Flannel File: Pearl Jam's Ten Redux

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In my last Flannel File entry, I asked if there was any file more flannel-y than that of Screaming Trees. Well, embarassingly enough, that rhetorical question has an answer: yes, and that file belongs to Pearl Jam. Let's step in the time machine and go way, way back to one month ago, March 2009, when Pearl Jam's debut album, Ten, was released in a new edition.

It included not just the mandatory remastered version of the original LP, but, more curiously, a remixed version courtesy of Atlanta's Brendan O'Brien, producer of the other albums in the first and second parts of Pearl Jam's career, from 1993's Vs. to 1998's Yield.

This is what really interested me about the reissue. It's not very common for a middle-aged band to revisit the artistic decisions they made when they were first starting out, and when they do, the result is that, surprise, when you mess with perfection you don't usually improve it. I'm looking at you, Gang of Four.


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On the other hand, I'm not so sure Ten is as perfect as history holds (or fails to). It's not even my favorite Pearl Jam album, coming in at third of the only four I've actually heard. (I gave up after No Code. Sue me.)

In addition, this is a band that is known for having continually struggled over who they were artistically, and how they wanted to do this whole rock-band thing. So maybe there's a good reason they felt they ought to second-guess the decisions they made when they were 26.

It's also an interesting listening experiment to see what can be changed in the mixing stage without dramatically rearranging the song. Unlike modern pop records, which are frequently "remixed" via radical rearrangement of recorded bits into what is essentially a different but equivalent piece of music, Ten is supposed to represent actual performances of songs from beginning to end. You can't cut up and re-order the individual tracks without destroying that representational aspect of the record.

The differences that mixing can impart without damaging the representational value of the record are basically limited to volume levels, EQ (the volumes assigned to different high and low frequencies) and effects. For a simple rock record like Ten, even those are going to be limited to a fairly narrow range. So the differences are going to be subtle; for that reason, although you will see "alternate" mixes of rock singles sometimes, a remix of an entire rock record is pretty darn rare.

So, what exactly did O'Brien do to Ten? It sounds as if he dialed back the EQ on the guitars and drums, took off a lot of the reverb that was added in the mixing stage, and brought the guitars up and the drums down. The sum of these changes is a more natural-sounding and close-up mix, as compared to the "big" sound of the original Ten.

The record sounds leaner and rawer, and there's a lot of guitar stuff - particularly short, relatively minor flourishes - that has a much greater presence. The differences are not dramatic, but they are noticeable enough to change the feel of the record if you're a careful listener. My girlfriend picked up on them right away, despite not having heard the original songs at length since approximately 1993. To me, the remix sounds less like "Pearl Jam's classic album Ten" and more like a kickass rock record, which is a good thing.

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To really hear some of the changes, check out "Even Flow." Right away, you can tell that the drums sound a little buried, and the snare isn't as sharp; maybe O'Brien put in a little more of the snare wires. Guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard are panned hard left and right, and you can hear what each of them is playing quite clearly, whereas the original has a more mixed-together guitar sound. The heavy reverb on Eddie Vedder's voice has been replaced by a tiny bit of delay, and he doesn't echo at all.

On the choruses (the first starts at around 0:58), the weird backing vocals with the reverse delay have been dialed down a bit, and Gossard's guitar is LOUD. But the biggest differences can be heard starting at about 2:59, in the guitar solo just after the second chorus. If you A/B the two versions, you'll be blown away by the remix, because this section is vastly louder than in the original mix.

It's tempting to wonder if this is a result of a heavy-handed mastering job, but I don't think that's the case, because a) the original mix has been remastered by the same person (Bob Ludwig); and b) the volume on the rest of the song is the same as the original! So it sounds as if the quieter section was simply given a volume boost during the mixing phase, before the record was mastered. Very weird.

Another surprise during this particular section (after the solo): Eddie is actually saying something. It sounds like "Hey man, you got a dollar?" "Aw man, just some spare change, there you go." "God bless you man, God bless you." And then something inaudible. Now, despite having heard "Even Flow" about - and I am just estimating here - one million times during my adolescence, I am almost positive that I had never noticed this before.

I was shocked. Going back to the original, I can just barely hear Vedder saying something, but I have no idea what. So this just goes to show how much some seemingly small mixing differences can make to the listening experience.

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Then again, perhaps I had just never listened too carefully to "Even Flow." And in fact, as I got further into Ten Redux, "Jeremy" ended and "Oceans" began, and I came to a startling realization I'm not sure I've ever listened to Ten all the way through before.

I have no recollection of ever hearing "Oceans," "Porch," "Garden" or the end of "Release" before. Yet I still want to claw my eyeballs out when "Alive" and "Black" start because I'm SO FUCKING SICK OF THOSE SONGS. And to be honest I'm not too keen on "Even Flow" either. This brings up one of the weaknesses of , Ten that a remix can't fix: its best songs have been ruined by overexposure.

And here's another: it's ridiculously self-serious. Pearl Jam didn't exactly lighten up on subsequent records, but they did sharpen their angst with some non-self-pitying aggression, which went a long way toward alleviating the dreariness of Ten. So, although the clarity and hardness of the remix put it a step above the original for me, I'm still putting it behind Vs. and Vitalogy.

Fun facts about Pearl Jam I learned while writing this post:

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* I had always though Dave Abbruzzese was the original drummer for Pearl Jam, but he wasn't. Dave Krusen plays on Ten. How could I make this mistake? Blame MTV: not only does Abbruzzese appear in the videos for "Even Flow" and "Alive," but the videos for these songs are not even scored to the tracks that appear on Ten; they're different performances in which Abbruzzese appears.

Pearl Jam's current drummer is Matt Cameron, who used to play for Soundgarden, and who is, quite frankly, a total badass, so maybe I should check out some of their later work.

* As maddeningly popular as the singles from Ten were, Pearl Jam's highest-charting single to date is the annoying cover of "Last Kiss." Puke.

* The members of Pearl Jam are older than I figured. Bassist Jeff Ament is only four years younger than my dad. So if the kid that I saw bouncing around onstage behind Neil Young at the Video Music Awards is pushing 50, that must mean Young is. . . dead of old age.

Farewell Neil, we hardly knew ye.


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