About this time two years ago, Seattle grunge champions Pearl Jam remastered and put out an excellent deluxe edition of its first album, Ten, complete with a DVD featuring the band’s immensely popular MTV Unplugged set.
As of this week, as part of the ongoing celebration of Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary, Epic Records and Legacy Recordings are putting out remastered editions of the quintet’s second and third records (Vs. and Vitalogy, respectively) as part of one package, each with three bonus tracks to round them out. There are two other ways to get this package, including a limited edition box set that includes remastered vinyl (5 LPs), among other valuables, available exclusively at pearljam.com.
This review covers the Vs. & Vitalogy 3 CD Deluxe Edition, the third disc being a real treat in the form of a live show from my hometown of Boston on April 12, 1994.
As far as albums go, it’s hard to top a perfect debut album with another perfect record following it. But Pearl Jam jammed out two completely classic albums in a row, with Ten in 1991 and Vs. in 1993. The difference between the two is not just found in the songwriting, but in attitude. Where the first record mixed some dark themes with a little Doors and Led Zeppelin/Kiss-influenced guitar rock, its sophomore effort absolutely slammed your speakers with the most angry and aggressive album it would ever record.
Tracks like the screamin’ hard rock of “Blood,” the headbanging heaviness of hit single “Animal,” and the urgent and (tuning-wise) heaviest track of all, lead-off track “Go” are just some examples of Pearl Jam’s laudable loud tunes.
Of course, some of the band’s most celebrated soft songs are represented here as well, with the child abuse-themed “Daughter” and the folk hit “Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town.”
Perhaps the remastered edition could have done without bonus track “Hold On,” since it was already available on a previous compilation (Lost Dogs). However, ending it with a rockin’ instrumental, “Creedy Stomp,” and hit Victoria Williams cover “Crazy Mary (w/Williams)” (originally from the Sweet Relief compilation) was a smooth move on PJ’s part.
Classic as this (1994-released) record is, it still confounds me to this day. The last time I listened to it was on vinyl form and as a teenager in the mid-’90s who was just learning to appreciate the warm, full sound of records. That’s how long it’s been! So it’s good to get another chance at the whole darn thing, this time in CD form, remastered and with a few outtakes.
First track “Last Exit” has some meaty chords and a rapid, ringing guitar riff in the breakdown section that still sounds a bit Edge-y (as in U2). The band’s furious, punk energy blasts out of your speakers on “Spin The Black Circle,” a pro-vinyl song written well before it became cool again to buy vinyl records. Those tracks, along with (radio hit) “Not For You,” “Satan’s Bed” and “Tremor Christ” showed the band had not lost its ability to rock hard with authority.
The personal “Better Man,” which was written by Vedder well before his time in Pearl Jam but made complete with church organ runs and great production and “Corduroy” were hits and remained staples in Pearl Jam sets over the years. “Immortality” is also very much a timeless staple in the Pearl Jam catalog, especially with Mike McCready’s bluesy solo at its apex.
The downers on Vitalogy then are still downers now, with the silly, accordion-led “Bugs,” the strange “Aya Davanita” and final track “Hey Foxy…” being examples of filler material/interludes that interrupt and sort of ruin an otherwise near-perfect third album. I’m sure I wasn’t then and am not now the only PJ fan who says “WTF were they thinking?” every time I hear those tracks.
Unfortunately, they are still on the LP but at least with this re-issue, three previously unreleased outtakes end the album in a much more enjoyable fashion: “Better Man” (with vocals, guitar and organ-only), “Corduroy” (alternate take) and “Nothingman” (demo).
Live At The Orpheum Theater, Boston, MA April 12, 1994:
I was looking forward to this part of the release, but if you are like me, you have many Pearl Jam shows as bootlegs or official concert releases. So, inclusions like this show require a higher standard than most. This show in particular is significant not just because it was recorded at a venue known for its fantastic sound (the Orpheum Theater in Boston) but because it occurred just days after the suicide of fellow Seattle friend, music icon and Generation X trendsetter Kurt Cobain.
According to setlist.fm, there were 24 songs performed during this show, but unfortunately, only 16 were included for this release (over 75 minutes worth of a near two-hour show). What did make the cut were lively, spot-on performances that would fit on any live PJ release, plus some real rare treats, including the RHCP-eque “Dirty Frank,” a heavy cover of Neil Young’s Ragged Glory classic “F***in’ Up,” and an all-electric guitar version of “Elderly Woman…” to close the release out.
The biggest treat of them all was a surprise cameo from Mark Arm of Mudhoney, who guests on a truly blistering, hardcore run through Dead Boys cover “Sonic Reducer.” With a performance that raw and rough and with Arm, a legend from the Seattle music scene (who started out with Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard in Seattle’s now legendary early grunge/hard rock/punk band Green River in the mid-’80s), it’s no wonder the concert has been so sought after over the years.
Still, what I don’t understand is why, for $25 for the whole package, Epic just didn’t include the whole, two-hour show on two discs, as Vs.-era cuts like “Go,” “Animal,” Vitalogy tunes like “Better Man” and other essentials like “State of Love And Trust” were left off, as was the real show closer, a cover of The Beatles’ rocker “I’ve Got A Feeling.”
These albums sounded terrific to begin with (thanks to producer Brendan O’Brien), so they didn’t need a whole lot of remastering. That said, there does seem to be a more even balance in sound when it comes to hearing multiple layers of guitar parts (as in “Daughter”), and the drums seem to be a bit richer all around. And Jeff Ament’s bass sound in “Go” has so much loud action to it that it resembles a mac truck coming through your stereo system.
The Bottom Line:
Vs. and Vitalogy, like Ten before them, are landmark Pearl Jam albums essential for any fan. The band has pretty much emptied the vaults on those eras, so what bonus tracks were included only slightly enhance the releases but are otherwise not that essential (unless you are the type that needs to have all PJ demos and outtakes). My only true disappointment is in the bonus disc, and that isn’t based on what was included but what was excluded (one-third of the 24-song Boston set). That said, I still highly recommend this release, but only to Pearl Jam fans who don’t already have these albums on CD (as opposed to vinyl and cassette), in which case this new release is indeed a worthy upgrade.