Keep On Keeping On
Pearl Jam and Phish Keep the '90s Alive

And now we’ve lost John Prine.

I’m not sure I have the energy to give Prine the eulogy he deserves. Many others have already done him justice. If you haven’t seen Elvis Costello’s tribute, for instance, it’s very much worth reading. Prine has long been one of those songwriters that other songwriters love and point to as an influence. His work has always been deceptively simple – his chords are generally basic, his observations straightforward. But dig into his lyrics and the way he delivers them, and you’ll find entire worlds there.

My favorite Prine song is on his first album. I normally resist any suggestion that an artist’s best work is on their debut, since that often indicates that a lifetime of work that followed couldn’t measure up. I don’t think that’s the case for Prine – his songwriting remained consistent, even through his final record, 2018’s The Tree of Forgiveness. Nevertheless, “Sam Stone” is on Prine’s debut, and no other song he’s written hollows me out like that one does. The unflinching story of a war veteran who dies of an overdose, it’s simply a perfect lyric, and when he sings “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose” in his matter-of-fact tone, it hurts even more than if he’d gone for the emotional jugular.

That was Prine through and through. He was never overly sentimental – he was wry and clear-eyed, describing the world he saw. A two-time cancer survivor, Prine was hospitalized on March 26 with COVID-19 symptoms and he succumbed on April 7. His loss is incalculable, and I expect we’ll be hearing about it from the songwriters he inspired, young and old, for a long time to come.

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I guess I have to get back to reviewing music at some point, right?

Luckily, we have some. In fact, we have two pretty damn good new records from some old favorites who keep soldiering on. In this time of uncertainty I’m not sure I can think of anything more fitting, in fact, than to talk about bands who just keep at it, year in and year out. I fell for both of these bands in the early ‘90s, which doesn’t seem like that long ago to me. But of course it was. I’ve been a fan of both of these bands for longer than I lived without them, which is strange to think about. They’re both like old friends at this point.

They’re also two of the best live bands anywhere on the planet, which is a sad fact given our current stay-at-home status. I’ve never seen either one live, which is somewhat criminal given their reputations. I’ve based nearly 30 years of fandom at this point on the studio albums, which fans of both bands will tell you is only about a quarter of the story. I know they’re right, and I have no excuse, except to say this: the studio albums have been enough for me for more than two decades, so they must be pretty good in their own right, no?

I’d say so. It was a trilogy of studio albums – Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy – that cemented my lifelong love of Pearl Jam during my high school and college years. Ten came out just before my senior year of high school began, and I didn’t know what to make of it. I was a teenage metalhead just getting into R.E.M., and this didn’t fit into either one of those boxes. Pearl Jam were broody and dark, but ferocious, and in Eddie Vedder they had a singer the likes of which I’d never heard.

Vedder’s low-moan rumble has remained the most compelling aspect of Pearl Jam’s sound, even as they dove back and forth between straightforward rock and interesting experimentation. Their new one is called Gigaton, and it’s their first in seven years, following a decent string of back-to-basics stompers, so you’d expect this to be one on which they stretch out more. At 57 minutes, it’s their longest record to date, and it may be the one with the most swings in style and mood.

Anyone put off by the first single, the Talking Heads-inspired “Dance of the Clairvoyants,” should not worry. It’s the only song like it on the record, and in context it sounds even more awkward than it does on its own. This is the furthest the band reaches here, and the one low point. Everything else, from the whirling dervish of “Quick Escape” to the electro-tinged soundscape of “Alright” to the killer garage rock of “Take the Long Way” to the slower epics that make up the final third, works remarkably well.

There are times here when the band is on fire, and Vedder’s razor-sharp roar matches their intensity. He’s on a tear lyrically, seeking a “place Trump hasn’t fucked up yet” on “Quick Escape” and raging against complacency on “Who Ever Said.” He spits his way through “Never Destination,” which clearly takes further aim at the occupant of the White House: “Some resolution, some justice tied to this collusion hiding in plain sight…” For a band in its 30th year making its 11th album, Pearl Jam sounds recharged here, alive with purpose.

As much as I like all of that material, it’s the closing four tracks that elevate Gigaton for me. The jaunty waltz of “Buckle Up,” the folksy sway of “Retrograde,” the expansive “River Cross,” these songs are among the prettiest the band has given us, and they show just how supple Vedder’s voice still is. But it’s “Comes Then Goes” that does it most for me. It’s the loveliest and simplest acoustic piece since “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town,” and every bit of it works.

Thirty years in, they’re still Pearl Jam, still sticking to their guns when it comes to the foundation of their sound. Gigaton is their most experimental, most diverse work since No Code, but it still sounds like Pearl Jam. They’ve remained remarkably consistent for their three decades, and Gigaton is no exception. Sometimes you just want to hear a long-running band do what they do, and there’s enough of that on this record that it sits nicely next to their best.

Also delivering one of their best is Phish, who surprise-dropped their 14th album Sigma Oasis back on April 2. With Phish I know – I know – that I am not getting the full experience just listening to their recordings. Even their live box sets don’t take the place of being there on the night and watching this band do their thing. I know this. I really only have part of the story.

But I’ve loved this part of the story since I first heard A Picture of Nectar my freshman year of college. People concentrate on the jam-band aspects of Phish, but what I think most people miss is that they’re also kind of a prog band, with intricate arrangements and compositional heft. These four guys can really play, and like one of their biggest influences, Frank Zappa, they feed equally off of tight, difficult arrangements and wild, throw-out-the-map improvisation.

The first four Phish albums bear this out better than any that have come after. 1993’s Rift remains my favorite for its conceptual through-line and its perfect balance of tight composition and spontaneous jamming. Sometime around 1996’s Billy Breathes Phish decided to draw a strict demarcation between their studio and live identities, reserving the thrilling improv sessions for the stage and concentrating on shorter, smaller, even folksier songs for their records. It’s something I’ve grown used to – if I want anything-can-happen abandon, I will listen to a live album.

All of which makes Sigma Oasis such a pleasant surprise. It is the most live-sounding record they have made in many years. I should clarify – the sound here is still crisp, and there are strings and choirs and all kinds of accoutrements here, just as there have been on every album since the late ‘90s. But the feel is surprisingly live, surprisingly alive. And not just in the extended jam sections, although the second half of the 12-minute “Everything’s Right” is pretty spectacular.

This is the first album since Farmhouse to consist entirely of songs written by Trey Anastasio and his frequent lyric partner Tom Marshall, and there’s a maturity and a consistency to these nine songs that hasn’t been present on a Phish record for some time. Better, though, this feels like a single set at a show, each song handing off to the next. There are no throwaways, no novelties. “Leaves” is beautiful, the multi-part “Mercury” shimmers, “Shade” might be Trey’s prettiest soft-rock AM radio winner, “Steam” is a dark shimmy down a smoky alley, and the closer “Thread” plays out half of its 11 minutes with a jam in 15/8. Everything here is serious in intent and execution.

It is, paradoxically, the most grown-up Phish album in ages and the most youthful. I don’t know what happened to spark the band’s reinvigoration here, but this is as good a Phish record as there ever has been. It feels as spontaneous as the decision to release it earlier this month, ahead of schedule, as a way for the band to stay connected during this strange distance. Both in form and content, this is the nicest surprise of my quarantine so far, and I’m grateful for it.

Next week, more music. More music!

See you in line Tuesday morning.