Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pearl Jam

Sound Familiar?

“Jeremy,” “Even Flow,” “Better Man”

Who Are They?

Arguably the most successful (and radio-friendly) band of the Big Four Grunge Acts©.

It all started with Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament, and a little band called Green River in the mid-‘80s. When that project disbanded, Stone and Jeff teamed up with Andrew Wood to form another little band called Mother Love Bone. After Andrew’s unfortunate death in 1990, Mother Love Bone called it quits and Stone and Jeff began jamming with prospective Pearl Jammer Mike McCready. Then they realized that not having a drummer or a singer was kind of counterproductive.

Cue gas station employee Eddie Vedder. Eddie was already the lead vocalist for a local band called Bad Radio when he received a demo tape from Stone and the gang. He recorded vocals for three songs (including a little ditty called “Alive”) and sent the tape back. Stone, Jeff, and Mike’s collective eargasm resulted in Eddie's being flown to Seattle, where he auditioned (was there really any need for an audition?) and joined the band within a week.

Before Pearl Jam took off, Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell approached Stone and Jeff with the intention of collaborating on a few tribute songs for Andrew Wood. This project ended up as the short-lived band Temple of the Dog. Eddie and Soundgarden/future Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron also joined in. So before we had Pearl Jam, we had a pretty rad supergroup (which I guess wasn’t really a supergroup at the time because nobody had any idea who Eddie Vedder was).

But back to the Pearl Jam chronicles. When the boys finally settled on Dave Krusen as their drummer, they needed a name. Mookie Blaylock, anyone? No? Well, that was their first choice. Unfortunately, the name was trademarked (by a basketball team, if you’ll believe it), so Pearl Jam was used instead.

As the band began to record their landmark debut Ten in 1991, Dave decided to check into rehab. Matt Chamberlain replaced him, but ended up leaving after only a handful of shows to join the Saturday Night Live band. Dave Abbruzzese stepped in as a replacement for the rest of the tour.

When Ten was released (the same month as Nirvana’s Nevermind), sales were slow, but eventually exploded by the second half of 1992. The album stayed on the Billboard charts for more than two years and success came in wave after luxurious wave.

But Pearl Jam began to grow uncomfortable with all the popularity, especially Eddie. Tensions between the band and their label mounted when the boys refused to make a video for “Black.” When Cameron Crowe asked them why for his Rolling Stone article, Jeff explained, “Ten years from now, I don’t want people to remember our songs as videos.” (This is kind of ironic considering the band’s biggest single, “Jeremy,” spawned an intensely controversial music video).

Eddie and the gang continued to stick it to the man when they boycotted Ticketmaster for adding a service charge to tickets for their shows. They refused to be seen as a commercial product, so they stopped making music videos and releasing singles.

But not everyone in the group agreed with all this boycotting business. Dave was wary of the Ticketmaster nonsense, so he was promptly dismissed from the band after Vitalogy was recorded. Former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Jack Irons replaced him.

The Vitalogy tour ended being a disaster because of the Ticketmaster fiasco. Surprisingly (or maybe not), no other bands joined Pearl Jam in the boycott, and they were forced to play shows outside of the US for the next three years. Apparently Ticketmaster is a sponsor for virtually every venue in America. Weird, right?

No Code and Yield did not come even remotely close to the success of Ten or Vs., although the single “Do the Evolution” from Yield was accompanied by the band’s first music video since 1992.

As the ‘90s came to a close, Jack ditched Pearl Jam and was replaced by Matt Cameron (who was initially temporary, but became a permanent member because, hey, what else are you gonna do when a band like Soundgarden breaks up?)

Where Are They Now?

Still fighting the good fight and selling out stadiums (even the ones affiliated with Ticketmaster).

In 2000, Pearl Jam released Binaural, an experimental effort with some pretty dark lyrics. The somber aura surrounding the album came to a head when nine fans were crushed underfoot and suffocated to death at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark.

That same year, the band celebrated their tenth anniversary with a three-hour set at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. After ten years together, it was time for a break.

Fast-forward one year. Pearl Jam went back to the studio to record Riot Act and also released a few b-sides for use in movies like Big Fish.

Fed up with their previous label’s shenanigans, the band made the decision to move to J Records to release their self-titled album in 2006. During the tour in support of Pearl Jam, the boys headlined both Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. That’s right. Two major festivals. In the same year.

Their latest album, Backspacer, was released in 2009, along with a video for the album’s first single “The Fixer,” directed by Cameron Crowe. (Note to journalists: If you write a story about Pearl Jam for a major music magazine, you will be able to direct one of their music videos. This may or may not be true.)

But Why Pearl Jam?

Eddie and the boys are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year with a Labor Day festival (might I suggest the name Pearl Jamapalooza 2011?). It will also feature Queens of the Stone Age, Mudhoney, and various other acts. Oh, and there’s talk of a new album soon. But we’ll just concentrate on the present (even though you’re probably all giddy with excitement about new Pearl Jam material now).

What Does Sam Think?

To be honest, I just consider myself a casual Pearl Jam fan. That is slightly problematic when it comes to seeing this band live (which I did).

You can’t be a casual fan at one of these concerts. Why? Because Pearl Jam plays for the die-hards, something most bands don’t really consider. Say you’re in a fairly successful band. You’ve had a few hits that earned some heavy airplay. You’re going to play those hits at each show because that’s what your fans want to hear. And everyone is happy because they know a couple songs during your set.

This is not what Pearl Jam does. Pearl Jam plays the deepest cuts imaginable and discards most of their biggest hits. You may still hear “Alive” and “Black,” but forget about “Jeremy.” That may never see the light of day again, outside of your iTunes library.

That being said, I can’t judge Pearl Jam too harshly since I’m not a die-hard fan. I do enjoy Ten, though (who doesn’t?). But if I had to rank the Big Four Grunge Acts© by how obsessed I am with them, Pearl Jam is at the bottom. That isn’t because I dislike the band. They do make great music. I’ve just kind of overlooked them because they didn’t jump out at me.

I can hear people calling blasphemy right now. I know critics pretty much fawn over Pearl Jam (kind of like Radiohead, but slightly more subdued), and they probably have good reason. I will admit that certain songs (“Better Man”) have successfully won me over, but Pearl Jam’s catalogue as a whole is kind of lukewarm to me.

Now feel free to pelt me with rocks and copies of Vs.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Smashing Pumpkins

Sound Familiar?

“Today,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “1979”

Who Are They?

The pleasant (yet still very angsty) alternative to grunge. (An alternative to an alternative genre? How novel!)

This is a story of romance, success, and general jackassery. Actually, that kind of makes things seem a little too epic. Most of this drama comes from one person, and that person is Billy Corgan.

He’s no Liam Gallagher, but that still doesn’t make him a saint.

But let’s not point fingers here (we’ll get to that later). Let’s start at the beginning, way back in 1988, when Billy Corgan met James Iha and a band of epic proportions was born. D’arcy Wretzky was recruited as the bassist and ended up having a short-lived love affair with James. For the band’s first official show, they decided to use a drum machine instead of an actual drummer, which really wasn’t a surprise considering Billy and James’ obsession with The Cure.

When drummer Jimmy Chamberlin finally joined the group, he felt a little out of place. He knew nothing about alternative rock, and was certainly clueless as to what the hell Billy meant by “sad-rock.” But Jimmy eventually opened everyone’s eyes to a much harder sound, helping to create a sound that got the Smashing Pumpkins compared to Jane’s Addiction.

Their 1991 debut album Gish was only a minor success, although the single “Rhinoceros” got some mainstream airplay. During the recording process, Billy was determined to make the album perfect. So he played most of the instruments himself. Nobody else really appreciated that.

During the tour behind Gish, problems galore began to arise. James and D’arcy went through a messy breakup, Jimmy became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and Billy went into a deep depression. Inter-band tensions continued to mount during the recording of the Pumpkins’ infinitely more successful follow-up Siamese Dream.

Despite being adored by critics, the Pumpkins faced hostility and general distaste from the alternative rock community. Instead of just being called sellouts (as is custom among music elitists and people who are jealous of others’ success…did that sound bitter?), they were dubbed “the grunge Monkees” and labeled as “careerists.” In the 1994 song “Range Life,” Pavement lead singer Stephen Malkmus refers to the band with the lines, “I don’t understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck.” Stephen maintained that he was just dissing the band’s status and not their music.

After a massive amount of touring (including a slot on the 1994 Lollapalooza tour), it was back to the studio to record what would become the adventurous concept album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The Pumpkins exploded into the mainstream with singles like “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and “1979.” Malls all over the country started selling Billy’s iconic “Zero” shirt and MTV played Mellon Collie’s singles to death.

Towards the end of the Mellon Collie era, Jimmy was arrested for heroin possession and was fired from the band as a result. Billy, James, and D’arcy recorded the electronica-influenced Adore without Jimmy and adopted a darker look to match the albums gothic undertones. The Pumpkins ended the decade by simultaneously reuniting with Jimmy and ditching D’arcy for good.

Where Are They Now?

The name remains, but the lineup is not the same (that rhyme was unintentional and I’m actually laughing at myself for it).

The year 2000 marked the beginning of the end of the original Smashing Pumpkins. Former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Mauer replaced D’arcy on the tour supporting Machina/The Machines of God. The album was a welcome return to the more traditional rock sound of previous albums. After the release of Machina II/The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, the band called it quits.

Billy and Jimmy reunited to form the short-lived supergroup Zwan in 2001. Zwan only released one album, then Billy presumably got bored with it and released a solo album titled TheFutureEmbrace. Jimmy started an alternative/jazz fusion band called The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, James enjoyed a brief stint as the guitarist for A Perfect Circle, and D’arcy disappeared off the face of the earth. This is, until she was arrested in February 2011 (check out the lovely mugshot).

On February 17, 2004, Billy basically disowned the entire band on his personal blog. He called D’arcy a “mean-spirited drug addict” and blamed the breakup on James. Now that’s not a way to make friends, kids.

In 2005, Billy announced a Smashing Pumpkins reunion. And everyone lived happily ever after.

Just kidding. James and D’arcy refused to be anywhere near Billy, but Jimmy agreed to the reunion. Billy and Jimmy recruited bassist Ginger Pooley and guitarist Jeff Schroeder and released Zeitgeist in 2007. The album received mixed reviews, but Billy assured fans that the best was yet to come. That was after Jimmy left and Billy became the lone member of the band.

But Why Smashing Pumpkins?

Billy’s massive Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project is being released one song at a time. In the meantime, he’ll release another Smashing Pumpkins album titled Oceania, set to be dropped on September 1. How do I know all this? I happen to stalk him on Twitter.

What Does Sam Think?

Let me just say this: the Smashing Pumpkins are not the same band without James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky, and Jimmy Chamberlin. Of course the original lineup will never reunite because we live in a bleak, unfair world. And because no one can get along with Billy Corgan.

Now, Billy may be kind of a dick, but he’s a great musician. I guess I’m just slightly bitter because when I saw the Pumpkins live, I was just seeing Billy. I’d like to think of any band as a group effort and not just a superstar at the forefront with some nobodies behind him. But I do still respect Billy as an artist. The man is responsible for one of my favorite albums of all time, for God’s sake.

So let’s talk about the music, shall we? In case you weren’t aware, I’m in love with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. “I’m in love with my sadness” just went through my head as I wrote that. I’m now having a “Zero” moment.

Anyway, the Pumpkins have (or had, at least) this innate ability to mix so-called “gothic” lyrics and imagery with some absolutely beautiful instrumentation. So what’s the difference between the Smashing Pumpkins and The Cure? Aside from the lack of a synthesizer and Robert Smith’s crazy hair, the Pumpkins have a certain hardness related to their style. They kind of got lumped into the whole grunge movement, but they definitely didn’t belong there (really the only connection they had to grunge was Billy’s relationship with Courtney Love, not that it has any merit).

It’s almost impossible to go back to the sounds on Gish and Siamese Dream. The early albums contain the purity of the Pumpkins’ signature sound. Mellon Collie found them at their peak of their creativity, but things unfortunately went downhill as the original lineup disintegrated.

Moral of the story: Being in a band is like being in a marriage; if one person starts taking all the credit, he’ll just be left making beautiful music by himself (in his mom’s basement surrounded by cats).

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.