There’s a music message board I frequent where competitive threads abound, pitting one artist, song, album or genre against another. Decades is a popular topic — you know the 60s verse the 70s kind of thing. Actually, the 80s verse the 90s is a big one because of this ever-widening, totally illogical gap between the hard rock/heavy metal MTV generation of the 80s and the grungy, disenfranchised slacker Y’s of the 90s. To this reviewer’s ears, the differences on the surface are mostly aesthetic because the music from both camps is mostly blues-based with a hard edge. But then you look at the songs from Poison or Whitesnake, and then look again at the songs from Nirvana or Pearl Jam, and it goes much deeper. An artist’s disposition has a lot to do with what lasts, what shines, what makes sense in the end. That’s why, almost 20 years later, Pearl Jam’s debut album Ten makes the most sense of all.
Legacy Recordings, who has turned the business of reissuing classic albums into an art form, has gone all out with four special edition packages of Ten, each featuring two versions of the album: the remastered version of the original album, an accompanying remixed version done by producer Brendan O’Brien (Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Audioslave). Expanded packages feature a DVD of Pearl Jam’s 1992 MTV Unplugged concert, Ten on vinyl, additional live tracks, demos and assorted memorabilia.
Grunge purists, including Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, cited Pearl Jam as a commercial stain on the movement’s credibility, because Ten, originally issued on August 27, 1991, was apparently too radio-friendly and accessible. Indeed, “Alive,” “Black,” “Even Flow” and “Jeremy” clogged up the airwaves for much of the early 90s, while luminaries like Neil Young and Pete Townshend buddied up with the Seattle quintet, effectively turning the beguiled so-called slackers into the toast of the town. Still, singer Eddie Vedder and company cautiously distanced themselves from the hubbub and hit parade by refusing to make music videos and lodging war against the likes of TicketMaster. Along the way, the live performances became more intense and music kept getting riper.
In the intervening years, it hasn’t been easy for Pearl Jam to live up to the standard of Ten. The eerie, recoiling bark of “Once” opens the record, and you’re immediately swept up by the passion and power of the songs and its players. Vedder’s deep-seated vocals tear through the melodies — his desperate, malevolent phrasing reminiscent of Jim Morrison, yet defiantly more affirmative, and at times, even hopeful. “Hey I…but…I’m still alive,” the singer reminds us, despite the disaffected face grunge wore. As the ominous thread of “Black” chills the bones and stirs up a malleable air of sadness and despair, Vedder again plies a positive spin on a grim prospect: “I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life/I know you’ll be a sun in somebody else’s sky/But why, why, why can’t it be/Can’t it be mine…”
Heavy portions of light and dark are stealthily supported by the twin guitar attack of Stone Gossard and Mike McCreedy, who dabble with snippets of lead work here and there, but mostly focus on tightly bundled chord progressions to deliver on the songs’ hooks, slings and arrows. Tunes as inherently simple as “Oceans” and “Release” regale in a zestful mystique, awash in the guitar weaving handiwork as rich and potent as a flame on an iceberg. Rounded out by bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Dave Krusen (who was let go in 1991), Pearl Jam was a solidified unit on all fronts, with Ten leading the way for others of the 90s to follow and replicate.
The reissue of Ten not only gives the album a new lease sonically; it also explores another side of the group with a second disc that features a Brendan O’Brien remix of all 11 of the songs that appear on Ten, along with six additional, unreleased tracks — early demos, outtakes, or stuff that just didn’t make the final cut. For Pearl Jam fans, these recordings provide a unique insight into one of the greatest, most influential rock bands of the last two decades.
~ Shawn Perry