By Chris Moore:
I think we’ve all heard the term “deep track,” used to refer to songs that do not receive much (or any) commercial radio airplay. This series is dedicated to brief but focused reports on ALBUMS that do not receive as much commercial or critical attention as they should.
RELATED LAPTOP SESSIONS: Chris – “Thin Air” (chords included!)
When Pearl Jam released Binaural in 2000, they were met with solid sales — #2 on Billboard in the first week of its release — and decent critical reception — Rolling Stone gave it the 3.5 out of 5 stars nod. For any other band, this may have been exciting. However, for Pearl Jam, #2 on the Billboard 200 could be considered a minimum expectation, as even their debut album had hit that position. As for the critical reception, Rolling Stone had rated all of their previous albums (except their first two, which had not been rated) a full four stars. This may seem a minor change from 4 to 3.5, but it is a significant one. The subtext? Binaural is somehow inferior to Pearl Jam’s previous releases.
Fast forward to 2009, and let’s talk dollar signs. I’m not referring to album sales — although Binaural is infamously the first Pearl Jam album to fail to reach platinum status, never mind the 7x and 5x platinum statistics of Vs. and Vitalogy respectively or the 12x platinum(!) heights of Ten. I’m referring to the sticker price. The average retail value in stores like Best Buy and Circuit City — stores at which the average for CDs is largely in the $12.99 – $14.99 range — is $5.99. Even on Amazon.com, the price is higher (albeit a measly $1) at $6.99. What does that say about this album, a fully studio-produced main catalog Pearl Jam release, that its retail value is less than half of the average price one would expect?
While I can’t tell you why it is valued for so low, I can report that this is an excellent album! Admittedly, I purchased it during Circuit City’s store closing sale for only $4. I didn’t expect to like it. Rather, I wanted to get my feet wet with a Pearl Jam record before listening to their debut Ten when it is remastered and re-released later this month. After a couple listens — and contrary to my expectations — I’ve become hooked on this album. Right out of the plastic, the packaging is a positive sign — a three-fold digipack with full lyrics reproduced as images of typewritten and handwritten notes. From the breakneck pace of the first track “Breakerfall” to the sad, soothing sound of the final track “Parting Ways,” the sequence of this album is just right. The first three tracks are among my favorites on the album (“Evacuation” is possibly the best, most rocking track on the album) and make me reconsider every time I want to take it out of my CD player after a full rotation. “Light Years” slows it all down and (contrary to Rolling Stone‘s criticisms) unwinds into an excellent ballad of sorts. The single “Nothing As It Seems” comes next, which I do like, although I couldn’t tell you why this particular track was chosen as the single when there were so many other excellent choices.
For three more tracks, the pace is heavy and slower, but these are some excellent tracks — “Thin Air” (see above for the link to the Laptop Session version), the show-stopping “Insignificance,” and “Of The Girl.” Truth be told, the next trio of songs are the only sequence on the album that I could do without. The energy of “Grievance” and “Rival” are undeniable — the latter won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance — and “Sleight of Hand” is a nice lead-up to the final two songs on the album, but I can see why one might have seen Pearl Jam treading water with these tracks. Then again, taking the Grammy into consideration, perhaps my opinion is simply the opposite of all paid critics.
The album ends slowly with “Parting Ways,” but the final highlight of the album — the song that first made me perk up and pay attention lyrically — is the penultimate track “Soon Forget.” It’s just Eddie Vedder and a ukulele, but it’s so much more. The arrangement fits the song perfectly, as Vedder sings about a man who “trades his soul for a Corvette,” “trades his love for hi-rise rent,” and is ultimately “living a day he’ll soon forget.” As the song concludes with his funeral scene, Vedder sings, “He’s stiffening. We’re all whistling, a man we’ll soon forget…”
Granted this is my first Pearl Jam album experience, but if the other albums are so much better, then I can’t wait to hear them! There’s nothing wrong with this album, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the drastically reduced retail price or ho-hum reviews (Rolling Stone was so distracted that the review is largely a commentary on late 90s pop music, framed by a comparison between Matchbox Twenty and Pearl Jam). Based on the quality of individual tracks and on the thoughtful sequencing of the album as a whole, Binaural is more than worth your time!