Thursday, March 12, 2009

Was It Really That Bad?

I was a grunge fan.

From '89-'92 I lived in Vienna, Austria. I was 7-10 years old during that period. Due to a lack of English language media, I often found myself flipping through the movies section of my parents' copies of Newsweek and Time, because those had pictures of the big upcoming blockbusters (Batman, Dick Tracy, etc.). However, once you read those movie sections enough, and I was a pretty smart kid, you start reading other parts. So I'd read the music section. Around that time, I was taken to a concert at a local rec center by a friend's high school age brother when I was in the third grade, and when I saw one of the bands I had seen at the rec center talked about in Newsweek, I thought it sounded cool and I saved my Christmas money and went out and bought the big album everyone was talking about as a "new youth movement". It was Nevermind, and it was awesome. So I was rocking some Nirvana at age nine, and I didn't get the fact that this was a complete sea change in youth culture, or that it was revolutionizing both contemporary rock music or fashion. I just knew it was loud and fuzzy and catchy and I sorta liked how ANGRY it was and I didn't know why.

Over the years, I kept my faith to the loud and fuzzy. I mean, I've broadened my pallette, but I've never gotten rid of my grunge CDs, and Mudhoney might still be one of my Top 5 bands of all time. Which brings me to my point. There was far more variety in the grunge movement than a lot of people realize. There was a metal faction (Alice In Chains, early Soundgarden), there was a garagey punk faction (Mudhoney, parts of The Melvins), there was a psychedelic group (Love Battery, Screaming Trees), and there was, most abundantly, the "Classic Rock" faction that was epitomized by Pearl Jam.

In the interest of Full Disclosure (TM), I'm not a big PJ fan. They were funkier than I preferred my "real serious rock" to be, and they were often just too serious for their own good. I applauded their fight against Ticketmaster when that seemed like it meant something, and their hearts were in the right place, but they had that U2 vibe about them of wanting to fight "The Man", not really being sure who he was, and swinging blindly in all directions. As the years rolled on, the fact that there were essentially two mentalities at work in the band became known, and that was very telling. Frontman Eddie Vedder was revealed to be the Punk Academy graduate with the sellout/deity dillema, while bassist Jeff Ament was unabashed in his desire to be the biggest band on the planet at nearly any cost. And that's OK I guess. Their recent albums have been perfectly acceptable, but I just have no real interest in picking them up, and we could have worse things than another ethical rock band making workmanlike records... sort of like Tom Petty for My Generation (TM).

But what about then? Some critics and fans on my side of the fence (grunge-that-comes-from-punk) labelled Pearl Jam mere classic rock revivalists and derided their presence on the radio at the expense of real important artists like Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, and The Melvins. Now? I would KILL to hear a band like early Pearl Jam ruling the airwaves. Who cares if the rage and Big Important Issues (TM) were misguided stabs by guys in their early 20s? I just went back and listened to their greatest hits collection and these guys were fantasic for their first two albums at least. Messy? Yeah. Inconsistient? You betcha. But I would love a band that would take that kind of risk in public, something that we're sorely missing. While the Information Age may have changed the way that things work, it sure seems like we didn't know how good we had it. Remember how irritating the Presidents Of The United States Of America seemed? I DARE you to go listen to their album again. The two-string bass concept was developed with Mark Sandman of Morphine, and as the Trouser Press guide puts it, "[They] could not be more intrinsically indie if they had the PopLlama logo tattooed on their foreheads." And yet America embraced them with open arms. I heard fucking HARVEY DANGER on the radio the other day, and suddenly "Flagpole Sitta" didn't sound too bad. And yet we complained.

I've been attempting to make a case for years about the New Pop Age of the post-grunge mid-90s, where the marketplace was open to almost anything as long as it was catchy and grunge (i.e. punk) influenced. Unfortunately, at the tail end of this age, Dave Matthews swooped in to ruin things, but even in this age, his first album was almost just another one in the crowd. Sure, one-hit wonders abounded, but there were some excellent albums that never got their due to to the wonderfully disposable nature of the times. Remember when you could buy any Flaming Lips CD for three bucks because they were a past-their-prime flash-in-the-pan after playing "She Don't Use Jelly" on 90210? But alas, that's a rant for another day. Remind me, though and I'll tell you young 'uns all about it.

Classic rock is still kinda lame, and no matter what happens, Rolling Stone will remain a bastion of late-60s heirarchy and close-minded Boomer-ness, but I'll be damned if those early Pearl Jam singles don't sound great. Sure, you can't understand what Vedder's singing, and the bass playing is too funky, and Mike McCready's lead lines are all too busy, but for a brief moment in time, meaning NOW, those songs are sounding pretty good. And I don't know whether that's a reflection on the state of radio and culture today, or if it's just that Pearl Jam has aged like fine wine.

I think it's the former.

Oh, and I really like that song "Dissident" on Vs..

1 comment:

  1. vs was always my favorite album by them. less overtly jammy than ten and not as crappy as everything after it. it has a little bit of edge and cohesiveness than their other stuff does.