Thursday, February 14, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1229: Eddie Vedder

I often refer to this blog as my pilot light. It isn’t my best writing, but when I’m not penning the next Great Canadian Novel, it keeps my brain engaged creatively. It takes me about an hour to knock out a review and after a hard day of using my brain for worky-work, that’s about right.

Every now and then I get an extra spurt of creative energy, as I did yesterday when I came up with a new short story. I’ll keep working on that as well, but you won’t read it here – I only give away music reviews for free. If you want my other writing, you gotta pay me.

Disc 1229 is… Ukulele Songs
Artist: Eddie Vedder

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? Davey Jones’ personal secretary attempts to figure out how to type up a memo for the boss when he can’t even keep the paper dry.

How I Came To Know It: I am a big Pearl Jam fan so when I read a review of this side project of Eddie Vedder’s I decided to check it out

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Eddie Vedder solo albums – this one and his soundtrack to “Into the Wild” released in 2007. Of the two, I’ll give “Ukulele Songs” the edge.

Ratings:  3 stars

Given Eddie Vedder’s love of surfing and all things Hawaii we shouldn’t be surprised that he decided to do an album full of ukulele music. We should be surprised it took this long and ended up being this good.

It would have been easy for Vedder – who isn’t lacking for cash – to mail this in as a vanity project and call it a day. Instead, he shows a true dedication to the genre, creating a set of heartfelt ukulele numbers.

The album is composed roughly of 2/3 original compositions and 1/3 traditional standards and it is a testament to Vedder’s writing that apart from songs I happened to already know, I couldn’t tell which was which. Listening to “Ukulele Songs” I hope one day some guy on a Hawaiian beach 80 years from now, playing a Vedder original, after it too had become a standard.

The songs have simple themes, principally around damaged love, and evoke a wistful tone that speaks of knowing heartache yet finding a way to let that grief settle comfortably around you. Vedder’s crooning are the mournful wind of loss blowing across the sand at night, and the ukulele is the campfire keeping the centre of the song warm and reassuring. It creates a beautiful balance.

Vedder remains one of rock’s great vocalists, but on “Ukulele Songs” anything too powerful would overwhelm the simple understated tone on the record. Instead, he wisely opts to let his voice gently lilt in accompaniment to his instrument of choice. His trademark vibrato is still there, but it is a bit more relaxed and sweeter than we’re used to hearing.

As for the ukulele playing, I’m no expert but it sounds competent and heartfelt, although a far cry from mastery. The tone lacks a bit of the softness around the edges overall, although on the short instrumental “Waving Palms” Vedder rises to the occasion. Other than that song he doesn’t blow me away, but he does successfully harness the light pluck the instrument needs to work its sprightly magic. Could it be better? Yes, but the authenticity of his playing is more important for these songs than any virtuosity.

The album is 16 songs long, which is at least two songs too many. The overall album length is a restrained 34 minutes but keeping your album to 14 songs maximum isn’t just about overall playing length, it is also about letting the mind focus in on each song. Here I found the combination of very short songs and the large number of them made focusing on individual tracks difficult. Maybe that was the point, but I would have preferred Vedder’s 12 best, rather than his 16 favourites.

Overall, this is a record I put on when I need some calm in my life. It is gentle and joyful, despite its sometimes sad subject matter, and well worth a listen and – dare I say it – a lightening of your wallet. Think of it as a restorative trip to Hawaii in the dead of winter, only much less expensive.

Best tracks: Can’t Keep, Sleeping By Myself, You’re True, Sleepless Nights, Waving Palms, Tonight You Belong To Me (that’s 4 Vedder songs and 2 covers if you are keeping score…)

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