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Monday, September 14, 2009

Front To Back(Spacer) Review

Pearl Jam's new album Backspacer is due in Target stores, as well as independent retailers, this Sunday September 20th. Thanks to a plethora of sources that have leaked the album online, I already have the full album surging through my earphones and will be sharing a track-by-track preview of the album. Of course, I will be at my local Target bright and early Sunday morning because I still support artists by purchasing their music.

It is only out of sheer impatience that I am taking advantage of this leak, but I urge everyone out there to go buy the album and support the artists that make the music you love. New releases are only $9.99 at Target and Best Buy, and some independent retailers like Dimple Records in the Sacramento area. Long gone are the days when music fans have to shell out 16 bucks for a new CD, now that retail giants like Tower Records have met their demise. I'm not saying that any given album may not be worth that much money. Pearl Jam's eight previous albums if purchased at $15 bucks a piece comes out to $135. I got most of them for less but I would have paid more than double that price for all they've given me. The point is that a great album can be enjoyed for several years and you'll get much more out of it than the must-have Coach purse that will end up in the bottom of your closet and every artist deserves to be paid for their work.

Backspacer is Pearl Jam's ninth studio release, not counting compilations or live material, and the first since their 1998 release Yield to be recorded with producer Brendan O'Brien. He reconnected with the band when he helped put together the reissue of the band's classic album Ten with a remixed version of the album combined with the remastered original, in various packages and formats. It was sometime in July when I heard parts of the first single "The Fixer" during a baseball TV spot, and started scouring the Internet for more clips. It wasn't long before I heard the full song and then saw them perform "Got Some" on the premiere of the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. Soon after, clips of other songs started popping up everywhere and the September release date finally started to feel within reach. Here is my review of the album, track by track.

1. Gonna See My Friend
This strong opening of the album opener, much like "Breakerfall" did for Binaural, tells you that these guys are energized and ready to have some fun. Eddie's abrasive, shouted delivery gives the song an in-your-face presence without being excessive. The song ends, just as frantically as it began, at a concise 2:48.

2. Got Some
I love this track for many reasons; immediately for the fact that Jeff's bass playing jumps out at you and it's great to hear him so prominently. The layers of Mike and Stone on guitar over Jeff's bass and Matt's drums are both chaotic and systematic at the same time. I love the growl in Eddie's vocals and as they mix with Jeff's heavy bass lines I immediately feel a heavy punk influence. As mentioned before, it was performed on Conan O' Brien's show but until hearing it on the album you can't really appreciate this track. One of my favorites on the album, coming in at exactly 3:00.

3. The Fixer
By the way this track opens, I picture this as a better album opener for the way it draws you straight in. An obvious first single, it reveals itself as optimistic and even "pop", never falling short of making its mark as the first track most listeners will want to hear again. The track has been unusually described as "Super poppy", "Just plain fun", "Surprisingly optimistic" and "Catchy as hell" by the media while others have speculated that President Obama is the subject of the song (the fixer). I love how the track "begins again" as it approaches the 2 minute mark just long enough to run the chorus again for those who aren't ready for it to end. This track lives up to all of the unexpected praise it's received and feels like a significant change in the direction of the band, accomplished in just 2:56.

4. Johnny Guitar
The energy continues with this track, vocals dipping and rising along with swaying guitars and nice pace change just past the 1:00 mark with thick spacial guitars and deep bass lines. Another heavy hitter and my favorite on the album; fades out just before 2:50.

5. Just Breathe
This track sounds as if it were an outtake from Eddie's Into The Wild soundtrack album and the acoustic guitar reminds me of "Dust In The Wind" by Kansas which is met with organ and later by Jeff's bass and a string arrangement. The first "slow" track on the album, definitely up there with the best of its kind in their catalog. This could be a good pre-show warm up song for Eddie to play at their shows like he's done with tracks like "Dead Man", and is the first track on the album to break the 3-minute mark at 3:33.

6. Amongst The Waves
A nicely paced track with Jeff's bass front and center again, the track ironically builds like a wave (think "Given To Fly" from Yield) as it reaches a crescendo. Excellent guitar solo from Mike McCready, which I'm sure he'll shred on live, ending to the lyric "riding high amongst the waves". One of the longer tracks on the album, just shy of 4:00.

7. Unthought Known
Intro nearly reminiscent of "Love Boat Captain" from Riot Act with strumming guitar beneath Eddie's building vocals, rising with piano and drums before exploding into a beautiful peak with all members coming together, eventually returning to single guitar following Eddie's voice to the finish at 4:08.

8. Supersonic
Fast, fun, furious, reminds me of "Mankind" from No Code. The song goes faster and faster (true to its name) until it breaks down to an incredible heavy jam, with a nice McCready solo thrown in, before returning to its locomotive pace as it comes to the close at 2:36.

9. Speed Of Sound
Starts off like a slow ballad before a beat kicks in, a very different track from nearly anything they've done before. I think a more stripped down version may have suited the song better as the beat seems a bit forced; rounds out at 3:30.

10. Force Of Nature
A paced drum intro reminds me of "Urgent" from Foreigner just before the buzzing guitars give way to Eddie's vocals, later interlaced with that familiar click of the cowbell. I really enjoy this track, for no particular reason beyond the fact that it's just a solid track, lyrically and musically. The pace and vocal styling could be compared to Steve Winwood's "While You See A Chance"; track comes to a close at 4:02.

11. The End
The closing track, a sweeping ballad filled with strings behind Eddie's soaring vocals and acoustic guitar. A bit haunting at times, admittedly by Eddie himself from interviews, the track ends abruptly at 2:52 after the line "I'm here, but not much longer".

You'll notice I included the duration of each track, simply to elaborate on something Eddie has mentioned in their "Backspacer short" video, in which he said "we've certainly made our excessive records". Guitarist Mike McCready went on to say that the album is "tight and concise." The total duration of the whole album is just past 36 minutes, and that wouldn't usually matter until you consider bands like Metallica who boast 70 minutes plus on their albums and it may make some people feel short-changed to wait for a new release that you can play all the way through on a moderate work commute. That is definitely not the case with this album because however brief it may seem, it makes up for it in all the right ways. I highly suggest setting aside 40 minutes for yourself uninterrupted to find a pair of nice headphones and give this album your full attention.

The Ten album is easily a classic and a huge fan favorite, but I have held Yield to be my personal favorite album since its release. I was at the midnight sale the night before its release date and played it endlessly for days. I still love it tremendously, and "Given To Fly" was the inspiration for a poem I wrote for a family who lost their son. I'm not sure if it's purely coincidence that this is the first album since my beloved Yield done with O'Brien, but I have to say after hearing this album it is growing on my quickly and could be a close tie with Yield. This is an excellent Pearl Jam album that any fan of rock music, not just of Pearl Jam, should have in their collection.

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