Pearl Jam’s Binaural Was Light Years Ahead of Its Time

Twenty years later, I still think Pearl Jam’s Binaural suffers a bit due to Tchad Blake’s muddy production. Punkier songs like “Breakerfall” and “Grievance” feel bogged down and muffled by the heavy bass tone. It’s a shame you can’t always hear Mike McCready well in the mix because he really played his ax off.

But, the more I think about it, this record might have sucked with “better” production. Maybe this is precisely how it should sound, for such weird and dark content. The album is named after the binaural recording technique, which uses two microphones stuffed inside the ears of a mannequin’s head to create a 3D stereophonic sound. I can safely say this experiment was successful on a few songs, as I am frequently sucked in by their gravitational pull.  

The younger version of me may have also been experimenting, but I distinctly remember playing “Of the Girl” on a boombox in my darkened bedroom, feeling like I was trapped inside a tunnel with the band. McCready seemed to be pulling Hendrix from his grave with his guitar strings. Each note slithered through my body, creating a bond with my soul that I had no control over. To this day, I still feel like I share a symbiotic relationship with the song, and I’m quite okay with this. When Eddie Vedder sings, “How he makes his getaway,” he’s clearly referring to me pressing play.

“Nothing as it Seems” is a masterpiece you have to listen to on headphones. It will transport you to another planet (one you’ll wish you could live on forever). I’m certain McCready figured out intergalactic time travel during this recording; he just chose not to tell anyone. I can’t hold it against him. His jaw-dropping leads sound like he’s giving birth to 10 billion galaxies. This, juxtaposed with the way Stone Gossard quietly strums his acoustic guitar, is pure brilliance. I don’t think aliens could achieve perfection like this in a trillion years. To top it off, the song was written by Jeff Ament on his upright bass. This makes zero sense to me. What is happening here? Nothing’s as it seems.

The Eagle Nebula, an open cluster of stars 7,000 light years away. Source: Binaural album artwork.

Back on earth, the Gossard-penned “Thin Air” is one of my go-to campfire jams. It has a chill, country vibe that I love, without being too twangy. It’s soothing when Vedder lowers his voice and sings, “There’s a light. . .when my baby’s in my arms,” over just the bass and drums. Troubles melt away, and I instantly want to hug my lady. I swear it has nothing to do with the wine I’ve been drinking all night by those roaring flames.

Another track they nailed the sound for was “Light Years.” This grief-filled tune is reminiscent of Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days,” but more hopeful. That band’s former drummer, Matt Cameron, somehow kept the rhythm both tight and loose. He is a wizard, and the sticks are his magic wands. As a fan, it’s nice to imagine this song is about how awesome we are. “We were but stones, your light made us stars.” You’re welcome, guys.

Many people have dismissed this as a boring release, but that’s not fair. It was Cameron’s first studio appearance with the band, which alone is exciting. The grunge veteran added his own flavor to the Pearl Jam sound. You can thank him for “Evacuation.” Hardcore fans often place this at the top of their “worst of” lists, bashing its simplicity and silliness. I happen to enjoy it. It’s just plain funky. It makes me think of The Clash whenever I put it on, and that can never be a bad thing. It also has the distinct honor of teaching me the word “wanton” (a cruel/violent action that is deliberate and unprovoked). It’s interesting how Eddie wrote the line, “The sirens scream wanton attention.” It sounds like he’s saying “wanting.” I thought this for years, before noticing the correct diction in the booklet. No, the sirens do not want attention (though that works just as well during an evacuation). In my defense, this isn’t as bad as McCready believing the lyric to Kiss’s “Rock and Roll all Nite” was, “I wanna rock and roll all night, and part of every day.” That story killed me when I heard Eddie tell it on their Live at Benaroya Hall album. I remember thinking, “I’m not alone!”

Vedder’s ukulele number, “Soon Forget,” is entertaining too. I always chuckle when I hear the lines, “Sorry is the fool who trades his soul for a Corvette / Thinks he’ll get the girl, he’ll only get the mechanic.” Pete Townshend’s influence is undeniable, which is why Eddie scribbled “Thanks P.T.” on the lyric page.

I’ve always found the dreamy “Sleight of Hand” to be equal parts depressing and inspiring. The words hit hard if you’ve ever found yourself at a job that’s slowly draining the life out of you:

                                            “Routine was the theme
                        He’d wake up, wash and pour himself into uniform
                                Something he hadn’t imagined being
                                      As the merging traffic passed”

It’s easy to hear this and think, “F**k, that’s me,” and sink further into a rut. It’s also possible to take these words as a warning and make positive changes in your life, so you no longer have to travel the same mundane road. The choice is always yours.

Pearl Jam made a clear choice on what they wanted to do with Binaural. It didn’t all work out for the best, but what did is light-years above other albums from the past twenty years.

Soul Asylum – Let Your Dim Light Shine

25 Years of Keeping Our Hopes Up

First off, I think this album is better than Grave Dancer’s Union. Yes, I know that record contained “Runaway Train” and “Black Gold,” but those hits are no match for “Misery” and “Hopes Up” (though I do consider “Somebody to Shove” a contender). I’m also not ashamed to admit that, back then, I had no idea these guys had five other albums under their belt, which were basically punk rock. Don’t worry, I’m a little hipper nowadays.

I believe with a band called Soul Asylum, that soul should play an essential role in their sound. Let Your Dim Light Shine oozed so much soulfulness that it instantly made a lifelong connection with me during the summer of ’95. The delicate balance of soft blues and chaotic angst was exactly what I needed. When I first heard “Misery” on my local alternative station, I was a goner. I loved how quickly the song progressed from the subdued intro to the therapeutic, upbeat chorus of, “Put me out of my misery!” David Pirner took the tired cliché of “misery loves company” and made it enjoyable. Whenever I think of ‘90s anthems, this song has to be included. Imagine my delight when it appeared in Clerks II 11 years later.

“Hopes Up” should have received more attention. It snuck its way onto radio a few times then disappeared. I’ve never listened to the beginning without air drumming like a maniac. The way the lead guitars sync up with the vocals in the chorus is just gnarly. The heaviness of Karl Mueller’s bass notes stamped it with an extra “oomph.” This is one for letting it all out. It will always be a blast to cruise down the highway with the windows down, yelling, “I feel like feelin’ better than I ever felt before!”

My favorite thing about this disc has always been the variety and pacing. It’s incredible how often Soul Asylum switches between distorted guitar hooks and mellow, reflective crooning, without it feeling forced. “Caged Rat” seamlessly flips from lounge music to extreme grunge, without warning. It even has some bloops and bleeps thrown in for good measure. I like to call it “fusion incorporated” or “angry jazz.” The lyrics are short and repetitive, but they work for the song. It also predates Billy Corgan screaming about “a rat in a cage” by about four months.

As a creative writer, I’ve always appreciated the storytelling in “String of Pearls.” I don’t just hear the song; I see it play like a movie. It’s an interesting look at how similar people are, and how oddly connected we become at times. Bonus points for the humorous line that many teenage boys (and adults) can relate to: “Death was one thing, but women made him nervous.” Pirner also succeeded surprisingly well at narrating tales about female tribulations on “Just Like Anyone” and “Tell me When” (though the latter still makes me cringe when I hear the chorus).

Thematically, it’s a loose concept album centered around depression. When the record concludes, I feel like I’ve spent a week with someone who has conquered (or at least managed) their demons with a smile. “Shut Down” deals with the pains of feeling invisible and dysfunctional. There’s excellent wordplay in the line, “Tried to get ahead but only got decapitated.” You can feel the frustration bleeding through the speakers on this fist-pumping tune. It wouldn’t surprise me if something was smashed or lit on fire after its recording.

On the immediate opposite side of that aggression is a beautiful piece I could imagine Tom Petty singing, “To my own Devices.” I didn’t think much about it when I was younger, but now I sense a battle with alcoholism. The first line, “Shouldn’t a got so loaded, damn near exploded,” combined with the chorus, “Please don’t leave me to my own devices,” sounds like a cry for help. It’s someone admitting they can’t be trusted on their own. A similar confession shows up on the heavier “Crawl,” with lyrics like, “See you later maybe, one more beer,” and the powerful, “I could use someone to drag me out of here / I am that someone, it’s all become quite clear.”

“I Did my Best” closes the album with Pirner peacefully singing, “And I did the best that I could do, with all the mess that I’ve been through.” After 25 years, this record still beams with a powerful ray of hope amidst the struggle that is life. I say do like Soul Asylum suggests, and let that dim light shine.

Reading Between the Lines of Stone Temple Pilots

A Celebration of Their Decade-old Eponymous Album

The date was May 21, 2010. The record was simply titled, Stone Temple Pilots. It was beyond exciting to have a new record from these ‘90s rock pioneers in my hands after nine long years. Little did I know it would be Scott Weiland’s final recording with the band. Although, unfortunately, neither his departure in 2013 nor his passing in 2015 was totally shocking to most people.

The cover, designed by street artist Shepard Fairey, featured a peace sign filled with paisley style artwork. The origin of this Persian design stems from the Cypress Tree, which symbolizes life and eternity. It’s somewhat somber to reflect on this now, realizing they were making a statement about celebrating life together. One thing is certain, though – Scott’s legacy, and the music he created with his brothers in STP, will live forever.

This album, produced by the powerhouse siblings Robert and Dean DeLeo, showed they were capable of more than just writing catchy tunes and playing their fingers off (as if that wasn’t enough). The sound quality delivered a knockout blow to my senses and remained sharp when turned up to 11 (which is the only way to enjoy it). Releasing “Between the Lines” as the first single and album opener was a wise move. Its aggressive energy pulled me in instantly. The chorus read like testimony from Weiland:

“I like it when you talk about love
You always were my favorite drug
Even when we used to take drugs”

He made it a point to repeat, “Even when we used to take,” numerous times, as though he were trying to convince us he was really clean. However, it’s the “we” that’s always thrown me off. It’s possible he only stopped doing drugs with one specific person. I also considered the opening lines, “Lovely disguise / Read between the lines.” Was he lying to us? Was he lying to himself? Is it possible to write lyrics like, “Penguins don’t fly / Crocodiles sometimes smile / I really love to fish / But don’t like superficial people,” if you’re not on drugs? The world may never know. What we do know is that he claimed to be sober while recording this. What I know is that he was at the top of his game when it came to his poetry and vocal delivery, and it’s an attribute of his I miss terribly in today’s music.

I believe this album is underrated and often overlooked by rock fans. Hardly anyone mentions it, and that shouldn’t be. There are so many classic riffs jammed into this that at first, I was unsure if I was listening to Stone Temple Pilots, or a supergroup featuring members of Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, and (my first love) Aerosmith. It’s most evident on the foot-stompin’, head-bobbin’, pelvis-thrustin’, “Huckleberry Crumble,” “Hickory Dichotomy,” and “Hazy Daze” (is that enough “H” songs for ya?) Even the titles conjured up images of guys with tie-dye t-shirts, bell-bottom jeans, and hair down to their ass cheeks.

Dean crafted licks that could snake through my cranium and stick to every vulnerable, unsuspecting brain cell. I recall thinking, “Man, this guy must be as big of a Brad Whitford fan as I am,” and a radio interview around this time confirmed this. And when I heard the climax of his solo in “Hickory,” I swore he was going to glide into “Dancing Days” by the great Jimmy Page. Even while his powerful leads soared through my speakers, I could still hear Robert’s unmistakably tight bass playing, keeping things smooth and heavy as ever.

“Bagman” had a similar attitude and groove, while drawing influence from the vocal stylings of Steven Tyler, specifically “Line Up,” from Aerosmith’s Get a Grip. This record wasn’t quite as diverse as their previous releases, but wedged between those fuzzed-out jam sessions was the massively upbeat tune, “Cinnamon.” This one had “radio play” written all over it, and my local rock station took that ball and ran with it hard. I was unsure about this one at first, but it quickly and sneakily grew on me. It’s one of the poppiest things they’ve done, yet it still doesn’t muster any complaints from me.

On the back end, I was thrilled with the one-two-punch of the grungier “Peacoat” and the energetic shuffle of “Fast as I Can.” They expertly showcased the various talents of Eric Kretz on the skins. “Dare if you Dare” and “First Kiss on Mars” sounded like they gave their singer the night off, and snuck David Bowie in the back door (on the latter, Weiland even references “modern love”). This, of course, is a compliment of the highest magnitude toward both men. Imitation, when done right, is the sincerest form of rock ‘n’ roll.

The bonus live tracks were a treat, especially the timeless “Vasoline.” Performances of newbies, “Hickory Dichotomy” and “Between the Lines” showed they still had their concert chops intact. This was proven to me in full force when I caught their tour supporting this album. Alongside a lively, humble, completely sober Scott Weiland, the band blasted the whole damn venue to pieces before taking their gracious bow before an exhilarated crowd.

It was clear with this album that Stone Temple Pilots were “Back in the saddle again,” as another band once said. An interior photo showed all four members literally jumping for joy. They seemed to be in a happy place and damn proud of this reunion release. My eyes lit up like the Big Bang (Baby) when I discovered the LP-sized foldout poster placed inside the CD package. They were making a statement. They looked strong and united. Tragically, it didn’t last longer, but it felt good to be a fan of the band then, and it still does today.