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Vedder finds new musical pearls with ukulele songs

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Vedder finds new musical  pearls with ukulele songs

Eddie Vedder has come out with a new solo album called “Ukulele Songs.”

/Photo Contributed


POSTED June 27, 2011 12:58 a.m.

In music, as in life, knowledge and experience can be valuable tools for growth. But for Eddie Vedder, knowing next to nothing about Hawaii’s most famous stringed instrument proved invaluable when he made his endearing new solo album, “Ukulele Songs.”

“There’s a lot about this instrument — and music in general — that I’ve tried to remain naive about. Just because I find that, by not knowing about how the notes connect, and by knowing nothing about the instrument, for me, works songwriting-wise,” said Vedder, who rose to fame after he moved from San Diego to Seattle in 1990 to join a budding young rock band called Pearl Jam. He is now embarked on his sold-out “Ukulele Songs” national tour.

“By knowing nothing about the instrument,” Vedder continued, “it makes you think you’re inventing things that have never been thought of, (even though) most of the notes and structures have all been exploited in some way over the years. If you don’t know it’s an African rhythm (you’re playing), or a 3/4 (time signature), you feel like you’re inventing it, which gives you confidence. So I’ve found it helpful to know nothing about the history of the way an instrument should be played.”

What results on the 16-song “Ukulele Songs” is simple, unadorned music that often makes its greatest impact in its softest moments, of which there are many.

True, Vedder opens the album with a galvanizing voice-and-ukulele version of “Can’t Keep,” one of the harder-rocking gems from Pearl Jam’s 2002 album, “Riot Act.” But he concludes “Ukulele Songs” with “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” a lilting love ballad that was first recorded in 1931 and has since been covered by everyone from Nat “King” Cole to Cass Elliot of The Mamas & The Papas.

In between, come a mix of lilting Vedder originals and choice cover versions that span nearly 90 years. The covers includes the country chestnut “Sleepless Nights” (a favorite of both the Everly Brothers and the late Gram Parsons), the Tin Pan Alley staple “Once in a While” and the heartfelt “Tonight You Belong To Me” (on which Cat Power’s Chan Marshall joins in on vocals).

In each instance, Vedder exudes an almost childlike joy at the act of musical discovery. The album isn’t a major artistic statement, nor does it purport to be. But it’s a charming outing that, at its best, sounds gently cathartic, suggesting that the songs could have sprang forth on their own.

“The music was writing itself,” said Vedder, who lives part of the year on the Hawaiian island of Oahu with his wife and two children. “And the lyrics allowed just whatever was under the surface to easily reveal itself, and — all of a sudden — the song was written ... It’s easier to be objective and have an appreciation for it, because it doesn’t even sound like something you participated in.”

The flurry “Pinball Wizard”-like chords that open “You’re True,” one of the best songs Vedder wrote for his new album, sound like an homage to The Who’s Pete Townshend, one of the Pearl Jam singer’s biggest artistic inspirations and a longtime friend and mentor. Is it?

“I can neither confirm nor deny that theory,” Vedder said with a hearty laugh, “at least, not at this point in the venture.”

However, he readily acknowledged, it was hearing Townshend’s ukulele playing on The Who song “Blue, Red and Grey,” from the 1975 album “The Who By Numbers,” that made him aware the ukulele had untapped musical potential.

“The song resonated with me as a kid — I was probably 12 or 13 — in 1976,” said Vedder, 46, who first picked up a ukulele more than a decade ago. “That song always stuck with me, because it seemed to legitimize the (ukulele). This wasn’t a souvenir song, a tourist song, which is what the ukulele at some point mutated into. (‘Blue, red and Grey’) always stuck deeply inside me, until I actually picked up my first real ukulele, which was maybe 13 years ago. That’s when I could put my hands on it and know that that (Townshend-inspired) sound existed. And that made it feel like, no question, it was a legitimate instrument and you could write music on it.”

Pearl Jam will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, on stage and on the big screen.

Cameron Crowe, the music critic-turned-acclaimed-film-director (“Jerry McGuire,” “Almost Famous”) has been working on a documentary to commemorate the band’s two decades. Entitled “Pearl Jam Twenty,” it will debut on PBS in October, accompanied by a book and a soundtrack album.

Not to be outdone, the five-man band will host and headline a Labor Day weekend festival in East Troy, Wis., where the lineup will also include Queens of the Stone Age, The Strokes, Mudhoney, Liam Finn, Joseph Arthur, John Doe of X and Glen Hansard (who is also the opening act on Vedder’s solo tour). With so much attention focused on the band’s history, does Vedder find he is especially surprised by — or proud of — any specific facet or accomplishment of the group?

“It’s a good question. And, to be dead honest, I don’t know how to answer it,” he replied.

“I think that, in order to keep progressing, there should be some benefits to looking back, to help you determine what your future course may be. But if they are (there), I don’t think they’ve been tangible for any of us ... What we’ve learned is that we really do live in the present. And, to be honest, this looking back thing make me feel like I’m glad we have someone as astute and devoted to music as Cameron Crowe at the helm of putting something together that would represent us and tell a certain number of stories that happened over (the past) 20 years ... So I think we’re just happy we’ve survived it and are still friends and more than that, happy that we’re still a working group.

“I’m going to go to practice in the basement (with Pearl Jam) in about 10 minutes and I think that’s the best part, that we’re still working and probably working on a higher level of efficiency than ever before. Just meaning that our level of communication is a 20-year relationship between partners, (where) you kind of know what the other person is thinking; all these things that can really benefit you, just in the songwriting process alone. I think the biggest emotion is a bit of being overwhelmed, in a positive way, by the fact we survived it all.”

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