What do you get when you cross one of the finest voices in modern music with one of the most underrated instruments, itself a star of a bygone era in music making? A bloody fine piece of work, that’s what.
Eddie Vedder – Pearl Jam’s lead singer – is quite a literal guy and so in the 16-track strong album Ukulele Songs that is exactly what you get, songs featuring Hawaii’s most famous 4-stringer.
The story goes that during the 90s Vedder picked up a ukulele for a laugh and found himself intoxicated by the simple beauty of the lute’s cousin. He has mulled over this project off and on ever since and this is the result. It was at least ten years in the making.
Ukulele Songs is his second solo release – following on from the magnificent soundtrack to Into the Wild - and refreshingly, he chooses to take different path as a solo artist than he does with Pearl Jam. He really leans on his booming voice to prop up the songs that are his art, and despite the raw power he has within himself, he allows the mood and the moment to ensure that the right thing happens when it comes to the vocals on this album, and invariably it does so in a frightening collection of melodic wonderment.
There is much more hope in Ukulele Songs than Pearl Jam fans will be used to, as befits the tenor of the album. Vedder wrote 11 of the album’s 16 songs; the rest being handpicked covers from anything up to 70 years ago.
The opener Can’t Keep picks up where Into the Wild left off – but this time it is Vedder and ukulele only. The sparseness of the opening song is pretty much repeated for the next half-dozen tracks as Vedder contemplates love, loss and hope in what you can only imagine to be a whitewashed room furnished with just a single seat for Vedder to straddle whilst wearing his darkest suit and brightest ukulele. The contrasts in the songs are not as black and white as this description, but they come helluva close.
More Than You Know ends the opening quarter of the album and features crooning of the highest order. Thereafter it is seven Vedder penned songs with You’re True being a goosebump inducer, the semi-frenetic strumming ceding to Vedder’s virtuoso vocal. It is worth the admission fee alone.
Longing to Belong features a rare step away from the Vedder/ukulele combo, with a haunting cello (is there any other kind) playing a moody backdrop against which Vedder sings of his anticipation for a future love he hopes to win over
Other than this, and guest vocals on the covers Tonight You Belong To Me and Sleepless Nights, you are left in the very safe hands of Mr. Vedder. Sit back, turn on, pour wine and listen. Ukulele Songs is an education, it is a trip down a road on which there are no regrets.
Recommended tracks: Longing to Belong, Goodbye, Without You, You’re True, Waving Palms, Dream A Little Dream (yes, the same one…)
James A. Stewart