By Jonathan Cohen
Seven albums into its career, Pearl Jam has yet to surrender to the musical complacency that often comes with advancing age. If anything, "Riot Act," due Nov. 12 from Epic, is one of the band's most compositionally interesting records ever. The secret? Each band member contributed songs to the project, ranging from drummer Matt Cameron's guitar effect extravaganza "You Are" to Eddie Vedder's plaintive, largely acoustic "Thumbing My Way" to such quintessentially Pearl Jam rockers as "Cropduster," "Save You," and "Get Right."
Riot Act cover art The album, produced by the band with Adam Kasper, also features significant contributions from keyboard player Kenneth "Boom" Gaspar, whom Vedder met and quickly began collaborating with last year in the midst of a surfing trip to a remote Hawaiian island.
"There was a lot of excitement about it all," guitarist Stone Gossard admits. "Just like the experimentation with guitar things and vocal effects, maybe we let our guard down a little bit and said, 'hey, we can do some stuff, even if we can't necessarily replay it.' With Boom, it was letting go of, 'hey, let's have a guy come in who we've never played with before.' At least we can take steps toward being open to new things. That fell very naturally into that same process."
What follows is the story of the songs on "Riot Act" and a handful of tracks that didn't quite make the cut, straight from the mouths of band members themselves.
"Can't Keep": Although debuted by Vedder on ukulele during two solo concerts this spring, the slow-burning track is transformed here with layers of treated guitars and a rumbling beat that would have fit nicely on the band's 1996 album "No Code."
Eddie Vedder: This is the cool thing about letting yourself go and not trying to maintain control over your vision. Sometimes you write a song and you have a certain way you hear it in your head. To hear it start to become something different... the ukulele version of "Can't Keep" is much faster. It's much more punk rock than what it ended up, for sure [laughs hard]. And that's okay! You can almost feel the band feeling each other out and building together. Stone Gossard: I think it was the first one on a tape of songs Eddie brought in. I actually learned how to play it on guitar and I came into the studio thinking I would convince these guys to play it, because I knew this song was going to be killer if we translated it to the full the band. Matt Cameron: Once we learned the parts, we kind of had to transpose it a little bit. We gave it kind of an acoustic and electric approach, so it has this kind of "Poor Tom" Led Zeppelin approach. It brought it to a different realm, and ultimately Eddie was happy with the way the band transformed it. Jeff Ament: There are three different people playing guitar, so it sounds like the Jimmy Page records, but we have three guitar players! It's so static; it sounds like insects or something.
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"Save You:" The tale of a mutually detrimental love/hate relationship ("F*** me if I say something you don't want to hear from me / F*** me if you only hear what you want to hear from me") set to relentless, punk-leaning rock.
Mike McCready: I came in with that riff and we just kind of started jamming on it. It was a blast to play. The track that actually ended up on there, halfway through the song, Matt lost his headphones. He was going off. That's my favorite part of that song, his crazy drum fills. I like the solo too, but the drum fills are insane how good they are. He's doing them without his headphones, just by watching the bass. Cameron: It was me watching Jeff's fingers and hoping I was in time, you know? There's a breakdown of just me and Jeff. I hit a cymbal, moved my head, and the headphones went flying. A little point of interest there for the listener!
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"Love Boat Captain:" An unusually structured song somewhat similar in sound to "Light Years" from "Binaural." Vedder borrows the title phrase from the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" before barreling into an intense chorus, thickened by Boom's prominent organ chords. Later, Vedder salutes the nine fans who died during Pearl Jam's June 30, 2000, set at Denmark's Roskilde festival.
Vedder: I started disappearing into surfing areas about five or six years ago, as a way to refuel whatever I'd lose being around a lot of people. I'd just go where there was no people! This place where literally the roads are.. there's no stoplights. It's very small town living. I met this "Big Kahuna"-type guy on the island. His friend was this other guy who was a musician. There was another guy on the island who was recording some of the locals there. He passed away; a young guy. He left a wife and kid. I would never go to functions or whatever, but I went to this wake on a big porch. Musicians were playing all night; the guys he had recorded. It was pretty intense and pretty sad. I noticed this guy playing [Hammond B3 [organ], just world-class! I bumped into him a couple other times and then I threw it out there that we should play sometime. I had a little recording setup for when I wanted to get away and do some writing. He just showed up and we started playing. That night we wrote what turned into "Love Boat Captain." Within an hour, we had this thing we put on the stereo and played it loud. It was probably about an 11-minute version at that point. Ament: The demo to that was called "Boom B3." We played a version of it, and then it got re-arranged. Cameron: There weren't any lyrics when we tracked it, so we did what we thought would be a good, tight instrumental version that would later have vocals on it. When we tracked it, I was like, "Huh? What's this?" It made no sense to me. But then when the vocals were added, it made perfect sense and it elevated the entire piece.
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"Cropduster": One of the album's standout tracks, with especially creative guitar progressions and an unexpected key change for the chorus. Vedder leads a powerful closing salvo as he ponders the randomness of life: "Everyone is practicing, but this world's an accident."
Gossard: Matt Cameron wrote the music and then Ed wrote the words to it, which I think are some of the most beautiful words on the record. It's a very cool song. It is a little bit more straightforward than [Cameron's contribution to "Binaural"] "Evacuation."
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"Ghost": A musically dark rumination on the dangers of complacency, backed by simple rock riffing, unusual harmony vocals, and a shredding McCready solo.
McCready: That's a fun one to play! Gossard: Those big, simple grooves are just my favorite to play. And, they allow me and Mike McCready to strut across the stage! Ament: It was just this riff that I had and I had a vocal melody in my head with it. I was kind of thinking like a Guided By Voices song or something.