Okay. So reviewing an entirely ukulele-recorded album might not be the most orthodox decision for a guitar-centered magazine. To be honest, we just couldn’t help ourselves. And if you’re reading, you probably couldn’t either.
It’s not every day that a seasoned musician and generational icon decides that he’ll dedicate 35 minutes of studio recording to a miniature, four-stringed Hawaiian instrument, which – and let’s be truthful here – smacks of gimmickry and irony. Especially when it’s accompanied by Vedder’s signature burly vocals and sombre song writing. And just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any more tongue-in-cheek, he decided to call it Ukulele Songs.
Fans of Pearl Jam will surely recall Binaural’s short and sweet ukulele track, “Soon Forget”, from when the album was released over 10 years ago. It turns out that many of Ukulele Songs’ material is as old, or more so. However strange a concept, Vedder and his uke are often quite compelling throughout this oddity of an album.
The album’s shining moment is a Vedder and Cat Power duet, “Tonight You Belong To Me”, which at 1:42 in length cuts right to the chase and delivers a soft, jazzy love ballad that leaves you wishing it would go on forever. We found ourselves skipping backward after being snapped too soon from the hammock-under-the-stars coma induced by their silky smooth crooning and seductive uke riff.
Some of the album’s remaining originals (one-third of which is covers) work beautifully, while others feel as though they belong at a beach-side campfire and should never appear under another context. “Sleeping By Myself” is a heart-on-your-sleeve, woeful reflection over heartbreak and lost love as Vedder sings “I should have known there was someone else/ Down below I always kept it to myself”.
“You’re True” is of the opposite vein; a fast-strumming testament to Vedder’s ‘the one’, with whom he’s finally able to be himself as he belts along to his ambitious little ukulele. A cover of “Dream A Little Dream” had us particularly excited and curious, but turned out to be a letdown as Vedder groans out the lyrics with a depression that rivals Tom Waits.
Overall, it’s hard to put a finger on Ukulele Songs. More specifically, it’s hard to determine where this album belongs; on your iPod or a beach far, far away. At best, it’s Vedder’s heartfelt song writing delivered in a short and sweet package for anyone to digest. At worst, it’s the polar opposite of what a Pearl Jam-mer would ever hope for from a seasoned veteran of grunge rock who, in over 20 years, is only just releasing his second solo album.
Perhaps the part we’re struggling with most is figuring out what possibly could have compelled him to release Ukulele Songs? Maybe he just couldn’t help himself.
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