’t include in that post is the impact of the band members’ ages on their success. Some of the most enthusiastic supporters of Nirvana, and in fact of all of the grunge and alternative acts of the early 90s, were, like me, about the same age as the bands7, and we felt that this “new” sound (with apologies to The Stooges, The New York Dolls, Pixies, etc, etc) could be “our sound,” and fuck you if you don’t like it!

Each “new” music form of the rock/post-rock era8 has held a special resonance for many of the people of the same age of those producing it. If you were 20 to 25 when Dylan emerged, or The Beatles, or The Grateful Dead, or Led Zeppelin, or The Clash, or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five … if you were about that age, then the new music you were enjoying wasn’t just something else that sounded good, your enjoyment also incorporated a sense of pride in being a part of the “new generation.” It included a rejection of what had come before; or if not flat-out rejection, then it certainly held a bit of condescension: “Pete Seeger is fine, I guess,” you said, “but he’s nothing compared to Dylan!” This special resonance is that “First Decadent Sandwich Decision” feeling of having arrived.

When grunge9 broke big in 1991, the two towers of the genre were Nirvana and Pearl Jam10. Bands like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains had their day, and others, like Screaming Trees and Gumball, gave it a good shot. And sure, Mudhoney remained the choice of those music fans “in the know,” but Nirvana and Pearl Jam were anointed, somehow, and in certain circles (mine, for instance) this meant a choice was to be made.

This choice wasn’t a Sharks vs. Jets situation – very little impressionistic group dancing was involved – but there was a general sense that if you liked Nirvana, Pearl Jam were kind of classic-rock pussies, and if you liked Pearl Jam, Nirvana were kind of screaming babies. At the time, I threw in with the babies of Nirvana. I liked some Pearl Jam songs, and they certainly touched that 70s Classic Rock spot in my heart, but – despite the obvious passion with which they performed (particularly singer Eddie Vedder) – I preferred the mayhem and noise of Nirvana. For me, the feat of Nirvana’s $600 album Bleach, on Sub Pop, was more impressive than PJ’s story of Seattle Industry Darlings/Supergroup Debut on Epic.

I grew to appreciate Pearl Jam, and I bought some of their records, but by 2002 I wasn’t really following them or their career much anymore. They were almost starting to feel like “oldies,” left behind with Smashing Pumpkins and Bush. Sometime in 2003, my hip, young sister-in-law visited my family from New York City and brought with her a slew of albums for me. Among them was the most recent Pearl Jam offering, Riot Act. “Wow,” I said, “these guys are still putting out records?” She made me listen to that one first, and it eventually became one of my favorites. I didn’t love it right away, but I did keep finding myself listening to it and remembering it, until it finally burrowed into my Top 100.

Riot Act, for me, is an album of the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” variety. I like the individual songs, but I most appreciate the album when I have the time to listen from start to finish. It begins very subtly, with “Can’t Keep.”

Drummer Matt Cameron provides a martial beat behind a clangy acoustic guitar, and singer Eddie Vedder starts in with three swirling electric guitars building behind him. Vedder is an expressive singer, and his voice lends itself well to the classic Pearl Jam touch of hang-on-note-during-crescendo-until-big-release, as in 1:47 to 1:56 of “Can’t Keep.” It’s an interesting song in that it sounds somber and brooding, yet the lyrics and Vedder’s voice are uplifting and celebratory. It’s the type of opening track that doesn’t blow me away, but that gets my attention and makes me want to listen again.

The second song, “Save You,” is a lot more direct, and quite memorable as a big-riff rock song11.

There’s a great article on Billboard that gives the band’s reflections on Riot Act. There I found out that guitarist Mike McCready came to the band with the big, opening riff, and the rest of the group just ran with it. It’s driving rock and roll, with a really nice little break-down section at about 2:07 that keeps it from getting monotonous. The lyrics speak of the frustration felt by friends of addicts, of trying to offer help but being rejected, yet still believing there must be some way to help the person. It could’ve been a hit song, but having a chorus with the words “Fuck me if I say something you don’t wanna hear” repeatedly probably kept it out of the mainstream12.

By the end of that song, I really feel the album building nicely, and it leads into what may be my favorite song on the album, “Love Boat Captain.”

The song opens with a quiet organ, played by touring-Pearl Jam keyboardist Boom Gaspar, who also co-wrote the song with Vedder. This is really a showcase for Vedder, his voice ranging in tone but always consistent in its intensity. It has another Pearl Jam crescendo, building to the 2:12 mark, where I always get chills, and continues building to bigger chills at 3:02. The lyrics are a call for humans to love one another, referencing The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” “It’s already been sung/but it can’t be said enough/all you need is love.” They may sound like light and fluffy sentiments, but in Vedder’s stirring voice, they come across as imperatives. The lyrics also refer to a Pearl Jam concert tragedy in Denmark in 2000, where 9 fans were crushed to death. Guitarists McCready and Stone Gossard play some nice lines behind the vocals, but this one is all about the vocals and lyrics.

The next song is all about rhythm and time signature, so it makes sense that it was written by the band’s drummer, Matt Cameron.

“Cropduster” rides along nicely in its 7/4 time signature, with a nifty, descending arpeggiated guitar. During the verses, the band shifts easily between 4/4 and 2/413, driving forward to a cool little McCready solo at 1:19, and a breakdown at 1:32. All the while, Vedder sings some mystical words (“I was a fool because I thought I thought the world/Turns out the world thought me”) and bassist Jeff Ament plays a rolling countermelody. It’s not quite a 4 minute song, but with its multiple parts and time signatures, it’s reminiscent of my beloved prog rock. Bassist Ament contributes the next song, the rocker “Ghost,” which contains some of McCready’s best soloing on the album.

The band puts together a couple slower pieces next, and together they may be the highlight of the album. As I said, this is one of those records that I appreciate as a single unit – not really the same as a concept album, but the flow of songs does appeal greatly to me. The first of this pair is the uplifting “I Am Mine.” It’s got the feel of a sing-along Sea Shanty, but with humanist lyrics instead of those of toiling and death on the vast ocean. A Pearl Jam crescendo is included, of course, to a great closing solo by McCready. The band follows it up with the tear-jerker “Thumbing My Way.”

Vedder’s baritone vocals again steal the show on this one, put to great use on a song about loss and regret. For someone like me, who tends to be overly-self-reflective14, lines like “All the rusted signs we ignore throughout our lives/Choosing the shiny ones instead/I turned my back/Now there’s no turning back” echo thoughts and feelings of my own. Musically, there’s nice stuff happening behind the vocals and acoustic guitar, and a cool little extra “hesitation measure” about 2 minutes. This band knows how to do emotion – or maybe that’s too Gen-X cynical. Maybe this band is just in touch with emotions.

You Are” is up next, and it’s got some terrific guitar sounds all over it. The instruments have an early grunge feel, and this is one of the few songs where I’d like to hear less of Vedder and more of the sounds of the band. Drummer Cameron wrote this one, and the next one as well – the powerful, aggressive “Get Right.” I love the song’s interplay between he and Ament, and also McCready’s guitar-hero solo at 1:26. “Green Disease” is a rave up with a super catchy chorus that I love. “Help Help” is okay – but weak compared to the others, I think.

Bu$hleaguer” is the song that – in the frenzied, America-fever days of the early 00’s, when people were still claiming Iraq had nuclear weapons, and still claiming the entire Iraq war wasn’t just a means for Dick Cheney to get filthy (in more ways than one) rich – caused some controversy by having the audacity to point out the truth about G.W. Bush (and, actually, every Republican presidential candidate after Ronald Reagan): “Born on third base/Thought he hit a triple.” I don’t love the song, but I love that it’s here.

The band picks things up with the bluesy, classic-rock groove of “1/2 Full.”

I really love the 3/4 swing to the song, and Matt Cameron is the engine driving it. The guitars are great, featuring a classic Stratocaster sound, as are Vedder’s vocals on lyrics that belie the suggested optimism of the title. There’s a sense of finality to the song; maybe it’s because of the way the song builds to a close, maybe it’s just because I’ve listened to the album so much, but it feels like an ending. The next song, the short piece “Arc,” is almost an interlude, which makes the final song, “All or None,” feel like exit music.

I really like the bass guitar in this one, and the understated guitar solo beginning at about 2:00. But once again, Vedder’s vocals and lyrics steal the show. On the third verse he sings in a higher register, and none of the strength of his voice is lost. And for someone who has a reputation for over-the-top performances, he remains understated throughout the song. It ends with another great guitar solo, and as it ends I’m reminded of the first song, “Can’t Keep.” Both have a mix of sadness yet hopefulness, perfect bookends to a powerful album.

Riot Act, is a mature record that reveals itself with repeated listenings, and at the close of the final song I once again feel as if I’ve arrived. When I first heard Pearl Jam, and other bands of this era, I also felt like I’d arrived – but it didn’t mean I’d stopped moving. We all keep arriving, throughout our lives, but our travels aren’t complete. More Decadent Sandwich Decisions await us, and we’ll only understand when we get there.

Track Listing:
“Can’t Keep”
“Save You”
“Love Boat Captain”
“Cropduster”
“Ghost”
“I Am Mine”
“Thumbing My Way”
“You Are”
“Get Right”
“Green Disease”
“Help Help”
“Bu$hleaguer”
“1/2 Full”
“Arc”
“All or None”

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