By Ryan Leas
2011 marks Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary, an occasion the band is commemorating with a series of events and releases, ranging from a documentary to a band-curated festival in Wisconsin. One of the stranger and more surprising releases of this year’s Pearl Jam deluge is frontman Eddie Vedder’s second solo album (or first, if you don’t consider his 2007 soundtrack for “Into the Wild” a full-fledged solo outing). The surprising aspect about this release isn’t that Vedder decided to strike out on his own for a bit while his band turns 20; it’s that the album is named “Ukulele Songs” and, true to that moniker, is almost exclusively performed on the tiny four-string instrument.
Vedder kicks off the album with a re-imagining of the still-excellent “Can’t Keep,” the opening track from Pearl Jam’s underappreciated 2002 album “Riot Act.” It’s one of the better moments on “Ukulele Songs,” but it’s uncharacteristic, too. “Can’t Keep” is a brooding song from a conflicted album, while much of “Ukulele Songs” is ephemeral and light, appropriate characteristics for the casual and welcoming sound of the instrument and the simple yet earnest sentiments Vedder offers in these straightforward love songs.
The title of the album is to be taken quite literally — these are ukulele songs, rarely augmented by anything besides Vedder’s voice. The sole exception to this is the lead single “Longing to Belong,” where a beautiful cello drone weaves in and out of the brighter ukulele strums like waves at the beachside the album so effectively evokes. It’s one of the album’s best and most realized songs, and one can’t help but wonder what other interesting pairings or combinations Vedder could have experimented with. Vedder has long extolled the virtues of the ukulele, which makes its front-and-center solo position here make sense. But if he was endeavoring to encourage others to utilize the instrument more, it could have been edifying to hear it interacting with other instruments as well.
However short and endearing they are, 16 purely ukulele-based songs get a bit monotonous. Nevertheless, despite the repetition, the album does offer up enough of that Vedder earnestness and deft songwriting to produce several gems. One highlight is “Without You,”where Vedder diverges from the campfire strumming that so often seems to dominate ukulele playing and shows us how gorgeous the ukulele can sound with arpeggios and chords locking together. Some songs here date back almost a decade. In the years following Vedder’s first ukulele composition, “Soon Forget” from Pearl Jam’s 2000 album “Binaural,”there had been speculation that Vedder would someday release a totally ukulele-based album, a theory supported by Vedder occasionally featuring tracks like “Goodbye” and“You’re True” in his solo shows. These road-tested songs finally make it onto an album here and stand out as some of the best tracks on “Ukulele Songs.”
“Ukulele Songs” has a sort of gentle authenticity that makes it entertaining for a time, but its brevity and doggedly straightforward mission rob it of some of the layers Vedder could have crafted. Vedder’s first solo effort “Into the Wild,” was also brief, but it revealed textures and details with repeated listens. “Ukulele Songs” may have less potential for repeated revelations, but it does share the charm and sort of tossed-off beauty that dominated “Into the Wild.” Ultimately, the album feels like a bonus for fans, a novelty nobody would have expected 20 years ago when Pearl Jam dominated the airwaves with angst-ridden tunes like “Jeremy” or in 1993 when an angry Vedder graced the cover of Time magazine. Taken simply as what it is, “Ukulele Songs” is satisfying: a bonus detour for those who have stuck with the band and are excited upon its 20th anniversary. However, it may also leave some fans yearning for the day where Vedder releases a true, thoroughly realized solo album, the day where he totally showcases his creativity outside of Pearl Jam.