Record Shop: Pearl Jam – Vs.

I know, it’s been a while since I’ve made a Record Shop post. And there’s really no excuse. These articles probably take less time to write than any. But, before sitting down to write a track-by-track review for an album, I really like to spend a few days revisiting it. Thankfully, my new job affords me the time to do just that! These days, I have an hour-long commute each way to work. So I now have plenty of opportunity to dive in to some old records. This should equate to an uptick of Record Shop reviews. So if that’s your thing – congrats!

If you’ve been keeping up with this series of articles, you’ll know that I’ve covered a number of rock and roll albums that had a very significant impact on me during my teenage years. So far I’ve covered releases from Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stone Temple Pilots, and Pearl Jam. I even took a moment to share my thoughts on a rather obscure Japanese rock album by Princess Princess. Yes, I have plethora of obscure and weird records that I plan to talk about one day. But today, I’m going to circle back and turn my attention to something a little more mainstream. I want to take a look at Vs. – the sophomore release by one of Seattle’s best known bands, Pearl Jam.

Now, I’ve already talked about Pearl Jam’s first album, Ten. If you’re curious, you can read my review of that album right here. To say that Ten was a influential album would be an understatement. In fact, it ranks right up there with some of the greatest rock albums of all time. So how does a band like Pearl Jam follow that up? The safe route is release similar material. By trying to keep the same vibe and feel on a follow-up record, you can hope to mirror your success. It worked wonders for rock bands in the 80’s. But of course, this was the 90’s we’re talking about. Artists wanted to try to stand out. They wanted to push the envelope. Pearl Jam was no different.

When Vs. was originally announced, everyone I knew who was into music was curious to see just what kind of record Pearl Jam was going to deliver. There were articles in fanzines and discussions on Mtv, all full of speculation. Pearl Jam had already hinted that they were doing something different with their second album. But nobody knew exactly what that meant. I suppose we all got our first clue when the band announced that they would not be releasing any music videos for the album. Instead, they wanted the music to speak for itself. Now, the music world of the 90’s was quite a bit different than it is today. Bands would either sink or swim as result of their video getting heavy rotation on Mtv. Directly coming out and shunning Mtv, was unheard of.

I recall the day that the record was released. I went to my local record shop after school and picked up a copy of the CD. The packaging was curious. The name “Vs.” was nowhere to be found anywhere on the album cover. Instead, the artwork simple displayed the name of the band alongside the a picture of a funky-looking goat. I popped the disc in my player and listened to the album from start to finish that afternoon. Today, I’m going to go track-by-track once again and share my thoughts on this iconic release.

  1. Go – The album begins with a a jumble of noise that sounds somewhat like bottles clunking together in an oddly chaotic, but melodic way. This is followed by a groovy sounding drumbeat that leads into the introduction of a somewhat subdued riff played on both the bass and the guitar. Just when things start to come together, the action come to screeching halt. Then all of a sudden…. BOOM. It’s like someone rips the roof off. The main riff is back, but this time it’s unleashed and Eddie Vedder joins in with a new, raw edge to his voice. In fact, “raw” is a great way to describe the rest of the song. There’s no doubt who you’re listening to, it’s definitely Pearl Jam. But this time with a new energy that lacks the restrained polish fans of Ten are likely to be familiar with. I remember hearing this track for the first time and being floored by the pure power of it. It is an amazing opener and also ended up being the first single from the album.
  2. Animal – The second track keeps the same energy. “Animal” is a powerhouse of a rock song. It’s one of my all time favorites from the band, honestly. At this point, we are two songs in and both have been fantastic. This track was selected as the third single from the album.
  3. Daughter – Here we have a change of pace. With this song, the band shifts gears from power rock to something a little more mellow. “Daughter” turns down the distortion and shows a more melodic side to the band. This is a sound that we had hints of on the previous album. But now, for the first time, we actually get to see a whole new depth the group.  It’s no surprise that this was the second track to receive real major rotation on the radio.
  4. Glorified G – This is a weird one. This track features a catchy, but quirky sounding riff. The lyrics center on Vedder’s personal stance on gun rights. But it ends up coming off in a somewhat humorous manner. As far songs go, it’s pretty solid. It’s a likable track despite the oddball political take. On a side note: I’ve already heard the main lyric “glorified version of a pellet gun” as “glorified virgin on a pelican”. Which, if you ask me is way more interesting.
  5. Dissident – This track is the fourth single from the album and it’s a bit of a strange one. This is a more moderate rock song than some of the earlier high-energy tracks on the album. The song itself is very riff-driven, but more melodic than one might expect from a “riff-rock” song. I’ve always enjoyed this tune more for Vedder’s vocals than for the music itself.
  6. W.M.A. – This in a funky one. The song is driven by a really groovy drumbeat. If I had to describe the bass and guitar work, I’d call it; “precision-funk”. Once again, Vedder gets political here, but his message is obscured by mumbled and trivial vocals. This song isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite. I personally find it very interesting on a musical level, but it is not particularly memorable. You could even say that we have our first throwaway track on the album here.
  7. Blood – This is a song that many people discount as another throwaway track. It’s a funky blend of wah-pedals and screeching vocals. I’ve heard it described as “mindless noise” and “drivel”. Personally, I give the song more credit than that. But it is definitely one of the album’s weakest offerings.
  8. Rearviewmirror – This one is a favorite of mine. It doesn’t sound like anything we’ve heard from the band thus far. That’s probably because the majority of the song was written by Eddie Vedder himself instead of by the rest of the band. The riff is catchy and the song has a great feel from start to finish. Good stuff.
  9. Rats – This song is a hot mess. It starts off with a pretty solid groove, but by the time the verse kicks in, the whole thing feels lost. Vedder is a great lyricist. But in this instance, I just can’t take him seriously. The only saving grace in this track for me is the chorus – it actually a pretty good earworm. But it’s not enough to carry the rest of the song.
  10. Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town – An acoustic track and one of the highlights of the album. I love this song. It’s just exceptional. Everything from the crisp clear guitar, to Vedder’s amazing vocal delivery – it blows me away every time I hear it. In my opinion, this song is an underrated masterpiece. Despite not being an official single, this song received a good amount of airplay (for obvious reasons).
  11. Leash – The pace picks up a bit here. This song sounds like something that belongs on their first album. It’s similar in both style and subject matter to songs found on Ten.  “Leash” is an overall decent song, but it doesn’t shine like some of the others on this record.
  12. Indifference – To close the record we have a very mellow and ambient track. This song is unlike anything else on the album. It has a jazzy, whimsy feel to it – but with a dark and depressing twist. To me, it’s a great closing track. It takes all of the energy present on the rest of the album and just lets it drift away into the ether, leaving the listener to wonder what the band might come up with next.

All in all, Vs. is an excellent follow up to Pearl Jam’s debut album. It’s familiar enough to please fans, but also edgy enough to keep things sounding fresh. Pearl Jam took a great risk when it came to marketing this record. The whole “anti-establishment” thing actually seemed to pay off in the end, as the record was a major success even without Mtv boosting the band’s profile. I remember friends of mine acting very critical towards this album when it came out. But I could never understand their complaints. Being a huge fan of Pearl Jam’s first release, this follow-up exceeded my expectations and further cemented my fandom for the group.

When listening to albums, I always suggest enjoying them on a nice Hi-Fi stereo system or on a portable device with a good pair of headphones. The original release of Vs. sounds near perfect in my opinion. But some listeners might be tempted with the more modern “Deluxe Edition”, which contains a number of extra tracks (including the fan favorite “Crazy Mary”). But, like so many remasters, this release cranks up the volume to a point that, to me, makes the album nearly un-listenable. Sadly, this has become a major problem. These days, many “remasters” actually ends up being an inferior product. So keep that in mind if you decide to pick up a copy for yourself.

When listening to a record, always listen from start to finish. Some songs tend to be more enjoyable when following the song preceding them. Put the record on while you’re driving, or doing house work. Let it play in the background. Listen it to a few times. Some records need to grow on you. Don’t skip around. Even if a particular song doesn’t grab you right away, let it play through. Your opinion may change.

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