Monday, September 15, 2008

Review: Jeff Ament "Tone"

Pearl Jam is a band near and dear to my music-lovin' heart. They're an example of one of the few long-lasting bands to function smoothly as a direct democracy. Not only is each member an expert at his assigned main instrument, they're each great songwriters in their own right - and have the charted singles and sing-along fans to prove it. I've enjoyed their albums, their shows, and even the solo albums of the band members: guitarist Stone Gossard's Bayleaf (2001) was better than his two Pearl Jam lead vocal tries thus far ("Mankind" and "Don't Gimme No Lip"), and lead singer Eddie Vedder's solo soundtrack to the film Into the Wild (2007) proved that he's awesome alone with a guitar/ukulele, with a minimalist rock band, with folksy non-rock instrumentation, and with Pearl Jam.

Now it's bass player Jeff Ament's turn to release an album without the safety of a band name (real or fictitious), with the album Tone. He's the band member responsible for writing many of Pearl Jam's sad songs ("Nothingman," "Low Light," "Nothing as It Seems," etc.), as well as my least favorite single from the band: "Jeremy." (It's been my theory that many who cite "Jeremy" as their favorite Pearl Jam song aren't big fans of the Yield album, if they are even aware of it at all, but I digress.) Ament's sad songs are awesomely good. He also does his fair share of the background vocals live (and possibly recorded). That said, his solo record songs are well-written, and his sometimes-low-in-the-mix vocals are decent - much better than his singular Pearl Jam lead vocal/quasi-rap on the novelty song "Sweet Lew."

Sonically, Tone is a game of tug-of-war between punkish, garage rock (think pre- and post-Nevermind Nirvana) and psychedelic space rock (think pre-Mellon Collie Smashing Pumpkins - the B-sides, that is), with the energy of Dave Grohl's solo debut (the first Foo Fighters album). It's not so much Ament's peers mentioned in the previous sentence's parentheticals; it's more like their shared influences. For instance, "Bulldozer" has a T.Rex-ian hook that would make Marc Bolan proud (or file a lawsuit from the great beyond).

Compared to his fellow bandmates who released solo albums, Ament actually pushes the envelope into slightly more experimental territory: The strange vocal harmony passages in "Relapse," for instance. On the other hand, the folksy acoustic guitar and single-drum percussion arrangement of "Say Goodbye" would feel right at home in Vedder's Into the Wild, with Ed handling the vocals. The '70s-throwback gospel-rock of "Doubting Thomasina" (guest vocals by Doug Pinnick, arguably a stronger vocalist than Ament) would feel right at home on Gossard's Bayleaf (guest vocals included).

Anyway, clocking a bit less than 33 minutes, Ament's solo debut is full of good songwriting and doesn't fall into the trap of being self-indulgent. It succeeds in the same manner as Gossard's good effort and Vedder's triumph, but it's still a good thing that Ament has a day job...as a skateboarder. No, as a graphic designer. No...that other job of his...?

Tracklist:

1. Just Like That
2. Give Me a Reason
3. Bulldozer
4. Relapse
5. Say Goodbye
6. The Forest
7. Life of a Salesman
8. Doubting Thomasina
9. Hi-line
10. The Only Cloud in the Sky

I personally recommend "Bulldozer" as the best song with Ament's vocals, and "Doubting Thomasina" as the best song in the album (it's like "Nothingman II").

Now it's lead guitarist Mike McCready's and tenured drummer Matt Cameron's turns to release their respective solo albums (Cameron's Harrybu McCage doesn't count). Then Pearl Jam can claim KISS solo album status, without the embarrassment of a Gene Simmons rendition of "When You Wish Upon a Star." Come to think of it, Stone Gossard is due for a second solo album.

Anyway, Tone was limited to an initial pressing of 3000. The Ten Club packed a special Jeff Ament aTONEment bass pick (a custom Dunlop Ultex guitar pick) in several fan club orders. Unfortunately, it's currently sold out on the Pearl Jam website, but you might be able to track it down at an independent record store or an online price gouger.

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