erasing clouds

Pearl Jam, Binaural

by Erin Hucke

I'm a closet Pearl Jam fan. There, I've said it. I've had to keep my fanship quiet since the middle '90s when PJ's status started slipping from innovative, indie grunge rock to music that seeps out of fraternity house windows (a less-than-desirable quality, for sure). They're the kind of band I'm embarrassed to admit I listen to, not to mention like, for fear of being categorized as simple-minded. Maybe I'm just too cautious of what other people think of my musical habits, but Pearl Jam have become passe in snobbish independent music circles.

The world has changed a lot in the past decade. The music scene has changed a lot in the past decade. Pearl Jam hasn't changed much. Which is exactly why I think they've remained popular -- people, generally, don't want things to change. They don't want time to pass. They don't want to discover new things. They don't want to get older. So they hang onto their youth. They hang onto the things that they loved as teenagers. (Which would explain the large current frat boy fan population of Pearl Jam.)

In addition to their keg-party following, it's a shame that Eddie Vedder's voice holds such a sense of nostalgia that some people regard Pearl Jam's new material as irrelevant or unlistenable. Despite the new songs that sound like they could have been written for Vs. or Vitalogy, (not that's a bad thing, just not very progressive), a minority of their new songs are really good, in a year 2000 way. Songs like "Of The Girl" and "Nothing As It Seems," or actually, the five songs mixed by Tchad Blake on Binaural (some were mixed by longtime Pearl Jam producer Brendan O'Brien whose production services were kindly dropped in lieu of Blake's.) are an amazing break from the hard-edge, headbanger rock so associated with their name.

Perhaps the reason Pearl Jam themselves have hung onto the grunge (which has just been absorbed and reclassified as plain old "rock") this long is their own fear of change. When will they figure out it's when they don't try to sound like stereotypical Pearl Jam, they get really interesting? Eastern influences begin to surface (as they did in No Code). The sound gets less brash and more expansive, and definitely more inviting.

While "Soon Forget," a Vedder solo song on ukelele, may simply be a goof akin to "Bugs" from Vitalogy, it's a lot more interesting than listening to "Whipping" re-written for the 11th time. And hidden song "Writer's Block" which is just a close-up recording of a typewriter (a favorite toy of Vedder), at first sounds like a group of Irish dancers, their hard-soled shoes clicking in a rhythmic pattern on the floor. Neat, Eddie.

As for Binaural, it's more or less the same as any other Pearl Jam album. If you liked them before, you'll probably like this one. And if you've never liked them, you probably won't start to by listening to the new album. But for those of you like me who long for something a little more innovative from PJ's creative potential pools, less than one-half of this album will satisfy your desires.

Maybe someday Eddie Vedder and crew will run off and make crazy experimental records and it will be cool to like them again. Not only could I proudly step out of the closet, claiming, "I knew they would be back all along." I would be a lot happier knowing they are using some of their collective talent for originality and not just rehashing "Leash" again. Maybe someday.

Issue 2, July 2000 | next article

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