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Pearl Jam's 'Olé' another sign of descent




As part of the buildup of momentum towards the release of the Cameron Crowe-directed documentary, Pearl Jam Twenty, Pearl Jam is hosting a countdown and releasing little odds and sods. A photo here, a video there, etc., all in the name of building excitement.

Yesterday afternoon, the biggest of those was the release of a free new track, a little punk number called “Olé.” It’s quick and catchy, and guitarist Mike McCready wails at the end, all wrapped in a neat two minutes and 32 seconds. Nothing that will change the world, but nothing that made my fingernails sink into the desk.

Whether or not it’s warranted or wanted, I feel compelled to comment on everything Pearl Jam does. I wasn’t instantly repulsed by this single, or throwaway track, whatever it is. A big victory, given that two recent singles, “The Fixer” and “Just Breathe,” have left me more than wanting.

But Pearl Jam’s music used to move me and bring me to levels of excitement that no other band could reach. And, since 2009’s Backspacer on, their tunes have missed the mark. That I was, at best, not repulsed by this new track is a poor sign. But, for a band of their standing, it’s likely a sign of the times.

For the past six weeks or so, while reading Keith Richards’ amazing autobiography Life, I’ve been listening to the Rolling Stones with very few musical breaks. I’ve explored the band's peak in the late 1960s and early ‘70s extensively, pouring over lyrics and guitar licks. Let it Bleed and Beggar’s Banquet have gotten plenty of airtime. Exile on Main St. has once again sealed its place in my heart as one of my favorite records.

But the Rolling Stones have a long history. Their early days are littered with gems — “Miss Amanda Jones,” “Connection,” “Flight 505” — and they had their successes in later years. Some Girls is a triumph. The groovier numbers on Emotional Rescue and Tattoo You, like “Dance” and “Slave,” respectively, are infectious. Even in their later days, there’s an occasional strike of the old brilliance; “Rough Justice,” “Love Is Strong,” “Infamy,” and so on.

But the Rolling Stones have made some terrible music. 1976's Black and Blue sounds like an unedited jam session at its best. Undercover (1983) is the culmination of a lot of new ideas, most of which don’t work. Dirty Work, from 1986, is awful. Steel Wheels sounds like all of the 1980s was unleashed in the studio. For such a talented band, loads of horrible tunes have slipped through the soundboard and into the buying public’s ears.

When did the Stones start to go wrong? They slowed after Exile, eventually losing control with Black and Blue. They rebounded, wrote a lot of good songs, but when World War III broke out between Richards and Mick Jagger in 1983, they lost steam. When the ship was righted, the creative spark had gone, and the band has since gone into lifestyle maintenance, as Russell Hammond would say, when it comes to new music.

When I was 15 years old, I shifted the title of “favorite band” from Oasis to Pearl Jam, and in doing so, I lucked into a band that’s still together 20 years on. And big bands — bands that go on long tours in big venues around the world, make records and don’t break up — just about all lose steam around the 20-year mark. The Who stopped after their 18th year. The Kinks lost it after year 20. Aerosmith, U2 and even Pink Floyd all lost the spark. And the Rolling Stones, the benchmark of longevity in rock and roll, had their last gasp of true genius around their 16th or 17th year.

I usually put myself in the shoes of a 25- or 30-year-old Stones fan in 1986, watching them slide out of brilliance and into mediocrity, wondering if they’d ever snap out of it and make new music worthy of their reputation again.

Now, the Stones are still great performers, as are the reconstituted Who, and other bands with as much service time. Pearl Jam just hosted their PJ20 Destination Weekend at Alpine Valley in Wisconsin. I know several people who made the trip, and they all reported the same thing back — the band sounded fantastic.

I have no doubt that, live, Pearl Jam will continue to kick it. Eddie Vedder is too good a singer and showman, and the rest of the band is too tight to continue otherwise. But the days of consistently writing great songs and delivering great albums may be over. Hence, this new single that seems geared only to give South American fans something to shout on their upcoming tour below the equator. It’s disposable, and that’s disappointing.

The Stones released Some Girls, a wall-to-wall classic, in their 16th year as a band. Pearl Jam released their self-titled eighth album, a record packed with fantastic songs that found the band sounding young and revitalized, in their 16th year.

It was a quick tumble down the creative mountain for the Stones after that. Pearl Jam hasn’t done much to slow their own descent.

Sept. 10, 2011

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