Tag Archives: Matt Cameron

52nd Favorite: Superunknown, by Soundgarden

Share

Superunknown. Soundgarden.
1994, A&M. Producer: Michael Beinhorn and Soundgarden.
Purchased, 1995.

IN A NUTSHELL: An album that is complex yet direct, mathematical yet artsy, loud and quiet and always compelling. I can’t say enough about drummer Matt Cameron, who keeps the changing beats steady and accessible. Guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Shepherd bring the crunch and bounce, but the handsome singer Chris Cornell often steals the show with his wide-ranging voice – maybe the best in rock in the past thirty years.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
I’ve played music for a long time. Like many kids I banged on toy guitars and toy drums, blew through toy trumpets, and pounded on my family’s upright piano.

The author playing guitar in his first band, ca. 1970, with sisters on tambourine and horn-ette and cousin on drums. As is typical, the band broke up due to squabbles over use of the drum chair and incompatible bedtimes.

But then shit got real beginning in second grade, when I started going to Mrs. Bombgardner’s house on Canal St. for weekly piano lessons. This lasted until the summer of 1976, when I began learning the trombone through my school district’s band program before entering 4th grade.

In these beginner lessons in piano and trombone – after we figured out how to make a sound on the trombone – most time was spent learning to read and understand the written music that was placed in front of us. All those numbers and letters and circles and dots and lines and Italian words … it all meant something and someone had to teach us what.

Learning to read music progresses exactly the same way as learning to read words does. Just as books for beginning readers have large letters, few words and cute pictures, beginner music has large notes, short songs and cute pictures. Easy concepts are introduced; repetition is stressed. Beginning word readers spend a lot of time on words that rhyme and opposites; beginning music readers spend a lot of time on “Hot Cross Buns.”

As you read musical notes, you develop muscle memory. Your fingers learn to move across the piano keys based on what your eyes see. On the trombone, your arm learns where to slide, and your lips and jaw learn how to buzz and adjust, respectively. With practice and repetition you learn what the numbers and symbols and Italian words mean, and you start to play increasingly complex music while spending less time thinking about the notes, or what your fingers (and feet), or arm and mouth are doing. Eventually, you can look at a new piece of music and play it pretty well the first time you try without really thinking much at all – a skill known as “sight-reading.” This is, again, similar to learning to read words: capable readers no longer drag a finger along the text and sound out letter combinations – the decoding and comprehension are immediate.

This is about the level of musicianship I reached on the trombone when I stopped playing in high school – sight-reading well with a good-sounding tone. The muscle-memory I developed over 8 years was ingrained to a degree that to this day if I see certain bass clef notes, my arm still wants to move along; my jaw still stiffens or relaxes.

After high school I started learning to play the bass, but I didn’t start at my local fourth grade band room (which would have been really creepy), and I didn’t look at any notes. I learned from friends, like Dr. Dave, and he didn’t write anything down for me, he just showed me where my fingers should go, and I just sort of figured out what sounded good by playing along to Beatles and Tom Petty songs for several months. Eventually I became able to play along by ear with most any rock song, and to jam along on the blues with strangers at local dive bar open mikes. On the trombone, I could never play anything by ear, I always needed music. However, I could play some pretty complex trombone pieces by sheet music, and I can’t do that on the bass. I became proficient on both instruments, but in much different ways. The trombone playing, from written music, feels “in my head.” The bass playing, by ear, feels “in my heart and bones.”

But whether playing by ear or by reading music, my level of musical understanding has remained very basic. I learned to transform dots and lines and Italian words into sounds on a trombone, and only on a trombone. I learned to hear and mimic rock and blues on the electric bass, and only the bass. But there are dozens of instruments, capable of making a multitude of sounds across a seemingly unending range of pitches. All of these sounds can be organized together by pitch and tone and rhythm and timing in myriad pleasant-sounding ways. And that organization is based on – and can be described and communicated in – precise, mathematical terms that are concrete and anchored in physics; and these terms are then translated into musical symbols. I know nothing about all of that. I am fluent in trombone like an American high school Spanish student is fluent in Spanish; I am fluent in bass guitar like an intelligent, yet illiterate, Spanish speaker is fluent in Spanish. However, people who truly understand music are like linguists who are not only fluent in Spanish and all the other Romance languages, but can also explain the relationships between them. There are orders of magnitude in difference between my musical knowledge and that of, say, a music theory major. Yet I’ve helped write some really good songs.

The fact is, all those connections and relationships, and all those explanations of why notes sound good together based on physics and mathematics, are extremely UNNECESSARY in creating a great song. A great song exists in an artist’s brain, or a band’s collective brain, and it can be transmitted via sounds whether an artist is aware of chordal relationships and time signatures or not. And the ability to WRITE IT DOWN is certainly unnecessary – just as a story can be told aloud without writing it down. In fact, I’d wager that among all the musicians on all the albums I’ve covered, fewer than 10% can even read – let alone write – music. I’d further wager that if we don’t count session musicians who may have played on some of these records, the percentage of musicians on the list who can read music would plummet to below 1%.

Written music is unnecessary in rock music. Even if one member of a band writes a song and brings it to the rest of the band to play, it’s very unlikely that any written music is involved. There may be some chords written down, but these are likely to be represented by letters (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, plus assorted sharps and flats and minors, as necessary) instead of dots, lines, Italian words, etc. The fact is, just as you don’t need to understand those dots and lines to appreciate a song, an artist doesn’t need to understand those dots and lines to write a song. Artists such as Michael Jackson, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton … none of them could read music, and they wrote thousands of songs. (Paul McCartney’s even written classical pieces, relying on arrangers to transliterate the instruments’ parts to notes on the page.) If you have the music inside of you, if you have that feeling, you will get it out of you and into an instrument some way, somehow, and others will feel it, too.

The point is this: it matters little whether a musician can read or write music. All that matters is that it sounds good when it gets to your ears. And the reason I like Superunknown so much is that it touches the music-reader in me and it touches the music-feeler in me. It has unusual time signatures throughout that would seem to be challenging to read or write, but it’s got that straight-ahead driving rock sound, the guitar/bass/drums, the power that I love. The band has stated that they didn’t even think about, or concern themselves with, time signatures when they wrote the songs. They just played what sounded good and let the Music Majors figure out the math. And that process led to a masterpiece.

One of the most well-known examples of an unusual time signature is in the hit song “Spoonman.”

That first riff, right off the top, has seven beats to it – which is unusual in rock music. Rock and roll started as dance music, and since humans have two feet, dance music works best when there’s an even number of beats to a measure. So seven beats can feel awkward – and I mean “feel,” not “sound.” But drummer Matt Cameron, who’s responsible for keeping the rhythm flowing, is able to stay steady, constant, to a degree that you may not even notice there’s anything particularly different about the beat – but there is. That main riff is simply one of the best ever in rock, powerful and memorable, and I love the riff in the chorus, as well (which switches from seven to a regular four/four beat, just for kicks). The lyrics are actually about a man named Artis the Spoonman who played the spoons on the streets of Seattle, and who also played them on this track. I love the sound of this song, from Ben Shepherd’s rumbly, chunky bass at 2:00, and again at 2:50, to Kim Thayil’s slashing guitar throughout. Also, Chris Cornell has one of my favorite all-time voices in rock, and it’s on beautiful display on this one. This was a big song from the album, and it got a lot of airplay, and it deserved it.

Another song I love despite (because of??) its odd-feeling time-signature is the powerful “My Wave.”

Count along with Cameron’s snare drum, which goes BAP … BAP-BAP/ … BAP … BAP-BAP. If you count such that the first “BAP” is on two, and the “BAP-BAP” is on four-five, and start over immediately, you’ll be counting in 5/4. Despite this unusual beat, the song drives forward relentlessly. What catches my ear next are the strong vocals from Cornell. His melody is sparse but catchy, but it’s very rhythmic and sounds terrific with the 5/4 time signature. Guitarist Kim Thayil plays that simple, catchy riff, but throws in some neat sounds, particularly in the “My Wave” chorus, first at about 1:48, then he and bassist Ben Shepherd have some cool interplay around 2:15. The lyrics are sort of a “live and let live” manifesto, but the song is really about the sound and power. At about 3:40, an outro starts that changes to 4/4, sounds Eastern and then gets almost nursery-rhyme-ish. It’s probably my favorite song on the album.

But the craziest time signature on the record is unquestionably “Fresh Tendrils.” I’m not even sure how to count out a beat on this one …

It’s in 6/4, then 4/4, then 6/4, then at about 1:24 it goes all haywire and I can’t figure it out. Cornell’s voice is once again front-and-center, on inscrutable lyrics, but Thayil’s riff is really cool, too – he gets an unusual, trebley sound out of his guitar. Bassist Ben Shepherd shines, too. And for every song, just take it “as read” that I love what Matt Cameron’s doing on the drums. This band can really play, and I love this album!

I didn’t get into the band or the record because of its strange time signatures. I had heard of them way back in the late 80s, when my friend Eric used to go see them when they’d come on tour. They, and singer Chris Cornell, were featured on the very cool Singles soundtrack, and I liked a couple songs from their 1991 album Badmotorfinger. I heard the first single from this album, “Black Hole Sun,” and I hated it. But then I heard “Fell On Black Days,” and I loved it. I went out and bought the CD.

Of course, given my history, I notice right away that the song’s in 6/4, but I also notice the cool little bend that Chris Cornell, playing rhythm guitar on this one, adds to the main riff, and Matt Cameron’s terrific kick-drum introduction at about 15 seconds. I haven’t mentioned much about bassist Ben Shepherd yet, but I love his rolling bass line on this chorus of this song, heard first at about 55 seconds. Cornell’s lyrics are a little more direct this time, about life with depression, and his delivery at times gives me chills. Lead guitarist Thayil again has that trebley, trembling guitar sound on his solo, beginning about 2:20.

It’s probably time for me to say a few words about Chris Cornell. First of all, I find him quite handsome – to a degree that I almost wrote about being heterosexual but sometimes seeing a man and thinking, “wow – he’s attractive.” But more than that I think he has one of the best voices in rock. He can sing sweetly and soft and he can shout and scream with the best of them. One of the first times I listened to him was on his solo song from that Singles soundtrack: “Seasons.” It’s just him on guitar and singing, and it’s excellent. And he’s also excellent when he belts it out – as in the title track from Superunknown.

It’s got a great Kim Thayil riff to open it up, and Ben Shepherd plays a cool bouncy bass line. But it’s Cornell’s show, howling and shouting lyrics about … geez, I don’t know, being yourself? I guess maybe. I really love these types of rockers, and Thayil’s Eastern-sounding guitar solo, at 3:52. (Speaking of Eastern-sounding, check out Ben Shepherd’s track, “Half.” Sheesh!) Another great rocker is the opening track, “Let Me Drown,” which has a cool, grinding riff and features Cameron’s inventive drumming and Shepherd’s bubbling bass (plus some authentic 90s-era scratching thrown into the chorus!). They also go all-in on the punk sound on the short, peppy “Kickstand.”The band sounds powerful on these driving rockers, but they also sound powerful – and plenty heavy – when they sling the slow, sludgy sounds of Seattle despair.

A good example is “Limo Wreck,” in which the band demonstrates it can do odd time signatures at a slow pace, too. It’s got cool guitar harmonics, a bass line that sounds like it doesn’t fit and lyrics about something. Another sludgy song is the excellent, but probably too-long, “Head Down.” And “Mailman” is definitely the sludgiest of the bunch. “4th of July” is also a good one in this style, although the beginning of the song makes me want to turn it off – but keep listening, ’cause it gets really good.

The album’s final song, “Like Suicide,” is my favorite of the slow ones.

Fittingly, given my love of his drumming, it starts with a martial beat by Cameron. Cornell shows off the full range of his voice on the song, singing lyrics that came to him when he saw a bird fly into his window and die. I like how his melody at times doesn’t seem like it fits the song, but it does. At 3:30, it starts to kick in, and Cameron plays some excellent fills. At about 4:31 Thayil plays another Eastern-inflected riff, a prelude to his cool solo at 5:15. It’s a great album-closing song, featuring everything I love about the album – except for the fact that the time signature is straight 4/4 the whole way!!

When I began learning to play instruments, I had no idea that the specific musical knowledge I picked up would affect my appreciation of all music. However, this doesn’t mean I immediately try to tear apart all the songs I like. I do not take such a logical approach to music, like a physicist attempting to reverse-engineer a product by pulling it apart and seeing what’s inside and how it works. I simply listen and like what I hear, which I believe is the spirit in which artists create. The underlying math can describe and communicate, it can enhance understanding, but that’s all in one part of the head. The artistry comes from a different part, the part that feels like the heart and the bones, the part that’s called the “soul.” This is how music connects with me, how Superunknown connects with me. Everything else is just lines and dots and Italian words.

Track Listing
“Let Me Drown”
“My Wave”
“Fell On Black Days”
“Mailman”
“Superunknown”
“Head Down”
“Black Hole Sun”
“Spoonman”
“Limo Wreck”
“The Day I Tried To Live”
“Kickstand”
“Fresh Tendrils”
“4th of July”
“Half”
“Like Suicide”

A reminder: RESIST THE TURD IN THE WHITE HOUSE AND HIS BIGOTED, HATEFUL, UNAMERICAN POLICIES! TAKE ACTION!

Share

53rd Favorite: Riot Act, by Pearl Jam

Share

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.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
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 such, 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 were. 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 admission 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 instead. 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 me. 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 album. 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 bands, 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 era 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 grunge broke big in 1991, the two towers of the genre were Nirvana and Pearl Jam. 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 song.

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 mainstream.

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 2/4, 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-reflective, 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”

Share