BY JEFF LEVEN
For most bands, releasing collections of “B-sides,” outtakes and other vault material can be a risky proposition to say the least. At their worst, compilations of this sort can be a cynical attempt to see whether or not the public-at-large will pay good money to consume a haphazard assortment of trash and leftovers, the lazy band’s equivalent to a musical yard sale. Moreover, while sometimes one person’s junk might be another person’s treasure, for some bands the editing function is what distinguishes a good album from a great album, and many times the outtakes act as a litany of the not-quite-up-to-speed, in essence a “greatest misses” collection that can do little other than cloud an otherwise well-thought-out catalogue. That being said, at their best, such collections can also bring fans a feeling of greater intimacy with a favorite group by culling together hard-to-find collector’s items, offering new angles on the band’s sound, or shedding some light into the creative process and providing new glimpses at the way old albums could have come out. After all, in this day and age and most of all market, sometimes the difference between having a given song make the cut or having it end up in the vaults indefinitely can be the pressure of a release date or the commercially-minded brain fart of a radio-preoccupied A&R guy. Putting together records is certainly much more of an art than a science, and undoubtedly every band worth its salt has at least a few lost classics awaiting discovery.
The Best Album They Never Exactly Recorded
Pearl Jam’s recent two-disc B-sides collection, cutely entitled Lost Dogs, is quite solidly an example of all the things that can go right with a collection of this kind. Culling thirty-one tracks (there’s a hidden one!) ranging from previously released singles heretofore only available on compilation albums (including Home Alive, Music for Our Mother Ocean, and the Dead Man Walking soundtrack) to purely unreleased tracks from recording sessions throughout its career to a series of Christmas singles originally released only to its fan club, Lost Dogs thoughtfully shadows the band’s career with an understated elegance.
Perhaps the most brilliant move in putting Lost Dogs together was arranging the tracks non-chronologically. From the start, the song arrangement fights the notion that this is supposed to be some sort of band history or static archive. To begin with, it is by no means a complete catalogue of outtakes. After all, those interested in evolution are better off listening to the albums in sequence or comparing live shows across the band’s career. The songs contained here are often experiments, moments where the band was trying a new sound, experimenting with a musical or production technique, or just releasing steam in the studio. However, rather than throw these odds and ends together in a haphazard slapdash, Pearl Jam carefully massages them into a sequence where the moods and tones flow into each other in an intuitive and nearly seamless fashion. In other words, Pearl Jam had the insight to make Lost Dogs into a true album in its own right, and frankly, stepping back from it, it may well be one of the best albums the band has ever released.
Longtime Pearl Jam fans and even some punters will recognize a few of the more celebrated strays on Lost Dogs, graced as it is by the radio version of “Yellow Ledbetter” (heretofore available only as a B-side on the “Jeremy” single or on various import versions of Ten) and “Last Kiss” (first a fan club single then released on the Kosovo benefit album No Boundaries). However, sandwiched between these household names are lost gems like the bristling “Alone” and hyper-explosive “Brother” (both of whose absence from Ten now seems nearly criminal, particularly in the case of the latter), the haunting “Other Side” (easily better than half of the tracks that did make Riot Act), the strangely claustrophobic but wildly kinetic “All Night,” and the wispy and understated “Hard to Imagine.” Looking back across these songs, one is almost tempted to re-evaluate the standard criticism of the band’s later albums, particularly Binaural, from whose sessions six of these songs hail. Ironically, the only sessions that are totally unrepresented here are the Vitalogy sessions, attesting perhaps to the fact that pretty much everything and the kitchen sink somehow made it onto that particular album (which explains “Bugs”). Indeed, the quieter, softer spots on the second disc from even the Vs. and Ten sessions attest not only to a continuity in the quality of the group’s song-craft, but also suggest that the difference in tone amongst the albums was often a conscious one, as potent but divergent songs were shelved. Listening through the two discs, one almost begins to feel grateful that so many of these tracks didn’t make their way onto one of the earlier albums, given that they sound so lush and complete displayed together in this way.
Indeed, the only way to get at all frustrated with Lost Dogs is to fight the concept. Those seeking a more complete catalogue of outtakes will certainly note that a variety of live B-sides are missing, as are songs from the Merkinball EP, as well as the two very excellent tracks off the Singles soundtrack (the second of which, “State of Love and Trust” remains, in my opinion, the best, wildest, most propulsive Pearl Jam rocker of all time). But to quibble about these details misses the point and overlooks the careful groupings at work here. For a band that has released every last live show in one form or another from its past few tours, Lost Dogs is an exercise in thoughtful restraint and loving sonic stewardship. All in all, it is an astoundingly strong and deeply listen-able argument for why Pearl Jam should well be considered among the best bands of its generation.
A Nice Souvenir
In the case of Bruce Springsteen, the release of The Essential Bruce Springsteen is hardly necessary to confirm his legacy or even catalogue his impact on American music. Nonetheless, it does provide a more expansive view of the Boss’s career than 1995’s terse and spotty Greatest Hits. As Bruce himself admits in the liner notes, the die-hards will always quibble with the track list on a set like this, and clearly the strategy in compiling this set was to chronologically march through the albums, leaving us to deal with “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town” when we could have had “I’m On Fire,” “Racing in the Streets,” or even “One Step Up” (much better than the title track from the same album, which is included). Of course, for those for whom Springsteen’s catalogue is more than just a passing fancy (which, by my lights, should be pretty much everyone), nothing less than owning most of the albums will ultimately be necessary. As such, the question becomes whether or not the set’s third disc, composed of unreleased rarities and live cuts, is enough to justify making the devoted repurchase two discs of stuff they already have.
Like Tracks before it, the bonus disc on The Essential Bruce Springsteen is a hodge-podge of random stabs in various directions ultimately powered by its highlights. While nothing here stiffs terribly, some of the songs are undoubtedly half-realized experiments – witness the angular-but-not-completely-unbeautiful falsetto number “Lift Me Up,” or the similarly atmospheric, lush, but somehow slightly over-processed “Missing.” More fun but less weighty or artistically crucial are rockabilly jaunts like Bruce’s original version of “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come),” “Held Up Without A Gun” (a wham-bam live rewrite of “You Can Look But You Better Not Touch”) or his cover of Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas.” The album’s critical mass is found instead in two subtle cuts from shortly after Nebraska was recorded – a gruff, reverberant rockabilly number called the “Big Payback” and the deliciously rustic country humility of “County Fair.” Also excellent is a live cover of J
immy Cliff’s “Trapped,” where the band utilizes the synthesizer-and-palm-muted guitar formula of its Born in the USA era to credibly convert a reggae chestnut into an arena anthem while still managing to conserve much of the song’s intrinsic energy in the translation.
Ultimately, the extra disc on The Essential Bruce Springsteen does in one disc something akin to what the Tracks box set does – fleshing out the depths of a Springsteen collection with a few sublime moments, a few novelty numbers and a few near misses. As such, it’s probably an easier and safer purchase for those just looking for a one-disc taste of Bruce’s outtakes, but remains clearly less essential than Live 75-85 or any of the proper albums. It’s a pleasant souvenir, a nice extra treat for the uninitiated, a cunning marketing move to garner the interest of the diehards and a thing-to-wait-to-buy-used for those in between.