Pearl Jam – “Lightning Bolt”

(Photo Credit: antiquiet)

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Mind Your Manners” “My Father’s Son”

Just last week, I was driving when I did something I never do – I turned on the radio. One of Boston’s classic rock stations, WZLX, came on, and they were playing Pearl Jam’s “Daughter.” I can only imagine the meeting they held to determine whether or not early 90′s grunge acts now constitute as “classic rock,” but as someone who was three when that song came out, I’m uncomfortable with this progression. Now in 2013, Pearl Jam have released “Lightning Bolt,” and many critics are praising the album’s misalignment to today’s radio rock. But “classic rock” comes to mind, because it’s structured just like a classic rock album. And that’s really not a good thing.

Even bandwagon Pearl Jam fans know of Eddie Vedder’s punk attitude, much stronger than that of all his grunge peers. Their two most punk songs – 1994′s “Spin the Black Circle” and 2011′s non-album track “Ole,” have been completely upstaged by lead-off single “Mind Your Manners.” The rapid-fire song is almost like a lesson to punk bands, and serves as one of their best songs in years. But the album’s strict lack of any sort of narrative leaves the song out of place on the album. The first three tracks (including “Manners”) properly build the album up, and they’re all pretty decent songs, but the energy is completely killed by the ballad “Sirens.” Not only is the song extremely corny, but it stops the vibe the album gets into, and everything after it feels like disconnected songs. They put what they feel are the best songs at the beginning and fill the rest with the lesser tracks, with no sort of flow at all. It’s just like a classic rock album.

The band, of course, sounds great. They’re all great and diverse musicians. And Vedder’s growl-singing sounds as good now as it did in ’91. Even on the otherwise terrible “Sirens,” Vedder sounds phenomenal. One standout track is the eerily foreboding “My Father’s Son,” because of Vedder’s consistently strong lyricism. But they sound a little too comfortable. They’re not trying to prove anything, and the result is a bunch of bland and unrelated songs that aren’t anything original or memorable.

It’s actually a little tough to review this album, for two reasons. One, I’ve loved Pearl Jam for many years and I can’t stand saying anything bad about them, and two, I truly don’t remember this album even though I just listened to it two hours ago. It’s so uninspired that you come off only remembering the best and worst tracks. The first three and the ballad closer “Future Days” are worth the listen, “Sirens” is not, and everything in between is just dull and mid-tempo. It’s easy on the ears, especially for fans, but it’s instantly forgettable and dull, and its got a frustratingly  misleading name.

-By Andrew McNally

Drumgasm – “Drumgasm”

(Photo Credit: exclaim.ca)

Grade: A-

There’s very little to say about this album, other than your ears are about to get audited. “Drumgasm” is the debut album from the instrumental percussion supergroup consisting of Janet Weiss (formerly from Sleater-Kinney, now drummer for Wild Flag), Matt Cameron (of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden) and Zach Hill (of Hella, Marnie Stern and, importantly, Death Grips). All three drummers are known for a brash, edgier, sound – Hill especially – so there was already going to be an intense factor to this album. What makes it all the more intense and ear-busting, though, is it’s total improvisation. The three drummers are heard at the beginning of the album chatting, trying to figure out a plan before they decide to just start playing and see what happens. Their voices aren’t heard again until after they finish, as they congratulate each other.

The album consists of just two tracks, both called “Drumgasm.” Both songs hover almost exactly around twenty minutes, and focus more on skill and intensity, rarely finding a groove or constant beat. There are extended moments where one drummer is featured more prominently than the other two, and although it’s impossible to determine who it is, it’s not unwise to assume it’s Hill, based purely on speed and intensity.

This album excels best as a concept – a truly improvised duo of brash drum pieces without names. If percussion interests you at all (as it does to me), then this album is like a undeserved present. There are call-and-response moments, there are moments where the three work together to berate the volume of your speakers, and there are moments where they fall out of line with each other and it sounds messy. It’s got mistakes and miscues. Of course it does, it’s improvised, and although those missteps aren’t appealing, they further build the concept. The album’s only real fault, a “fault” that shouldn’t be blamed on the musicians, and the same one that could be attributed to most jazz, is that listening is a commitment. There are no breaks, and although the listener gets sucked in, it is immediately lost when either track is paused (I streamed the album via Pitchfork Advance, and my internet connection was lost 15 minutes into the first track). This is a really original album, and it’s execution is nearly perfect. It is loud and abrasive, musically interesting, yet it is ultimately three people having fun and messing around in the studio, and I recommend it as both a fun, and a sonically complex and challenging listen. Somehow.

-By Andrew McNally