October 20, 2006

Vs. Track by Track

I’ve been waiting for a reason to post this for a while, and I was too busy yesterday cavorting in the sun to stop and recognize the 13th anniversary of the release of Pearl Jam‘s sophomore album Vs. That’s a good landmark date for posting this (and how is it possible that the album is 13 years old?! That makes me feel really old. Let me sit down for a sec).

A friend of mine across the pond was just buying Vs. and wrote to me asking for a few of my favorite tracks and why. Well, that’s certainly a loaded question with me, isn’t it?

I sat down to write about the album for him, and this is what flowed out. Let me walk you through it, as this is one of desert-island discs, hands down, favorite Pearl Jam, in my top 5 CDs EVER. You may *not* love it, but damned if I don’t at least try to convert you.

Go and Animal are two of the tightest opening tracks ever paired. They flow seamlessly into each other, churning and hard-hitting. The drumming throughout this album is savage and tight, so aggressive and right on point by Abbruzzese. Go starts fiercely and doesn’t let up, in fact it even builds after Mike’s blistering solo at 1:44, with everything just lunging in unison to the white-knuckled end. Then right into Animal, one of the best 2 pairings of songs ever – so much so that I find myself thinking of them as one song, and it has been known to happen before that I have quoted a lyric from one thinking of the other. Caught me. Maybe because they tell the same kind of story for me – Go being perhaps about someone trying to escape, die, get away “I pulled the covers over him, should’ve pulled the alarm…” and then the wrenching angry wail in Animal, “WHY would you wanna HURT me?!”

Vedder’s voice is right on target with the caged screaming on this album, probably moreso than Ten and any other album they’ve released since Vs. I’d rather be with an animal.

Daughter is thoughtful and sure, poor little girl, alone, listless et al, but I usually skip it. Although I have always appreciated the line, “She holds the hand that holds her down . . .”

Glorified G was one of the first songs that I practiced drumming all the way through to, and the percussion is far and away for me the crispest, sharpest, most interesting part of this song. It’s a bit more lighthearted and spaciously-paced than some of the others, with a beat that is almost pop. Plus a very gnarly guitar riff and some good-natured ribbing in the direction of a gun-happy America. The bridge at 1:45 is a cleaning-out and refocusing to the two strongest elements in the song — the drumbeat and the guitar wail — with Vedder proudly announcing in a bit of sotto voce, “Kindred to bein’ an American.”

Dissident – I love the droning guitar, reminds me of a mosquito or a bee. A little overplayed for me as well, but he sure does let it wail on “escape is never the safest path.” Overall, though, this is not my fave track either on the album. Tough song to sing in concert (even though Vedder still nails it).

W.M.A. is such an adventurous work in terms of the percussion. I appreciate the foray into a different kind of song, using African rhythms and a non-traditional structure. Kind of a think-piece, can you say that about a song? No anthemic chorus like you get on so many PJ songs; instead a slow build and a focus on racial inequities in law enforcement. I love it when it all builds around 2:26 and the background vocals come in with the sharp “cha-cha-cha” and Vedder’s voice cracks through a scream with “POLICE stopped my BROTHER again,” I appreciate the cynical ethnocentrism in the line “Jesus greets me, looks just like me,” and the imagery of betrayal and handwashing with “Do no wrong, so clean cut. Dirty his hands it comes right off.”

Blood is just a full out punk thrash bloodbath, but the verses possess a certain restraint in front of the wah-wah wall of guitars. I once made a mix of snippets of verses and lines in PJ songs about blood (there are a lot) and this song was the beginning and ending of my homemade mash-up. There’s a double entendre line where he sings, “Painted big, turned into, one of his enemies.” If I recall correctly, the liner notes write this as “Paint Ed big, turn Ed into, one of his enemies.” This was during the whole “deal with fame” period. I love how Blood just completely disintegrates at the end. Just falls apart from the thrashing. But does it really?

Rearviewmirror is the best track on the album for me on most days. The way it builds, the steady drumbeat. It’s your car engine, it’s the lines passing on the road, it’s a steady pace as the protagonist starts out on his “drive today” . . . “time to emancipate.” As the rage builds, as the memories come flooding back “I couldn’t breathe, holdin’ me down…” the song builds until the frantic, driven ending – at which point the song cannot stop. It’s got too much momentum behind it, going somewhere that can’t be stopped, it inevitably must explode. It just keeps you hanging there, clinging on until that moment. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up with the final lines of “saw things . . . saw things . . . saw things . . . saw things . . . clearer, clearer . . . once you . . . were in my . . . REARVIEWMIRROR!”

I see little fireworks.

At the end of Rearviewmirror, it is so intense and Abbruzzese (the drummer) had some persistent wrist problems. If you listen carefully, after he furiously reaches that last cymbal crash, he hurls the sticks against the wall, where you can hear them clack to the floor. Listen to this through from Dave’s point of view, picture him just pounding away on the drums (starting at 4:08) as Mike wails on the guitar, feel the tension and the pain as he hammers through, sweat pouring off, and the final action of hurling the sticks against the wall before the song itself is even all the way done. Rock n roll, baby.

Rats I’ve never been able to pin down. I remember in high school my friend Shannon calling it “Eddie’s little wank-off piece” and I don’t exactly know what is going on with it. I mean, a song about rodents and their culinary habits and defecation locales? References to the Michael Jackson song “Ben?” (“Ben, the two of us need look no more….”) about — I’ve heard — a boy and his pet rat? Musically, it is a swaggering, bluesy rock piece with a GREAT intro, and I like Vedder’s low growl. But beyond that it was always lost on me.

Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town. While I do like this song, I’ve always thought this was a bit too nice, too restrained, too pretty of a song to put here on this album, which for the most part is pretty blistering. I’m all for mixing it up a bit, but sometimes Daughter and Elderly Woman sometimes feel too sedate for me (and maybe, even moreso, I grew tired of hearing them all the time on the radio, like in my dentist’s office). I love the songwriting here, the words – “cannot find the candle of thought to light your name, lifetimes are catching up with me . . .” — Evocative of creating some distant reality in some small dusty general store in a small town, running into someone you knew a lifetime ago. And who can deny that great chorus (which is even better in concert) – “And I just want to scream . . . HELLO . . . My god, it’s been so long, never dreamed you’d return . . .” As many times as I have heard this song, standing in the midst of 30,000 people screaming hello also gives you the chills.

Going from Elderly Woman into Leash is like jumping from the steamy hot tub into the swimming pool – it’s bracing, and they always seemed an odd dichotomy to me, placing them back to back. Leash is hard hitting, but melodic as well and I always forget that until I hear it again. I just remember the screaming and the rage. The churning feeling of this song, and the build, is also similar to opener Go. I do love the purity of youth captured in this song, and the anthem to losing yourself in the music, the moment (long before Eminem did). This entered my life when I was 14, and although I was generally a pretty happy kid, every teenager needs a rallying cry, a musical moment that defines you as OTHER from the previous generation, and for me this was it.

Indifference is absolutely ASTOUNDING, one of those tracks that slips by unnoticed because it is understated and at the end of the album. From the sedate, mollified opening lines — rolled off the tongue over a smooth bassline . . . “I will light the match this morning so I won’t be alone. Watch as she lies silent, for soon light will be gone…” It’s like you are lying on your back in bed, watching the first golden sunbeams JUST starting to illuminate the room. The start of the song has always carried the feel of just waking up. But then the lyrics grow steadily more interesting for me, because even though he is still singing in the same easy rhythm (although with a bit more potency here), there is quite an urgent sentiment being expressed, “I’ll swallow poison until I grow immune. I will scream my lungs out til it fills this room . . .” I associate this song in my mind with Kurt Cobain, even though it was written before he died. I know that Kurt’s death made Vedder question, a bit, the seeming futility of the idealistic quests he was undertaking, I think at that time Vedder felt the weight of the world on his shoulder — the thrust into the ‘Messiah of Rock’ spotlight — and this song was part of his questioning of his changing role.


More than you asked for? Give it another go. And turn it up loud.

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  • Excellent views on each track, and I’m with you about Rats – it never really did anything for me, either.

    I also rememeber getting Vs on release day here in the UK (can’t believe 13 years has gone by so quick too). Gave it a few listens back to back. Boy did it hit home hard as an absolute barnstormer of a CD. I even phoned up a friend in Israel who’d got me into PJ and played him some of it down the line!

    It probably gets more play even these days than all the other PJ cds. Indifference is without a doubt in my Top 5 tracks of theirs.

    In fact I’m in the mood for it now….

    groovyf — October 20, 2006 @ 2:50 am

  • I absolutely love Vs. Maybe you were to young to read the reviews, but because of PJ not being MTV friendly, this album was supposed to ruin them. I had the cassette…’Rear view’ started the side…I effing love them. Their persistance and non-conformity. I like and admire some people, but, when it comes down to everything; the only person in this world i would trade my life for, is Eddie Vedder.

    mickeyitaliano — October 20, 2006 @ 3:41 am

  • Elderly Woman is so good, I can’t believe you hate it’s guts. I always saw this album as the black sheep of their albums, mostly due to the whole “how can they top 10?!!” sort of way. I’ll try it again tonight while driving fast.

    wwjblog — October 20, 2006 @ 5:48 am

  • I remember being at school when this came out, way back when, and specifically remember that the line at the record store (at midnight of that Monday/Tuesday, of course) was around the corner and a good ways back beyond that. It was incredibly exciting that night, to be standing outside in the middle of the night, waiting for new Pearl Jam. Talking with random people about “Deep,” about how “a compliment for us… is a compliment for YOU,” etc.

    (The fact that anyone thought this record would “ruin them” for MTV-related reasons or otherwise is completely unimaginable, btw… anyone who was there at the time knows that they were the biggest band in the world on the eve of the record’s release, given the success of Ten, Singles and Lollapalooza).

    I remember playing the album straight through, roughly seven or eight times in a row, from just after midnight until well into the morning, astounded at how much of an improvement it was upon Ten. So much louder, so much more aggressive… in every way an improvement.

    And I specifically remember that when I first noticed the lines of “Blood,” targeted to the big stupid rock mags “SPIN me round / ROLL(ing Stone) me over / fucking CIRCUS”… it made me so proud of Eddie… and it made me feel like I was in on the joke.

    Ah, the good ‘ol days.

    Shame they’re still every bit as good. ;)

    David — October 20, 2006 @ 7:20 am

  • oops – i deleted my comment by accident. i love this album, i love daughter (though), and i am feeling way older than you. i think i said something like that.

    also, this is one of my desert island discs, too. how many can we bring??

    c — October 20, 2006 @ 8:40 am

  • I was a Freshman in college when this album came out, so you shouldn’t feel too old. I remember loving how the vinyl cover was different from the cd cover. I also remember having one too many at a party when the album came out, and listening to RVM while my friend was driving my car home, when Ed gets to the ‘Saw things clearer…clearer’ part, smashing my rearviewmirror clean off my windshield. That was fun to reminisce about the next morning, but made it hard to drive. Also, I saw them play ‘Leash’ at a free show at Marquette University in ’92-and being completely blown away, and remember being so excited that it finally was officially released. That song always does it for me. Also, the marketing for the album was

    Pearl Jam Vs. The New Album,

    which I thought was a clever way of dealing with the idea of a Sophmore slump. It set sales records that weren’t touched until some boy band came along years later. Damn those boy bands! But God bless PJ!

    Anonymous — October 20, 2006 @ 10:14 am

  • I love your blog. Even more when it deals with Pearl Jam, the greatest modern rock band, period.

    I do, however, LOVE “Rats.” I really think the song is about how human beings tend to steal, fight, fuck each over romantically, and how some other animals just get it a little bit more than we do. “Line their holes with the dead one’s bread” – think of how many stories you’ve heard about relatives fighting, quite nastily, over a deceased relative’s things. It gets nasty and it can be pretty sad. So I think Ed was going for the whole dichotomy of the human race being top of the food chain, but not very nice to each other.

    Dusty — October 20, 2006 @ 1:08 pm

  • Vs. is a great album that still stands-up (as is Vitalogy). Ahh, Seattle back in the day…

    In general, I would agree with Dusty’s interpretation of “Rats.” I see it as being a contrast humans vs.(?) rats where, arguably, the rats wind up looking better.

    Ken Smith — October 20, 2006 @ 2:54 pm

  • damn it heather, you intruped my enjoyment of the black crowes and made me listen to Pearl Jam’s VS! well, i guess that means you wrote it well…

    Ledbelly — October 20, 2006 @ 4:33 pm

  • Hello.
    I do check your blog out, nearly daily.
    I am going to play the flip side to all the rave comments and say that this cd was the begining of the end for the boys in PJ.
    I am a big fan, have all the cd’s, singles, boots, demo’s, wore the shirts, had the band sticker an my 1986 Buick, etc…but most of my friends do feel the same as me.

    We have had this discusion before.
    The lyric’s are always good, but the music , as the years go on, get worse and worse.

    I think they made a master cd w/ Ten…even though it kinda really was a Mother Love Bone record, with Eddie adding his touch after Andy passed away.

    The rest of the band have been in so many other bands for so long before PJ was born that it is natural that the music creation seems to be more and more sloppy and un-inspired as the years go by.

    Do I hate PJ ? Not at all. They are one of my favorites. However, they are just a band…Wow did I just write that? I never would have said that in 1991-92.

    Time moves on. Bands fade..and Mudhoney never gets better.

    SINEDDIE — October 21, 2006 @ 8:18 am

  • You mentioned the the fact that Blood was written during Ed’s “fame sucks” period. This is true. The song begins, “Spin me ’round/Roll me over/Fucking circus…” These are references to the three major music mags of the day – Spin, Rolling Stone, and Circus (remember the early grunge/metal connection). It’s his blood.

    Fantastic record. Fantastic review. Although it may be corny, I suppose, but Daughter still gets to me…

    Anonymous — October 21, 2006 @ 9:45 pm

  • thanx alot 4 reminding me of how old i am!! sounds wierd but this album reminds me of lightning and taco bell… told u! its definitly overlooked. best line 2 me is.. i will stare the sun down until my eyes go blind, i wont change direction and i wont change my mind

    gallo — October 22, 2006 @ 12:44 am

  • P-E-R-F-E-C-T Heather! It took me a few days to figure out the solo on Glorified G, but Mike nails it! Can I share your review, placing a link in my blog?

    One Died Simply — October 22, 2006 @ 8:43 am

  • I read your site everyday. Never made a comment before. Just wanted to say that you captured exactly what I feel track by track about the greatest album ever made. Thank you for your words. 13 years! whew! I shed a tear over how much emotion I feel when listening to this album. thanks again

    Anonymous — October 22, 2006 @ 8:49 pm

  • great post about a great album. thanks. :)

    andrea — October 23, 2006 @ 1:14 pm

  • How cool am I? I bought Vs. the day it came out. My copy does not say “vs.” on it anywhere. It was one of the first few that did not have a name.

    Told you I was cool.
    It is hard to believe that was 13 years ago. Damn I’m old.

    The MERKIN MAN — October 23, 2006 @ 4:13 pm

  • i bought this cd early for my best friend as we had the same birthday. we listened to it the first, and only time he got drunk. He died of a terminal disease six months later- a week or so after Cobain (he totally loved nirvana. but it was a natural death, just eerie…)

    EWBTCIAST still blows my mind when it comes on. I’d argue elderly and indifference are the yang to the intro of go and animal’s yin.

    God, i love that CD

    Uppity Disability — October 23, 2006 @ 9:33 pm

  • I’m catching up on Fuel posts and came across this one, which I loved. I was older than most when I got into Pearl Jam and bought Vs. on its first day out in Boston where I was in law school. I had just read the Cameron Crowe article in Rolling Stone and fell head over heels for the band (and got into Ten after Vs.). Vitalogy is my PJ desert island record but Vs. has staying power, contrary to evidence of all of those copies sitting at the used cd stores. The varying textures are great, a classic record, with amazing songs. You nailed the moments in songs and lyrics that stand out for me in Go, Daughter, Dissident, RVM, and Elderly Woman. Thanks for the post.

    lbc — November 13, 2006 @ 9:22 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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