The Deep Racks Report: “Binaural”

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, 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!

Music Review: Bruce Springsteen’s “Working On A Dream”

Working On A Dream has all the best qualities of his previous three albums

RATING:  4 / 5 stars

By Chris Moore:

I have to get this out there before I begin:  I have a bias against producer Brendan O’Brien.  I have cringed at the sight of his production credits ever since he took the lead on Rebel, Sweetheart, the Wallflowers’ flat-sounding follow-up to their amazing Red Letter Days album.

That being said, the time for me to forget that association is well past due.

Working On A Dream sounds like you would expect it to sound after Bruce Springsteen’s previous three albums.  And yet I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense.  Rather, it plays like an amalgamation of all the best qualities of his recent work without any of the pitfalls.

Purpose flowed for Springsteen following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the result was a concept album.  On The Rising, there is a sense of “purpose,” to quote a term he used in his recent Rolling Stone interview.  Then there came Devils and Dust, Springsteen’s stripped-down solo effort.  It lacked the production luster of The Rising — rubbed the edges purposely raw, to be more precise — but it was evidence of an artist going back to his roots.  This became even more apparent when he released an album of folk covers called The Seeger Sessions a year later.  I recall having mixed feelings when I reviewed Devils and Dust in 2005, feeling particularly strongly that the album had been overrated.  I still maintain that.

And yet, I’m happy he recorded that album, because I hear echoes of it here.  There are moments on Working On A Dream where you can hear him let go, usually vocally or while playing harmonica.  For those brief moments, the song doesn’t need to be perfect — it needs to feel emotional and real.

So, this new record has the sense of purpose that emanates from The Rising, and there is a maturity only possible after Devils and Dust.  The third predecessor, released in 2007, is Magic.  This is my favorite Springsteen album by far, largely because I enjoy every track time and time again.  There is a pop/rock sensibility on this album that I loved instantly, and I have returned to Magic far more often than any other album he has released recently.

Well, I think Working On A Dream has captured that sensibility as well.  Only time will tell, but there is a variety and vitality to the tracks that I am far from exhausting after five listens in the first twelve hours of owning this album.  Rolling Stone has gone so far as to give it the five-star nod.  I’m not convinced.  A solid four stars?  Absolutely!

The album opens with a somewhat unusual choice, an eight minute track titled “Outlaw Pete.”  Immediately, I can’t help but hear the country/folk tradition that Springsteen has paid homage to recently — with a distinctly E-Street Band rock’n roll edge and beat to it, of course.  I was skeptical at first, but this tale of a toddler who “at six months old [had] done three months in jail” keeps your interest until the final refrain of “Can you hear me?  Can you hear me?”

Fittingly, the album closes with “The Last Carnival,” another character tale, this one about a character named Billy.  Maybe it’s just the Dylan fan in me, but I hear a country/western nod in that name, one which was an integral aspect of Dylan’s soundtrack to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (the same soundtrack that spawned “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” a simpler but similarly  morbid and bittersweet song).

“My Lucky Day” is fast and fun.  The third and title track lumbers along as it opens, Garry Tallent unwinding a great bass line, and works up to a classic Springsteen vocal on the chorus.

There really is no way to take a song titled “Queen of the Supermarket” seriously until you have heard it.  Springsteen transforms the supermarket into a breeding ground for fantasy and poetic descriptions of life, love, and – of course – dreams.  I found myself wondering where the logical conclusion to the song would fall.  I didn’t want them to get together; that would be too contrived.  But I also didn’t want him to leave unsatisfied.  The final lines of the final verse? “As I lift my groceries into my cart, I turn back for a moment and catch a smile that blows this whole fucking place apart.”  It certainly surprised me to hear a swear in a Springsteen song, but it is indeed the perfect ending.

Well, that and the outro that comes complete with synthesized sounds reminiscent of a scanner in a grocery store checkout lane.

The album doesn’t really start until the fifth track.  “What Love Can Do” has it all – cool acoustic guitar strumming, moments of scorching electric guitar, great bass line, catchy beat, and a nice vocal arrangement.  Having mentioned vocal arrangements, it’s difficult not to acknowledge the Beach Boys-esque opening of the next song, “This Life.”  If Magic‘s “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” garnered allusions to Brian Wilson’s work, then this track certainly deserves a comparison.

The album changes direction a bit as “Good Eye” delivers rough vocals and a Devils and Dust-esque harmonica riff.  “Tomorrow Never Knows” (no, not the Beatles song; far from it, in fact!) is the most stripped-down effort on the album and perhaps the most pleasant and soothing.  Springsteen capitalizes on that feeling by following up with his dreamy sounding, poetic “Life Itself.”  Fittingly, the Working On A Dream booklet is — either purposely or not — set up to feature the lyrics to these two songs side by side, the text over a background picture of Springsteen lying in a field, classic Telecaster in hand, fast asleep.

“Kingdom of Days” is one of my favorites on the album, if only for the fact that it is one of the least formulaic, forced love songs that I have heard in some time.  It is cheesy without being too saccharine.

The opening progression of “Surprise, Surprise” reminds me of Brian Wilson’s “Love and Mercy.”  It progresses from there into a song that is equally as catchy and as hopeful as that classic Wilson tune.

You are in for a not-so-unexpected surprise after the final notes of “The Last Carnival,” as “The Wrestler” fades in and begins.  This is the title track to the Mickey Rourke film that has earned Bruce Springsteen some attention recently.  This is, of course, in addition to the attention he will be receiving for his half time show performance at Super Bowl XLIII.  And he just released a greatest hits album exclusively at Wal-Mart a couple months ago…  Sound like perfect timing?  This writer thinks so.

And I also think it is a good time to be Bruce Springsteen fan.  He has released three great albums in this decade alone.

And now, less than two years after Magic, he has released a fourth.