Sunday, December 25, 2011

17. Pearl Jam vs. The Hush Sound vs. Hole

vs. vs.
by Pearl Jam
from Vs.
  "Sweet Tangerine"
by The Hush Sound
from Like Vines
  "Miss World"
by Hole
from Live Through This

"Rearviewmirror" (6 plays at, unranked): It's weird how we map ideologies onto our tribes. In that strange time from the fall of 1991 to the spring of 1993, I was a devoted Nirvana partisan. I hated Pearl Jam and the, let's say, corporate rock that they represented. They were had an easily packaged angsty story that wasn't exactly buried under layers of subtext. They were in "Singles," the "Desperately Seeking Susan" of the early 90s. When people accused Stone Temple Pilots of ripping them off, I wondered how you could rip off something so fake.

But OK, I was 13, and by the time I turned 14 something clicked. Their superb performance on Unplugged helped, as did the advance hype for Vs. And though it set sales records on the strength of "Go" as the lead single, I suspect it could've done even more leading with this song, which was never even officially released as a single. Opening with a bouncing, simple riff, it's almost perfectly inviting, and is structurally magnificent. The breakdown and return sections work great as Eddie Vedder's vocals begin to strain and deteriorate. Vedder wrote the music himself and it really demonstrates his growth as musician, as the lyrics and music work more cohesively than anything on Ten.

Thematically, the angst and anger of Ten gives way here to emergence and escape, and does so without some of the really obvious poetry that fills both of the first PJ albums. This is a taste of where Vedder would go on Vitalogy. It's also the second of three amazing eighth tracks that the band would their career with, following Ten's "Porch" and preceding Vitalogy's "Corduroy," which is coming later in the tournament.

"Sweet Tangerine" (17 plays, tied for #40): The middle part of the last decade saw the quick rise and fall of a certain kind of male/female indie pop-rock epitomized by the Hush Sound. The form is basically already gone -- most practitioners have shifted noticeably harder (Tonight Alive) or softer (Gold Motel, featuring the Hush Sound's Greta Salpeter). The Hush Sound's second album is probably the foremost example of this genre, and this song is one of its several extremely catchy tunes that combines a plinky piano line with overdriven guitars to create a great, driving tension.

As great a song as it is, though, I'm not even sure it's my favorite song on this album. "Don't Wake Me Up" is also terrific, as is "A Dark Congregation" and a few others. So not a likely winner, but a solidly built and powerful pop song, of a kind that disappeared too fast.

"Miss World" (3 plays, unranked): Even as a Nirvana partisan, I don't know if there's a party line on Live Through This. It's trite to call it the "lost Nirvana album," and I tend to think there's some sexism in that legend, too (though I don't really feel the same about calling Celebrity Skin a Billy Corgan project for some reason). There's no denying the influence of Kurt Cobain here, but it's also nothing like what Nirvana had become by the time it was recorded in 1993. If anything, you can hear a reappraisal of Bleach and the early Nirvana singles in this album's fuzzed-out, simple guitars and pop song structures; if Nevermind was about ripping off the Pixies, Live Through This was about ripping off the Breeders.

"Miss World" itself was released as a single eight days before Cobain's suicide, and at exactly three minutes long, it is maybe the quintessential pop single of the original grunge era. The dueling crunchy and bright guitar parts play off each other beautifully, particularly in the repeated choruses toward the end; Courtney Love's vocals mirror this as she switches between sneer and sincerity. And of course, there's more than a little in there to glom onto in retrospect, realizing it all had to end. This album, Vitalogy and Soundgarden's Superunknown sort of form the firewall of 1994's clash with the future in my mind, and this song is where it starts.

VERDICT: I realize that it's now over 18 years old, and is edging very close to classic rock status, but that's a label that "Rearviewmirror" really deserves. As key a role as it played in turning me around on Pearl Jam, I probably could've written another 500 words just on its subject matter. It'll be interesting to see how it holds up next to some newer classics in later rounds.

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