Saturday, July 11, 2009

492. Vitalogy- Where accordions and Grunge collide.

Album: Vitalogy.

Artist: Pearl Jam.

Year: 1994.

Genre: Grunge. Post Grunge. Metal


1. Last Exit
2. Spin the Black Circle
3. Not for You
4. Tremor Christ
5. Nothingman
6. Whipping
7. Pry, To
8. Corduroy
9. Bugs
10. Satan's Bed
11. Better Man
12. Aye Davanita
13. Immortality
14. Hey Foxymophandlemama, That's Me

By 1994 Grunge had exploded into the mainstream and then exploded out again. The 1991 release of Pearl Jam’s debut Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind had made the world look to Seattle as a new Liverpool of musical talent. Fashion designers exploited Grunge as a new trend and even The New York Times was publishing articles about the “movement” complete with a list of Grunge slang terms which had been made up by a bored record sales-rep who was fond of a giggle. Within three years of the world taking notice, Kurt Cobain was dead and the grunge craze which the media had created was just as lifeless. When Pearl Jam recorded Vitalogy it wasn’t just their third album it was their first album in the post Nirvana world, and their attempt to prove they were a rock and roll band and not just one branch of a fad-tree that had just been felled.

In theory, Vitalogy should be a complete car crash of an album. If you wanted to put forward a checklist of events that produce dud studio ventures this release ticks pretty much all the boxes. Huge external pressure? Check. Fractured band ready to break up? Check. Punishing tour schedule forcing band to record during stolen moments? Check. Absent band-member’s place filled by his instrument tech? Check. Guitarist in and out of rehab? Check. Experimental use of piano accordion? Check. It should be a disaster but somehow all the rage and frustration caused Vitalogy to be a belter of a release and not the endless parade of throwaway tosh people were expecting and the music press were secretly hoping for.

The great thing about Vitalogy is that a lot of it is angry music with heavy beats, screaming guitars and real fury in the vocals. But the beauty is that it’s angry about subjects that I personally have no right to get angry about. There are no songs full of righteous rage about social injustice, no venom directed at targets I personally wish I could spit eloquent vitriol at and no catharsis for my own personal pain. Instead there’s some incandescent ire directed at the intrusive nature of the press and the pressures of being famous. So I can put on Vitalogy and bang my head and rage and snarl the vocals like Eddie Vedder about an issue that has never impacted me in the least. How dare you invade my privacy just because I’ve had two hit albums? You bastards! Spin The Black Circle is a short and punchy rant about how vinyl is much better than CD’s. Now there’s a cause I can get behind! I can even put the track on repeat so I can hear the rage about CD’s over and over again. There’s something strangely satisfying about experiencing some wrath that you can only relate to on a purely theoretical level.

There are also some great slower tempo songs on Vitalogy, the most famous being Betterman, a track about a battered wife, which former Australian Cricket Captain Steve Waugh chose as his theme music until someone told him what the lyrics meant. There’s a nice track with a sing along chorus (“already in love”) which sounds sweet but for some reason is entitled Satan’s Bed.

But that’s not to say everything on Vitalogy is gold. Bugs is basically a strange monologue recorded over the top of what I could charitably call accordion playing. The accordion isn’t my favourite instrument when it’s played well but when it’s played badly… its somehow much better. Weird. Bugs makes for compelling listening but I never want to hear it again, which puts in on the same shelf as Hey Foxymophandlemoma, That’s Me, an exercise in overdubbing, vocal manipulation and sound collage that works just as well as every other such exercise has worked since Revolution #9.

Vitalogy is a great album that takes the typical grunge sound set down by the band (and others) up to that point and adds enough variety to make it a brilliant album in its own right.

Highlight: Spin the black circle. I’m not sure if they were the first to point out the whole record-needle/heroin thing but they did it better than anyone else.

Lowlight: Bugs. Probably a great curiousity on a B-sides compilation but not really worth including on an album, at least Hey Foxymophandlemoma, That’s Me has the decency to be at the end of the album.

Influenced by:
Neil Young, who earned the name The Godfather of Grunge thanks in part to Pearl Jam.

Influenced: A legion of Grunge-light bands who couldn’t write songs but could wear the fashion and tune their guitars to sound the same.

Best Amazon customer review quote: “Hahahahaahah the Smashing Pumpkins?!?! HAHahahahaahah you think the smashing pumpkins are the best band from the 90s?!?!?! AHAHAHAHahahahahahahah AHAHAHAahahahaahahahahahahahahaa”

-Thanks, that’s very eloquent stuff.

So what do you think? Would you struggle to find a Better Man than Eddie Vedder or is Vitalogy Not For You? Let me know below.

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