Every once in awhile artists need a change and go off and do something completely different. Bruce Springsteen put out a record of Scotch-Irish sounding Pete Seeger songs. The Black Keys teamed up with a bunch of hip hop artists to produce the oddly cool Blakroc. Some of these are more successful than others and some are just weird (anyone remember when Tom Waits and Kool Keith were on a record together?).
Luckily, Eddie Vedder’s latest obsession is the ukulele. Vedder’s new solo album titled, appropriately enough, Ukulele Songs is his something completely different album. Be honest if you heard Vedder was doing a concept album in the age of vocoders, Joaquin Phoenix rapping, and will.i.am mashups you were probably a little frightened.
This album will determine whether you’re an Eddie Vedder fan or a Pearl Jam fan. If Pearl Jam is a fully loaded bacon cheeseburger and Vedder is the beef, then Ukulele Songs is aggressively seasoned beef Carpaccio. The standard Pearl Jam growl is not here. There’s no howling guitars or even any other instrument (aside from a cello here or there). Vedder’s unique sense of delivering emotions through tone and rhythm is on display in both its most raw and some how most refined states.
Vedder generally plays the ukulele the same way he sings – like he is trying emote his way through a brick wall. The album of covers and originals starts off with an old Pearl Jam tune, ‘Can’t Keep’. The first thing that hits you is the almost too quickly strummed ukulele. Then Vedder singing kicks in and you realize, ‘Hey, I’m not even sure if I know this song but I know it’s a Pearl Jam song – that for some odd reason is set to an aggressive ukulele’. Or at least that’s what I thought.
It is obvious Vedder is now a guitarist who happens to be playing a ukulele. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When most people think ukulele they think of that strummy cover of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. Vedder’s uke doesn’t sound like that. This isn’t his folksy strum fest. Ukulele Songs is serious stuff and finds Vedder turning introspective.
‘More Than You Know’ and ‘Without You’ sound like the kind of lullabye Vedder would serenade the women in his life with circa 1994. Initially, the playing almost sounds like it could be a mandolin. By the end of “More Than You Know” Vedder is actually using the uke to create percussion.
The most structured and lucid moment on the album comes in ‘Longing to Belong’ when Vedder’s vocals and strumming are joined by a cello. The three unite in a pleasing progression. Vedder is fortunate enough to have been successful enough earlier in his career that he can put out Ukulele. The songs leave you with an honest feeling that Vedder would likely be singing these to a romantic interest in his parent’s basement even if he wasn’t the lead singer of Pearl Jam. If this what Vedder he needed to do so that the next Pearl Jam albums rock that much harder, bravo.
Also, be grateful Vedder’s assistant never gave him that message from will.i.am who wants desperately to remix ‘10’, celebrating its 20th anniversary in August. Okay, that last part was made up. And I really hope it stays that way.
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