Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. have all just released multiple-disc CD packages. Springsteen's and R.E.M.'s are greatest-hits albums combined with limited-edition discs filled with rarities, alternate takes and previously unreleased tracks, while Pearl Jam's Lost Dogs dispenses with the hits and instead offers up two-and-a-half-dozen of their hard-to-find or unreleased songs. The albums may look like cheap-to-produce Christmas collections put out to temporarily ease the music industry's long, southward slide, but it's hard to imagine a less cynical group of pop artists. The vaults they've thrown open tell you a lot. First, they convey how deep these bands go, how they can afford to leave stuff in storage that other bands would kill for. Second, some of their alternate takes show how fragile their classics can be—how even slight changes in rhythms or lyrics, or the decision to use reverb or a tape-loop backing track, can make all the difference. Finally, albums like these toss in the oddities that all three artists—clear devotees of the idea of the album as a cohesive statement—can't fit into the normal formats. They let you catch the bands off guard.
Pearl Jam's Lost Dogs has a generous casualness you don't sense from their studio albums. Eddie Vedder is such a strenuously brooding presence that their CDs often lack air, and sometimes just the fun that most great rockers have an instinctive sense of. It's no accident that "Last Kiss," the remake of the pop-morbid '50s classic and PJ's biggest, warmest single (included here) was a fan-club-only release until radio stations got hold of it. Vedder seems embarrassed about it in the liner notes, but it's a great vocal performance. He opens himself up into the sheer pleasure of melody in a way he hasn't since Ten, and draws a genuine pathos out of the song's trite melodrama. Digging deep into rock tradition, Vedder finally seems to be having fun.
But what Lost Dogs underlines more than anything is the holding pattern the band's been in since at least Yield. Most of the first disc is from the late '90s, and it's heavy on the stripped-down punk chordage that the band seemed to adopt as they felt the sting of critics (most notably Kurt Cobain) who thought their early work exposed them as Led Zep wanker jocks overdoing the guitar riffs. But Stone Gossard and Mike McCready wrote great guitar lines, and Vedder sang over them in wonderfully inventive ways. (Listen to "Jeremy" again, and try to imagine how Vedder, given that guitar figure, came up with that vocal melody.) Almost all the great stuff on Lost Dogs, like "Yellow Ledbetter," "Dirty Frank," "Hard to Imagine" and "Footsteps," is from the Ten and Vs. period, music that's subtle, yearning and desperate, and melodic in ways that Eddie and company now only seem to throw in as an afterthought.
Springsteen's new Essential collection is a corrective to the skimpiness of his first greatest-hits album. Employing two CDs instead of one lets him pluck classics from his first two albums (like "Rosalita") as well as range around in the later catalogue beyond the obvious megahits. (It's great to see "Living Proof" here, which may contain Bruce's best lyrics ever, and one of his most throat-busting vocals.) But completist fans will come for the rarities disc, which works like a fifth volume to the four-CD Tracks collection from 1998. The 12 songs here run the gamut from stuff available only on film soundtracks or other compilations, like the dread-soaked "Dead Man Walking" and the dereggaefied but moving version of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped"; songs Springsteen gave to other artists to make hits out of, like "From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)"; to early '80s outtakes in that ultrasincere mode that Bruce's old New Jersey fans love but that don't wear well, like "County Fair." What's great here, actually, are the songs from the early '90s—"Lift Me Up" (sung completely in falsetto) and "Missing"—when Springsteen, having ditched the E Street Band, holed up alone in his Hollywood Hills home studio and made music. It's lonely, sexually desperate and morally complex, most of it so painful for the singer that he seems to need cushioned synthesizer washes to calm him down enough to get it all out. These songs point up, as did Tracks before it, that early '90s Springsteen is some of the best Springsteen there is.
R.E.M.'s new best-of anthology gathers most of the post-1988 Warner Bros. highlights along with two new songs. Whatever styles they appropriated during the past 15 years, whether the sweet '60s folk-rock humanism of 1991's "Losing My Religion," the grunge-lite that ruled 1994's Monster or the drum machines and loops that weighted down 1998's Up, the music is always held together by Michael Stipe's voice, which, as jesterish or angry or muddy-headed as he may sometimes sound, retains its uncanny ability to convey suffering, consolation and hope. The rarities CD contains 10 demo, acoustic or live versions of such familiar songs as "Pop Song '89" or "Leave," all of which are interesting, and none of which are really better than the originals we know. And there's a travesty or two, such as William Burroughs talking through a version of "Star Me Kitten." The four other songs are either no great shakes or appalling experiments. But: the whole damn thing is justified by their most sublime song in years, "Bad Day," which combines the machine-gun lyric attack of "It's the End of the World as We Know It," a deliriously soaring bridge and chorus, and a timely bull's-eye piece of criticism about the collusion between a corrupt government and a corrupt press. Amid his scathing anti-Bush, anti-Fox News rat-a-tat-tat, Stipe remains ever hopeful, singing: "Broadcast me a joyful noise unto the times, lord." And I thought, Who needs the lord when you've got this song? R.E.M. bring the joyful noise themselves.
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