Live On Ten Leg
4 stars (out of 4)
This year marks Pearl Jam's 20th anniversary as a band, a time during which the majority of the group's peers from the "grunge" era have either died (Kurt Cobain, Lane Staley), broken up (Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots) or are in the midst of reunion tours following lengthy sabbaticals (um, Soundgarden, STP).
By contrast, Pearl Jam never broke up. Instead, it quietly deconstructed the flannel-clad image thrust upon it by the "grunge" police, then spent the better part of the two decades since that time becoming a deeply significant American rock band whose work transcends allegiance to any single genre, style or period of time.
"Live On Ten Leg" celebrates this fact. The album cherry-picks concert performances recorded between 2003 and 2010, a rich period in Pearl Jam history, one that found the group releasing the best studio albums of its career ("Riot Act," "Pearl Jam," "Backspacer") concurrent with its considerable evolution as an in-concert entity.
Gone is the gritty-but-grandiose stadium allure of "Alive" and "Jeremy" -- though the band still plays both songs in concert -- and in their place is a more enduring brand of beautifully idiosyncratic guitar-based rock. All five band members can write, and do. At the same time, collaborative efforts abound, and all the material appears to have been approached with an equal level of enthusiasm and commitment, regardless of whose name appears in the writing credits. Which is to suggest that Pearl Jam is a band in the true sense, an inclusive unit where all involved appreciate the fact that they do their best work within the family unit.
So "Live On Ten Legs" is more than just a blistering, well-paced and equal parts raucous and rapturous live album, of the sort they used to make in the '70s -- though it is indeed that, thankfully. At its core, the album is instead a celebration of the band's growth from flawed but awe-inspiring youth into vibrant maturity.
No group outside of the jam-band universe has been the subject of more live concert recordings, band-sanctioned or otherwise, than Pearl Jam. So this album needs to be more than just another good bootleg, and happily it is just that, moving as it does from the knotty, frayed punk of "Arms Aloft" and "Worldwide Suicide" through the refined epic balladry of "I Am Mine" and "Nothing As It Seems," and finally into the Ed Vedder-led twilight beauty of "Just Breathe" -- a song Pearl Jam could not have written even 10 years ago, when in many ways it was still trying to learn just who and what it was.
If you've ever wondered why Pearl Jam managed to survive where so many in its peer group fell apart, "Live on Ten Legs" answers that question. Here's to 20 more years.
-- Jeff Miers
The King Is Dead
Fed up with -- or perhaps more accurately, exhausted by -- the Herculean effort that must have gone into the creation of the epic pieces that comprised previous Decemberists albums like "The Hazards of Love" and "The Crane Wife," songwriter and singer Colin Meloy sought to write some simple, direct songs. Cleanse the palate with something sugary after indulging in such rich food, as it were.
So the Decemberists -- Meloy, Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query and John Moen -- quite literally decided to "get it together in the country," writing some simple (by their standards) country- and folk-based songs that trade the abundant thematic and musical shifts that populated older pieces like the 13-minute "The Island" for mostly sunny melodies, tight and concise playing, and nary a sea shanty nor murder ballad in the bunch.
It still sounds like the Decemberists, though far less eclectically so. The connecting tissue is provided by the instrumentation -- deep, woodsy Americana, rustic Appalachia and so on -- and Meloy's (occasionally irritating, but charming in the main) vocal inflections and Celtic-tinged melodies. However, there is no mistaking the fact that a piece like "Don't Carry It All" is much more Neil Young and Tom Petty than it is, say, Tom Waits or even "The Boatman's Call"-era Nick Cave, both of whom would seem like logical reference points for Decemberists' works past. "Rox in the Box" sounds like something the McGarrigle Sisters could have covered comfortably. "All Arise" could be a John Mellencamp song, or could've been, were it not for Meloy's mannered alt-country vocal. "This Is Why We Fight" balances an R.E.M.-like guitar arpeggio against a song structure that sounds not unlike the 10,000 Maniacs of "The Wishing Chair."
It's perhaps less ambitious than previous efforts, but no less pleasing for that fact. Meloy knows now, no doubt, that writing simple songs can be much more difficult than penning many-sectioned, complex epics. "The King Is Dead" is far from earth-shattering, but it's smart, tuneful and enjoyable fare.
-- Jeff Miers
The Moon Hotel Lounge Project
Into the Ojala
[Frosty Cordial Records]
2 1/2 stars
How can you not feel a little indulgent with a tenor saxophonist who has also been a pretty good and joyfully eclectic music critic in his time? Especially when the most important notes for his new disc are a motto taken from "the fortune cookie from a Chinese takeout?" To wit: "fear is a down payment on a debt you may not owe."
Tom Moon the fearless, in fact, once did time in the saxophone section of the Maynard Ferguson band and was, for 20 years, an omnivorous music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer (whose work won Deems Taylor awards and also appeared in Rolling Stone, Spin, Vibe and other such places). Moon's book "1,000 Records to Hear Before You Die" is a highly entertaining guide to listening for those who resolutely insist on not using one category of music to smash another over the head.
With all of that going on, you'd think his recorded debut as a leader on his own music might be of more consequence than a simulation of lounge music blankness in some fantasy hotel of Tom Moon's imagination. "Doing the book tour for '1,000 Recordings,' I spent a lot of time in hotel lounges," he says. "In the last decade, there's been a revolution there The hotel industry has been rethinking the look and feel of a lounge. These are transitory places, almost blank slates; most of the clientele is away from home, and they're looking for a ritual space with few demands, a place to go before beginning a meeting or setting out for an electric evening."
Leave it to a far-ranging and very clever music critic of pronounced willfulness and curiosity to discover a new musical subject in America.
That doesn't, unfortunately, make the record for this sound like much more than the soundtrack music for a really bad 1970s movie, up to and including its version of "Rock of Ages."
-- Jeff Simon