Lost Dogs: Is Pearl Jam’s bark worse than its bite?
While no one was looking, Pearl Jam became the band they always wanted to be. Their career trajectory has been fascinating to watch. The hype of the bullshit machine that helped their debut album conquer MTV and radio also did its best to swallow them.
Most artists spend a lifetime trying to reach the heights from which Pearl Jam ran. U2 hammered out a blueprint for being a big band with big ideas on a big stage. Pearl Jam modified this blueprint over the years and became a band with big ideas on a (mostly) smaller stage. They managed to survive a dizzying number of music industry earthquakes (and a Spinal Tap-esque revolving door of drummers) over a 12-year period. Their return to the underground may have been what saved them.
Eddie Vedder & Co. rode the spin cycle and lived to tell about it.
More than 10 years after their meteoric rise to the top of the charts, the rarities collection, Lost Dogs (31 songs spread over two discs) is a revelation.
Many of the band’s early songs were all passion, no heart (you know, the whole sound-fury-signifying-nothing bit). Pearl Jam was like a flannel-clad Linus, serious and conscience driven to the point of pretentiousness (but nowhere near as endearing as the blanketed one). Their own sincerity was their message. Screaming guitars and tortured wails were the tools used to pound the passion into each song and the listeners into dejected submission.
All of this added up to some fantastic songs on wearisome albums. Vitalogy and No Code have some magnificent moments, but I would not listen to either of those albums from beginning to end at gunpoint.
Lost Dogs is in many ways a breath of fresh air. Many of these songs are more than the dour bitchfests Pearl Jam has been churning out for so many years. Maturity and experience have added layers to the music.
Subtlety has given their work depth, and not a moment too soon.
The reasons these songs did not make it on the albums they were recorded for are what make the songs such great listening experiences. This is the album many have waited for Pearl Jam to make. Lost Dogs could be Pearl Jam’s Greatest Hits if they had hits. Instead it’s just great.
The opening trio of “All Night,” “Down” and “Sad” is one of the strongest sections of the set.
“All Night” has the familiar, driving sound Pearl Jam has perfected on songs like “Spin the Black Circle” and “Go.” “Sad” is a mid-tempo track with one of Mike McCready’s better guitar solos. It defies preconceived notions of what a Pearl Jam song named “Sad” might sound like.
The buoyancy in Vedder’s vocals and a nice use of vocal overdubs on the chorus serve as sonic sweetener. The song is much less obvious (and better) without the overwrought sense of drama. Pearl Jam has taken a “Sad” song and made it better.
The blistering guitars of “Alone” atone for the bland “Hitchhiker” and the silly “Don’t Gimme No Lip.” Pearl Jam has never been known as a particularly rhythmic band, but “In the Moonlight” opens with a tight groove. The groove is accented by hints of keyboard and then gives way to an understated chorus.
The inclusion of “Yellow Ledbetter” will be the highlight of the first disc for many fans. “Yellow Ledbetter” has for years enjoyed a mythical status akin to Radiohead’s “True Love Waits.” It is one of those songs that got away, but has been a fan favorite in concert. The riff is a cousin to Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing.” (On the band’s Seattle #72 bootleg from their Binaural world tour, McCready weaves Hendrix’s masterpiece into their performance of “Yellow Ledbetter.”) and the lyrics are an indecipherable stream of consciousness by Eddie Vedder. A B-side that got considerable airplay on alternative radio stations in the early and mid 90’s, “Yellow Ledbetter” might be the most significant justification for releasing the package.
Perhaps the best segment of the collection comes on the second disc. “Fatal,” “Other Side,” “Footsteps,” “Wash,” and “Dead Man” are some of the finest songs Pearl Jam have wrought. Their exclusion from previous Pearl Jam releases until now is inexplicable. “Fatal,” “Other Side” and “Footsteps” are astonishing, acoustic-based songs. There is a warmth and wistfulness in Vedder’s voice as he opens “Other Side” with the refrain “It’s not the same without you.” Pearl Jam has learned to affect without bombast.
Imagine how songs on “‘Lost Dogs’” would have impacted the albums for which they were originally recorded. “Sad,” “In the Moonlight,” and “Fatal” were recorded during the Binaural sessions. Binaural could easily have been one of the best releases of 2000 if these songs replaced three others from that album. Even “Education” would have been an improvement over some of the more forgettable moments on Binaural. Riot Act was a very good album and would have been even better if “Down” and “Other Side” had made the cut. (These oversights can now be corrected, thanks to the advent of the iPod.)
“4/20/02,” a bonus track, will be an important song to any fan of the early 90s alternative scene. April 20, 2002 is the day Alice in Chains’ front man Layne Staley was found dead in his Seattle-area apartment. Staley died of a drug overdose. His body lay undiscovered for approximately two weeks according to a coroner’s report. His death may have come eight years to the date of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. For this one, Vedder has not gone through the trouble of writing opaque lyrics that hide his feelings in riddles. Unfiltered emotion flows through the words with only electric guitar accompanying his vocals.
The lyrics seem to be written with two Staleys in mind: the powerful lead singer of a respected band, and the lost soul who was a friend and peer. The song is bookended with lyrics about the first Staley. Vedder’s voice drips with sorrow and resignation as he sings the opening lines: “So all of you fools that sing just like him/ feel free to do so now, ‘cause he’s dead.” The sentiment is revisited with slightly more venom to end the song.
The song does more than chide Alice in Chains clones. The sentiment of a simple line, like “lonesome friend we all knew/ always hoped you’d pull through” makes the tribute sadder with each listen. “4/20/02” is a fitting eulogy to both a friend and an era.
Pearl Jam is the only band of the grunge movement to have made it through the decade (more or less) intact. Shifting taste and changing mood are largely responsible for the demise of most of the other bands, but there is no denying that the pain of addiction took a heavy toll on the 90s music scene.
So, what’s not to like about Lost Dogs? Not much. The band ignored the two gems from the Singles soundtrack. (This, too, has been corrected with my handy, dandy iPod.) “Breath” and “State of Love and Trust” are two of the best Pearl Jam songs and need to be available on a proper Pearl Jam release. Live versions of both can be found on many of the official Pearl Jam bootleg albums. The band’s collaboration with Neil Young is not represented on the package either. Lastly, the hidden track “4/20/02” is tacked onto the end of “Bee Girl,” making it inconvenient to find.
Lost Dogs restores faith in Pearl Jam’s ability to continue recording good, sometimes great songs. It teases us into believing they might be capable of another great album if they can learn which songs belong on albums and which ones should be relegated to leftover status.