Hear Pearl Jam’s ‘Alive’ How It Was Always Meant to Be: Played by a Bluegrass Band
Deep inside every hard-hitting Pearl Jam grunge-a-palooza lurks a bluegrass hoedown dying to do-si-do. Eddie Vedder himself has proven this time and again by switching between the rock group and his own solo ukulele ballads. And now the long-running bluegrass quartet Iron Horse — who have strummed, chicken-picked, and mandolin-ified songs by Metallica, Van Halen, and Kanye West as part of CMH Records’ Pickin’ On series — have imbued some extra twang into 12 Pearl Jam staples for Pickin’ on Pearl Jam, a new album out now.
The group’s interpretation of “Alive” — Vedder’s oedipal tale of a man guilted into an obsessive incestuous relationship with his mother (later to become a serial killer, but that’s another story*) — explodes with pure, exuberant joy. Iron Horse open it with a tremulous, upbeat banjo line, slowly expanding the backdrop while singer-guitarist Vance Henry delivers the lyrics more clearly and coherently than ol’ OedVed ever attempted. They even break into four-part harmony during the chorus as the protagonist realizes that even with his father dead and the guilt he’s shouldering with his mother’s advances, hey, he’s still alive. Truly, the song has never sounded happier. It even ends on a major chord.
Iron Horse also raved up Pearl Jam hits like “Even Flow” (about an “insane”-looking street person), “Daughter” (about parents physically abusing their child), and “Better Man” (video below, about a woman trapped in a toxic relationship). Each reflects the sounds of Iron Horse’s Alabama origins, giving a Southern Gothic flair to the songs, turning Vedder’s words into something more akin to a Flannery O’Connor story or a Carson McCullers novel.
“The more we listened and studied the way [Pearl Jam’s] members played together and interacted in their music, the more we appreciated what this band’s musical genius was, and that being ‘incredibly disciplined but loosely attached,'” mandolinist Tony Robertson said in a statement. “The way I would describe it is, it’s as if the music and the vocals are distinctly different from each other yet they find a way to mesh together for the greater good. It made a very interesting and creative workspace for us to dig into. It was certainly a challenge but fun at the same time.
“One fine example of this was in the way ‘Spin the Black Circle’ transcribed,” he continued. “The music pushed bluegrass boundaries and tapped into an interesting approach that we have not been familiar with in that it had no sense of bluegrass feel but worked out great to make a cut that makes you think, ‘Did I just hear that?’ I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as we enjoyed paying tribute to this iconic band.”
The album serves as an excellent companion to Iron Horse’s Pickin’ on Nirvana, which features similarly unique arrangements of Kurt Cobain’s mordant lyrics.
* Vedder continued the narrative on Ten’s “Once” (which Iron Horse bluegrassified!) and the B side “Footsteps” (which they did not).
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