Put Up Your Dukes: Pearl Jam’s “Ten”

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Two of MAGNET’s Matts—editor Matthew Fritch and writer Matt Ryan—go to the mat to see whose opinion is more correct. Today’s topic: Ten, Pearl Jam‘s 1991 grunge touchstone. Put up your dukes!

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan

Can 10 million Americans be wrong? That’s not a serious question. This debate would already be over if that were my opening argument. But 10 million is the number of copies of Pearl Jam’s Ten that have been sold since its release in 1991 (they just reissued it in a deluxe edition, by the way), not to mention the canonization of the album by, well, everyone. After going back and listening to Ten, we should really reconsider this. It’s essentially a cartoonish blues-rock ponytail cheesefest masquerading as then-popular grunge. Listen to those Edgar Winter hot-lick guitar fills! What about Eddie Vedder‘s grandpappy routine, the “c’mere son, sit on my lap and I’ll tell you ’bout your daddy” lyrics? Even Pearl Jam themselves outgrew this charade. For various reasons, Ten had to be made and became very popular. But why can’t we all admit it was a passing mistake and move on?

From: Matt Ryan
To: Matthew Fritch

While some of Pearl Jam’s members invented grunge (see Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament in Green River ), I agree that Pearl Jam never should have been lumped into that genre. As you imply, Ten was much more informed by blues and classic rock than punk and metal. I guess our point of departure is that you believe that this is a bad thing. In a similar vein, I’ve always been puzzled by the indie crowd’s disdain for the guitar solo (J Mascis’ output excepted) or, as you call it, “hot-lick guitar fills!” They’re a rock ‘n’ roll band, for chrissakes. Finally, I’m wondering if you heard Ten when it came out, or years later. I suspect that latecomer perceptions could be unfairly influenced by the horrible imitators (e.g., Candlebox, Daughtry, Nickelback) that followed. Granted, Ten isn’t some grand artistic statement, but for those of us who can appreciate the likes of Hendrix and Crazy Horse, it’s one hell of a rock ‘n’ roll album.

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan

Somewhere between playing devil’s advocate and engaging in revisionist history, I have to come clean about Ten: I bought the cassette in high school. Nearly wore it out. Learned how to (badly) play “Black” on the guitar, probably to impress some girl. Seen the “Jeremy” video maybe 60 times. I thought that by going back and listening to this album again after many years would engender some fond feelings for it. Songs like “Alive” and “Even Flow” have never left our car radios, but maybe I’d rediscover something great on those side-two songs I’d forgotten existed, like “Oceans” or “Deep.” Turns out they weren’t hits for a reason. Sure, it’s a matter of taste (I do like the Led Zeppelin thing going on in “Garden,” for whatever that’s worth.) But I want to say this: If we can’t blame Pearl Jam for Candlebox, Nickelback and Daughtry, then who is to blame? Eddie Vedder stood up to Ticketmaster but couldn’t bother to stand up and say, “Hey. Hey, you guys. Please stop because you’re making a mockery out of me”? Don’t you think art should work that way? The guys who made Airplane! could tell the guys who made Not Another Teen Movie to knock it off, and we’d all benefit. When you let the genie out of the bottle, it’s your responsibility to put the fucker back in.

From: Matt Ryan
To: Matthew Fritch

I’m starting to see the problem for you here. Pearl Jam conjures too many adolescent memories of not getting laid. All those hours spent honing your chops on your Japanese knock-off Stratocaster and rewarded with nothing but hand cream and late-night Cinemax. Having been married for a year when Ten came out, I have no such negative associations. I just remember that a straight-up rock band like Pearl Jam was a breath of fresh air after the hair-metal ’80s. As to your suggestion that the band is responsible for policing what came after Ten, how exactly would that be accomplished? Although I would fully endorse Vedder putting a hired hit on Scott Stapp and Chad Kroeger, I’m not sure that would be entirely legal. Barring that, what’s left? Bitching in the media? Yeah, that’s a productive exercise. Or maybe you stop making videos, stop doing press and put out a few difficult albums. You essentially go underground, distancing yourself from the pretenders. Would that be an effective approach? Is any of this sounding familiar? Anyway, back to the matter at hand, I think you better go back and listen to side two a little more closely, particularly the furious opening of “Porch” or the emotional slow-burn of “Release.”

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan

“Porch” is a good song; I liked it more when it was on side one and titled “Once.” The two songs open quite differently, but once they get going, it’s kind of the same riff, tempo and vocal style. Maybe in another key or something—I didn’t learn to play those on my guitar (which was acoustic with an annoyingly high bridge), so I can’t really say. “Release” is OK, too, but it’s just a one-bar arpeggio that gets louder for four minutes. It’s kind of a cooler version of “Hunger Strike” by Temple Of The Dog (which came out before Ten), but still … I just made a valid comparison to Temple Of The Dog. You can’t win now. Here’s a question: Isn’t “State Of Love And Trust” (featured on the Singles soundtrack) superior to anything on Ten?

From: Matt Ryan
To: Matthew Fritch

Yeah, there’s nothing lamer than a “one-bar arpeggio.” I wonder if there are any openings at Guitar World? I think you’ve missed your calling. Anyway, yes, I could be convinced that “State Of Love And Trust” is superior to anything on Ten. Here’s a pretty great unplugged version of that song before the band, like the rest of us, got old, fat and cut their hair. Speaking of Temple Of The Dog, was there ever a better showcase for Chris Cornell’s vocals? I wonder if he ever goes back and listens to that record? I suspect not. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have released his solo records, each more shitty than the previous, culminating with that Timbaland abomination. Why can’t the guy just do a rock, blues, or—hell’s bells, man—even a gospel album? It’s an interesting study of contrasts between Cornell and Pearl Jam, two acts spawned from the same Seattle breeding grounds at exactly the same time. Pearl Jam achieved mainstream success early and was mostly reviled by the critics and indie cognoscenti. Later, they went (relatively) underground, shed some of their listeners, but ultimately obtained some modicum of critical respect and a smaller, more loyal fan base. Cornell, meanwhile, with Soundgarden, was considered a legit part of the nascent grunge scene, and despite being an iffy lyricist, was respected for his glass-shattering vocals. Now, in an apparent bid for mainstream success, he has shed any remaining loyalists, become a laughingstock in critical circles and—here’s the rub—is still an abject commercial failure. That said, I’m probably more apt to revisit Soundgarden’s Screaming Life EP than Ten these days, but I suspect that’s a function of residual fatigue from Ten‘s ubiquity on TV and radio back in the day. I wonder if that early-’90s overdose is also contributing to your revisionist take? Kind of like when you get spectacularly drunk in college on a particular liquor, throw up loudly and abundantly as a result, and then can’t stand to even look at said liquor for decades afterward.

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan

I’m not going to be drawn into your Chris Cornell hate pit. Nice try, though. That guy is clearly out of ideas. Are my Soundgarden and Nirvana and Skin Yard (just kidding—I don’t own any Skin Yard!) CDs analogous to that bottle of Razzmatazz in the back of my liquor cabinet? You could be correct there. But I don’t think that level of residual fatigue happens with iconic (or just really great) rock ‘n’ roll albums. Appetite For Destruction, Back In Black, Led Zeppelin II—I personally don’t think these are the best rock albums ever, but I do think they’ve endured and seem unstuck from a particular era. There are teenagers right now who are smoking pot in the basement and listening to those albums. I don’t think Ten got handed down to younger siblings the way a lot of people inherited some Sabbath or Tom Petty or R.E.M. That kind of takes the “classic” out of its “classic rock” aspirations, don’t you think? Hold on: I just got an email press release saying that the TV show Cold Case will feature 16 Pearl Jam songs, many of them from Ten, in its next two episodes. “We’re thrilled to have Pearl Jam’s music in not only one, but two, of our episodes,” says writer/executive producer Greg Plageman. “It’s also a great fit with the team’s murder investigation of a trail-blazing female cadet.” Well, there you have it: Ten will live in our hearts as the soundtrack to the season finale of Cold Case.

From: Matt Ryan
To: Matthew Fritch
C’mon, you rattle off a list of ea
rly-’90s Seattle bands with no mention of Gruntruck or Cat Butt? Anyway, I don’t have a little brother, so I’m not sure if that hand-me-down analogy fits or not. I do have a six-year-old daughter, but she’s partial to Neko Case (which is sort of ironic when you think about it, as Case’s hatred of children is well documented). I can tell you that a friend of mine has made Pearl Jam fans out of his two grade-school-age boys, but I suppose that’s too small a sampling to extrapolate to an entire population of young listeners. And I’m pretty sure they’re not smoking pot in their basement (yet). So yeah, Skin Yard. That Jack Endino was something, wasn’t he? He really produced the heck out of that … oh, forget it. I’m obviously stalling here in the hopes that I won’t have to address the fact that Pearl Jam will now be the soundtrack to “a trail-blazing female cadet” on network television. (This on the heels of me spouting off about Pearl Jam’s underground bona fides.) I’ve suddenly lost the will to carry on with this debate. If you don’t mind, I’ll just slink off quietly now.

From: Matthew Fritch
To: Matt Ryan

Wait! Come back! I had so many aces up my sleeve: “Imperfect Ten.” “This Ten only goes to four.” “The judge from Correctistan gives Ten a six.” “The judge proficient in Number Theory gives Ten a score of the complex form a + bi, which isn’t even on the real number line!” I think I just lost all (meaning both) of our readers, too.

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5 Comments

  1. megosh
    Posted April 30, 2009 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    i loved this “dukes”, best one so far.

  2. ed
    Posted May 1, 2009 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, this was pretty great. Thanks.

    I have to wonder though if Pearl Jam had no say in the Cold Case soundtracking– and that the results are part of a bad licensing deal with SONY. Occasionally I hear their (ten-era) songs as vamp music on football games or morning talk shows.. Both those and the Cold Case thing seem out of character for a band that has only soundtracked films made by their friends (Singles, Chicago Cab, Into The Wild) or documentaries about their own personal politics (Body of War, You Can’t Be Neutral On A Moving Train)…

    Then again Vedder has been quoted as saying Pete Townshend was more of a father to him than anyone else– maybe The Who on CSI and that Hummer commercial convinced him to be a bit more lax on their licensing deals. Doubt it though.

  3. Posted May 6, 2009 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    i’m going to have to agree that this was the best dukes yet. For my money, Vs. (or Five Against One, if you want to get picky) was a far superior album and remains the only unflawed album in the band’s pantheon.

  4. Posted May 6, 2009 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I like TEN a lot and I think that it is one of the best records in the 90’s.

  5. Freddy
    Posted November 17, 2009 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    Boy I miss the early 90s. I absolutely love Ten and while I was a bit disappointed when Vs came out (Daughter and Glorified G are terrible, terrible songs) there were still some great tunes on there. When Vitalogy came out I gave up on the band. That whole punk thing they got going, plus the hair cuts and loosing Abruzzeeze was the worst thing that happened to the band. I still listen to Ten, 17 years later, and to Temple of the Dog and Mother Love Bone and Alice in Chains and Soundgarden and Brad and Mad Season… But I haven’t touched Vitalogy pretty much since I bought it and I have never bought another PJ album. To me, they lost the plot completely. And Matt Cameron, an awesome drummer with Soundgarden, sounds like he’s been playing the drums for six months with PJ. They should have dropped it a long time ago… Man, I miss rock music…