Kill Your Idols

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I wasn’t exactly sure what I intended to create when I set out to write this column. Honestly, I think I just wanted to knock a couple of supposedly “classic” albums down a notch and praise some records that I think have gone unnoticed. Over time, it seems to have evolved into an episodic treatise on punk, indie rock and alternative culture. So now I’m going to embrace that and look at one of the best selling alternative rock ablums of all time: Pearl Jam’s debut record Ten.
It’s hard not to think about it now, when punk-influenced bands like Green Day top the charts and Hot Topics can be found in malls nationwide, but there was a time when alternative rock wasn’t a commercial commodity. In fact, there was a time when alternative and indie rock were truly underground affairs.
Pearl Jam was, along with Nirvana, one of the two big bands to come along and change all of that. Their debut album Ten sold slowly at first, but as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” began to take over the airwaves, stores couldn’t keep the record in stock. It ultimately peaked at number two on the Billboard charts, propelling alternative rock and grunge into the forefront of the American consciousness. And while I’ll always be grateful to Eddie Vedder and his crew for that, it doesn’t mean I have to like the band.
Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was notoriously critical of Pearl Jam in their early days, calling them an “old-line commercial rock band in grunge clothing.” While I don’t know if I would go that far in my condemnation of the band — after all, they did pull a number of anti-corporate moves over the years, including boycotting Ticketmaster and refusing to shoot music videos to support albums after Ten — Pearl Jam, in my mind, lacks much of the fire, anger, and punk ethos that their contemporaries like Nirvana had in spades. When it comes down to it, they lack spirit.
Pearl Jam’s indulgent guitar solos, funk-inspired instrumentals, and crooning vocals just seem too evocative of big arena-rock to really fit in with a genre so focused on DIY ethics and opposition to mainstream
From what I understand, most of the songs on Ten were originally written as instrumental jams, with vocalist Eddie Vedder overlaying his vocals on top of the songs a while after they had been written. I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad way to write songs, but it seems to have hindered Pear Jam on this record.
Mid-tempo instrumentals on songs like “Even Flow” just don’t seem to fully match Vedder’s vocal style. Rarely does the band attempt to harmonize the vocal melodies with the instrumentals, and because of this,  the whole record just comes across as flat and uneven in my mind.
But honestly, here’s my essential problem with Pearl Jam: they aren’t a bad band by any stretch of the imagination, but neither are they a truly great band, and for all the hype and praise behind records like Ten, at the end of the day, you’re just left with a pretty mediocre hard-rock experience.
Sure, some of the guitar solos are impressive, but there are far better instrumentalists out there. And neither does the band deliver the screeching, raw power that other acts of their time could deliver. Ultimately, Pearl Jam’s Ten is stuck somewhere in the middle of punk rock howl and Led Zeppelin virtuosity. I just don’t know if I can handle being in that middle ground for more than four or five minutes at a time.
Classic or catastrophe: catastrophe

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