Pearl Jam – Binaural

Pearl Jam

You remember Pearl Jam right? Those stubborn Seattle rockers who brought grunge to a stadium near you? You know, their fans are always in backwards caps, some of them still wearing flannel shirts and ripped jeans like its 1991. They’re those platinum selling radio whores who’ve spent an entire career telling Ticketmaster and MTV to screw off. They drove everyone nuts with that off-key remake of some throwaway fifties tune (“Last Kiss” for those of you who take residence in a hole). They don’t really MATTER do they?
Well, the truth is, though Pearl Jam don’t matter nearly as much as their fans claim, they’re aren’t as irrelevant as many of their detractors would like to think. They’ve spent six studio albums now exploring rock, blues, punk, folk, and rock again. Eddie Vedder has collaborated with none other than Neil Young and Pete Townshend. They’re socially aware (Tibetan Freedom Festival), and they really did spend the better part of the nineties ignoring MTV and Ticketmaster. To me, that’s a damned decent resume. But alas, too many people shove them aside as simply another platinum selling act. Despite everything that has gone (death of grunge, pacification of the music scene, and a carousel of drummers) Pearl Jam trudge along like they’re oblivious to anything but their music. That’s the way it should be. Binaural is Pearl Jam’s sixth studio album. It comes on the heels of the highly praised (and deservedly so) Yield, a album that reconnected the band members, as well as the band to its somewhat disenfranchised fan base. Now here’s the shocker: “Binaural” is a rock album.
Binaural is named after a somewhat obscure recording technique in which something resembling a mannequin is set up in a room with a recording mic attached to the head where each ear lays. The band then plays like normal, and the music is supposedly recorded as the human ear would hear it. Pearl Jam use this odd tactic rather sparsely on the album, so sparsely in fact that a difference can rarely be heard. In fact, the technique usually just muddies up the guitar mix (though I’m told on a good set of headphones it works quite well). Recording techniques aside, Binaural marks yet another progression for the constantly evolving Pearl Jam.
The album opens with three punkish tracks that wouldn’t be out of place on 1994s Vitalogy (Pearl Jam’s foray into raw punk energy). “Breakerfall” opens the album with the most obvious Who nod you’ll ever here, right before the track progresses to a thumping, guitar driven punk song with hidden melody. New drummer Matt Cameron penned “Evacuation,” and despite the fact that the track moves well, it’s a good argument for never handing a drummer anything besides his daily rations and a drumstick. “Light Years” slows the pace a bit, a moody, atmospheric track whose hook is present, but again buried. “Nothing as it Seems” is the album’s misleading single, a jammy, seemingly impromptu number that won’t get played because it doesn’t sound like Korn. Other highlights include the almost catchy “Insignificance,” and the rocking “Grievance.”
The album (like Yield) was more of a group project with bassist Jeff Ament, guitarist Stone Gossard and Vedder sharing most of the songwriting responsibilities. The results are mixed, and the songs come out stronger when they collaborate (such as on “Light Years”). Vedder’s voice and lyrics are standard fare (somewhat obscure phrases about relationships and social events), they’ll amaze Pearl Jam fans and bore most people (though they really aren’t bad, Vedder is no Thom Yorke). Matt Cameron (formerly of Soundgarden) remains the best drummer Pearl Jam’s ever had to work with, and his rock-solid beats never falter.
The album does falter though. For one, the complete lack of hooks on this album is extremely disappointing, especially considering the pop masterpieces that Yield produced. The songs are jammier, disjointed, and rough. Despite the abrasions, the album often becomes background music, fading behind whatever you happen to be doing. The last two tracks are also weak. One is a mandolin driven “ballad,” and the other’s just a slow, boring rocker. Pearl Jam are capable of so much more.
Despite the flaws, the album holds its own. If one of the signs of a good band is progression, then Pearl Jam are tops. They never make the same album, even their missteps seem somewhat appropriate in their constant search for new ways to make appealing, somewhat commercial guitar rock. I’ll take Pearl Jam over 99% of anything else on the radio right now, even if they never recapture the glory days of their first two records. If you’re a Pearl Jam fan, buy this. If you’re not, leave them alone, they’ve got a legion of loyal fans waiting to buy this album, radio, MTV, and Ticketmaster be damned.