x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Eddie Vedder's Ukulele Songs

The Pearl Jam front-man turns to the ukulele for his latest solo album.

Vedder came to global prominence, if not universal popularity, as the charismatic singer with Pearl Jam.
Vedder came to global prominence, if not universal popularity, as the charismatic singer with Pearl Jam.

Ukulele Songs
Monkeywrench
****

When Eddie Vedder was striding purposefully across the world's major stages 20 years ago, that sweat-drenched mane swishing majestically as he bellowed angst-ridden anthems at feverish crowds, a tiny guitar and classic show tunes were presumably quite a long way from his thoughts.

How people change.

Vedder came to global prominence, if not universal popularity, as the charismatic singer with Pearl Jam, an earnest Seattle outfit who went toe-to-toe with Nirvana in the great plaid-clad grunge wars of the early 1990s. Nirvana won the credibility battle but Pearl Jam proved more resilient and remain active; sessions for a new album were due to begin last month.

The band began to incorporate folkier elements as their career progressed, and Vedder's first solo long-player - the soundtrack to Sean Penn's 2007 film Into the Wild - featured several stripped-down acoustic numbers. Now, having discovered the "uke" while on holiday in Hawaii, he has cast aside the bombastic rock completely. Ukulele Songs is about as similar to the original Pearl Jam template as Vedder is to George Formby, the wartime entertainer who popularised the uke in the UK with jaunty songs about windows and lampposts. The former grunge idol does not fully follow the Formby route here, but comes mighty close.

The album's two closing tracks, for example, are a gruffly humorous take on the pre-war ballad Dream a Little Dream of Me preceded by a ramshackle cover of the 1920s standard Tonight You Belong to Me. The latter is a duet with the New York singer-songwriter Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, and clearly owes much to Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters' touchingly silly version in the 1979 Carl Reiner farce The Jerk. Martin actually managed to snap his uke during that scene but thankfully Vedder's remained intact, as this album leans on it rather heavily.

Only the lovely single Longing to Belong features extra accompaniment - some welcome strings - and elsewhere Vedder illustrates his new toy's versatility in impressive fashion. Track one - the old Pearl Jam song Can't Keep - opens with some stark plucking oddly reminiscent of The Edge's guitar work on U2's Sunday Bloody Sunday, while You're True - a previously unrecorded favourite from his solo shows - boasts a rigorous riff not unlike that from The Who's Pinball Wizard.

Vedder was reportedly keen to add a darker dimension to the uke's jolly image and there are genuinely dramatic moments here, particularly the sparse and brooding Light Today. A version of The Everly Brothers' Sleepless Nights follows, however, on which he and The Frames' frontman Glen Hansard - better known outside Ireland as the star of the Oscar-winning film Once - appear to be having a whale of a time.

It may not be his magnum opus, but Vedder manages to achieve just about the perfect balance here. Yes, Ukulele Songs may alienate fans of his earlier, heavier work, but the jauntier setting should also reintroduce that extraordinary voice to a different demographic: those who have steered well clear of Pearl Jam ever since the gloomy grunge years. Only a tiny guitar can do this.