Quirky. Quaint. Quixotic. Other unusual words that begin with “q.”

Yes, each describes Eddie Vedder’s newest album, Ukulele Songs. But it doesn’t end there.

While I suspected when I heard about the project that Eddie wouldn’t be making a novelty album, that there would be some substance there, part of me also thought, “What? Really?” I didn’t quite giggle, but it was a close thing.

I’ve listened to it all the way through at least five times now, and any threat of impending giggling has completely dissipated. Though there are plenty of smile-inducing moments, none are of the derisive/incredulous variety. I shall attempt to explain.

There are plenty of examples of pure ukulele music, to be sure. Listening to his takes on 30’s and 40’s classics like “Dream a Little Dream,” “Once in a While,” and, particularly, “More Than You Know,” it’s easy to conjure pictures of men in loud Hawaiian shirts and fatigue pants, serenading their sweethearts while palms wave in the warm breeze and smiles of both sincerity and a knowing kind of “are-you-serious?” play across both of their faces. That’s not to say that these songs aren’t beautiful examples of the craft, but I’d wager that if I could travel backwards and show the 20 year old Vedder the track list of his future solo album, he’d hurt himself laughing, and/or punch me in the face. I’d never imagined that he would be drawn to such examples of the Tin Pan Alley school of songwriting. Maybe the medium made that transition easier? I think it did.

His voice, though, is surprisingly well suited for this type of crooning. Rough and gravelly still, oozing with experience and character – think Johnny Cash on any of his latter day American Recordings, where his voice was sometimes nowhere near the tune or the melody, where it almost didn’t even sound like singing, but speaking. Now subtract 50 or so years from that deep scratch and you’ll get an idea of how much of Vedder’s life experience and character seep through and into each of his songs, no matter the backing instrument.

Then there are songs that are pure Pearl Jam – they’re just played on four (or in some case five or six) string miniature guitars instead of being delivered via the crunching wall of sound we’ve all come to know, love and expect from these sorts of songs.

“Can’t Keep,” “Satellite,” “Light Today,” and “Longing to Belong,” even with its lovely cello (the only accompaniment I remember hearing on the whole disc,) could all be the stripped-back, acoustic only, demo versions of songs that he’d then take to the rest of the guys to be worked up into full blown Pearl Jams.

Not long ago I was discussing with a good friend who knows and appreciates great music as much as I do something about, but not unique to, Eddie Vedder. We concluded that he is an artist who either finds an outlet for his bottled energy, angst, anger, obsession, love, hate, confusion, frustration, et al – or doesn’t. If they don’t, they end up walking the streets, or worse. Wondering how to communicate all of these seemingly disparate thoughts, and not being able to purge them, give them birth and let others see and hear and experience them, and thus be rid of their caustic heat and acidity.

Eddie found Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, and the others in Pearl Jam – really everyone in the Seattle music community of the time – and was able to channel that brooding darkness through the filter of their instruments, that huge, crushingly liberating sound, dissipating and diluting it just a little so it wouldn’t burn us too badly (but leaving just enough that we could still feel that heat.)

Go back and listen to any of those one-word titles on 10 or vs and tell me there are not some deep-seated issues he’s working through, that it could have been anything less than cathartic to sing the words to “Jeremy,” or “Black,” or “Alive” surrounded by the beautiful anger of Gossard’s and McCready’s guitars, and (maybe more importantly) the screams from the appreciative audiences. Did they know or could they tell how purgative or even healing that process may have been to the performers? Maybe. Likely not. Who cares? They could tell something – they could see, hear and feel the authenticity of the words and music, and that was enough.

If he hadn’t survived in that crucible of raw exposure – plenty did not, and not just those from that particular scene at that particular time – he would not have been able to make Ukulele Songs. There are definitely shades of that early emotion and power here, whether it’s on the old or the new tunes – his voice is too distinctive not to leave a stamp on them. (Else why would so many imitators have come and gone in the last 20 years? I’m looking at you, Creed.)

Some of the most powerful songs on this record are the slow originals. It’s possible that he chose the uke to help deliver these missives to us for the same reason the would-be lotharios from the 40’s chose it for their moonlit serenades – the feelings are real, but maybe novelty of the instrument can also raise a smile, make them not take the message so very seriously. Or maybe he chose it so there would be almost nothing between himself and the listener. Songs like “Without You,” and this excerpt from “You’re True” are perhaps TOO true, and need to be cut with a little levity, a dash of frivolity that only the ukulele could deliver.

“’Open up,’ she said – ‘Be you. Be true.’ Now I’m at home in my own skin. . .

“Yes, you could be the one to hold my hand beneath the full moon, you could be the one – you’re true.”

A very pleasant surprise, and not at all the joke I feared it might be, this is a strong album that will always bring a smile to the surface when one of its denizens sneaks into future shuffles, as I know they will.

LOAD UP: You’re True, More Than You Know, Light Today

Longing to Belonghttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UgqmlFbroqE

A quick note on the art direction and the photography used in the “booklet” that accompanies the album: phenomenal. Very striking, arresting images start with the cover and don’t let up at any point in the visual narrative. So a quick acknowledgement to the visual arts team:

Album cover sculpture & photography by Jason deCaires Taylor

Booklet photography by Danny Clinch

Aerial photography by Sonny Miller

Waterfall photography by Stefan Mentil

Chopper pilot Don Shearer

  1. Artie says:

    I thought finding this would be so ardouus but it’s a breeze!


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