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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Eddie Vedder Presents Ukulele Songs

Hey, we don't make this stuff up. We love the fact that truth is often a bit more "eccentric" than fiction. Pearl Jam front-man Eddie Vedder has called his second solo album Ukulele Songs because that’s what it really is. It is a fantastic [it really is] album full of serious and sentimental songs Vedder has composed over the years, as well as a couple covers, for the small four-stringed Hawaiian instrument. In 2007, on his first go at recording independently of Pearl Jam, Vedder made the critically praised soundtrack Into the Wild. Still rooted in guitar-driven rock, Into the Wild had a sound that was somewhat folksy and far more airy and free than would ever be achieved on a Pearl Jam album. Here you will find songs that required nothing more than a guitar [or a mandolin] to accompany his dynamic voice. This may have been the first sign that an entire album like Ukulele Songs would be musically  possible.

If Into the Wild was musically sparse, then Ukulele Songs is entirely bare-bones. Vedder abandons all additional accompaniments beyond the ukulele, save for some strings in one track and a bit of vocal assistance. In Pearl Jam, the combination of Vedder’s powerful voice and the intensity of the talented rock group is simply overwhelming [in the good way]. So when the drums and electric guitars are all stripped away, we are left with a chance to focus in on the texture of Vedder’s unique vocal stylings. The simplicity of the ukulele allows Vedder to play with his voice in a way that only he can, flowing between a gentle, whispering croon to a shout that can shake you right down to the core of your soul.

What is so impressive is how Vedder takes an instrument that usually would equate itself with Lawrence Welk and/or an accordion and creates sincere, visionary music with it. However, there is still a tad bit of a whimsical element to it. You will not hear Vedder’s political viewpoints on this album at all. You will be treated to heartfelt love songs and covers of old popular songs like you might hear performed by Lena Horne or perhaps Etta James.

The album begins with Can’t Keep, a flawless first track that’s as hard rocking as you can possibly get with a ukulele. It keeps building to a scorching crescendo and Vedder’s voice keeps soaring until you think he might just start to take off and head into space. And with this album, he boldly dares to go where no post-grunge rocker has ever gone. Vedder himself explains, “There’s something that happens when you play very small instruments. It somehow creates the illusion that you’re much taller than you really are [Laughs].”

Another highlight of the album is Sleepless Nights. I have a deeply profound appreciation for vocal harmonies, and when that harmony happens to be Glen Hansard of The Swell Season and The Frames, to me, that's worthy of a kudos and some deep respect. Tonight You Belong to Me also includes additional vocals from Cat Power. After over twenty years of bringin' it with a generational edge [Pearl Jam’s Ten came out in 1991 when grunge was cutting edge anarchy. Feelin' old yet? Hey... we are].

Eddie Vedder has not only kept the spirit and passion in his music that we have come to expect, he has continued to push himself creatively and evolve as a brilliantly gifted artist. Eddie Vedder has been regarded as brooding, obtuse, intelligent, and intense. What he has probably never been thought of, until now, is positively charming. It is through his new solo efforts, the live Water on the Road Blu-ray and the sweet and aptly titled Ukulele Songs, that his levels of gracefulness have become apparent.

For all this allure and panache, Vedder never lacked for aggression. Starting with a long set of Ukulele Songs, his baritone vocals moved fluidly from low and impassioned to whispery and curious as his ukulele's strum went from ticklish to hard. This dynamic drew the listener closer to the hurt heart of the melodically perceptive leaving Vedder to joke, "If you don't relate to these songs, I'm happy for you." Vedder also talked about the lingering sorrow he felt visiting Manhattan's Strawberry Fields, and that anguish fueled his passion for Beatle John Lennon's You've Got to Hide Your Love Away. And when he mentioned the passing of saxophonist Clarence Clemons, we were moved. In Ukulele Songs, Vedder has reached well beyond grunge and alternative rock into a spectacular realm in which he can really engage his philosophical, musical and vocal talents with ease.

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