Toronto’s Darrelle London gets a little help from Perez Hilton

Darrelle London, who plays the Horseshoe on Wednesday, is getting a bit of attention is via Perez Hilton, who has signed her to his record label.


Nick Krewen
 Special to the Star,
Published on Sun May 23 2010

She’s getting the Perez push.

Before she became involved with gossip blogger Mario Lavandeira, a.k.a. Perez Hilton, a.k.a. the self-described Queen Of All Media, Toronto singer and songwriter Darrelle London was an artist struggling to get her music heard by the masses.

There was some consistent CBC radio support, but generally London and her piano-driven first album Edible Word Parade — which she’ll showcase at the Horseshoe on Wednesday — received most of her interest through word of mouth and a couple of small-venue tours of Eastern Canada.

Through her Hilton association, however, London has enjoyed something of a breakthrough: her lighthearted ditty “Understand” was featured on a May 4 episode of 90210 (and the series soundtrack) about the same time Hilton had announced her as the first Canadian signing to his Perezcious Music record label. Hilton also secured her a high-profile opening spot for V.V. Brown at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, placing her on the radar of record company executive hoi polloi.

She’ll turn around next month and crack New York for the first time at Arlene’s Grocery, but not before showcasing her craft at Hilton’s post-MuchMusic Video Awards bash June 20 at a location to be determined.

Clearly, London, 24, is enjoying the benefits of a man whose blog claims 13.5 million unique visitors per month.

“That’s one of the reasons I signed with him,” says the doe-eyed London, relaxing in a back-corner booth at the Green Room the Saturday afternoon prior to her L.A. trip.

“His website is obviously a huge platform. He has millions of readers. But the other thing is basically his enthusiasm for music — he’s really passionate about it. He finds it important to give a stage to artists who wouldn’t really have one. So that combination made him someone that I wanted to be on my team.”

It was London, born in Toronto but raised on a farm in Acton, Ont., who first reached out to Hilton.

“I’m big on sending out my music to anyone who would possibly listen, even when it’s like a really, really slim shot,” London explains. “So I just emailed some of my music to him through his website.

“He got back to me right away and really responded to my music, said he loved it and wanted to hear more. I didn’t know about his label at that time.”

London, whose lighthearted, quirky pop reminds one of Kate Nash channelling Jill Sobule with a dash of Ben Folds, is used to the cold call approach: it’s how she snagged Brian Allen, the former Toronto guitarist and co-writer of the 1985 Heart smash “What About Love” as album co-producer (with Marc Koecher) back in 2008.

“She found my website and reached me by email — which surprised me, because I had nothing like her musically on my website,” Allen recalls.

“But I like her because she is playful in her approach to melodies and lyrics, and has a little bit of a nudge-nudge-wink sense of humour that I find refreshing.”

Perez Hilton was similarly seduced, and says that although he’s pushing London independently (Hilton’s label has an assortment of deals with major labels and prominent indies), he’s in it for the long haul.

Right now, London’s Edible Word Parade has been withdrawn from the market and her music will be limited to a digital single release for the time being.

“The goal really is to win over a few fans at a time and just have her grow organically,” says Hilton, who recently released “Understand” to iTunes.

“The great thing about what we’re doing is that there are no rules, and I don’t think like a traditional record company. What’s important to me is that I love music and I love Darrelle’s songs.”

She seems content to follow Hilton’s game plan.

“As an artist, I just want to gain fans that will allow me to keep making music,” she admits. “Working with Perez seemed a great way to reach a whole bunch of people.”


The Residents take on death

If you think the TV series Lost is cryptic and enigmatic, get a load of The Residents.



Nick Krewen
Special To The Star,
 Published on Sat Feb 13 2010

If you think the TV series Lost is cryptic and enigmatic, get a load of The Residents.

For 38 years, the avant-garde California-based performance art collective – they’re most familiar to the masses as eyeballs dressed in top hats and tuxedos – has stunned and mystified audiences with a collection of more than 100 albums, EPs, singles, CD-ROMs, short films, DVDs and videos.

With an ever-morphing musical style that can veer from fiery rock ‘n’ roll to third-rate cabaret to synthesized dirge to dissonant jazz – often within the framework of a single song – The Residents, who make a rare Toronto appearance Saturday at The Opera House, have managed to evade categorization and compromise as effectively as they’ve shielded their identities and avoided the mainstream.

Even an exclusive phone interview with spokesman Hardy Fox – a representative of The Cryptic Corporation, the group’s management firm, and a person who may or may not be with the band – only sheds so much light.

“The group’s point of view is that they’re a group, they like to present themselves as a group and they’re very openly, in their presentation of themselves as a group, very active,” Fox said before a recent New York performance on The Residents’ current Talking Light tour.

“There’s not really anything mysterious about what they do or how they do it. They’re mysterious, perhaps, about the fact that they’re not so interested in strutting around as individuals and proclaiming a `look at me’ attitude. That is unusual, for sure, but I don’t know if it’s mysterious.”

Fox does acknowledge that the public is frustrated. “You’ve got a weird situation here, because people really want to turn The Residents into a band but often that doesn’t really work. The Residents is a much larger group of people that changes based upon the needs of the project. It’s not a band, it’s a concept, and that’s hard for people to wrap their heads around.”

Some of the songs, with names like “Harry the Head,” “Lizard Lady” and “What Have My Chickens Done Now?” aren’t any easier to digest, but one can certainly appreciate the ingenious satire in the murky depths of the collective’s musically sophisticated arrangements – so long as you’re willing to invest the time.

According to Fox, time is the one commodity that may be eluding The Residents as they move forward: death is one of the themes of the Talking Light multimedia road show. “There’s definitely mortality attached to it,” Fox explains.

“Mortality is attached to everything, really, and that’s one of the points that they make: that life is a cycle, and death is one of the parts of that cycle. It’s a thing to confront and accept, not to challenge or fight, because the big mystery of life is actually death.

“It’s a reflection on aging and death, which is sort of what is going on with The Residents, because they are getting older. And they’re sort of approaching death as a universal experience. So it’s a dark show, but sort of a lighthearted dark show, if that make any sense.”

Other things you may want to know: the Talking Lights tour – every performance of which is being sold digitally at – references material as far back as 1977 and now includes a cast of three instead of the four who usually make the rounds. “Yes, Carlos has retired,” Fox offers without any elaboration.

Despite their stature as counterculture “eye-cons,” The Residents have dropped the eyeball costumes.

“Actually, they were dropped 10 years ago,” Fox says.

“The whole eyeball thing was created for one album in 1979 (Eskimo). It just proved to be a popular image and we, on the commercial side of trying to market the group, sort of ran with it. From a marketing standpoint, we really needed an image.

“About 10 years ago, they thought it was time to at least back it off to an iconic image and not a mask image.”

Although images are an important part of The Residents’ oeuvre – check them out on YouTube if you’re curious – Fox has a different theory to explain the concept’s longevity.

“I think it has lasted because The Residents are not shy about evolving over time and reinventing themselves, about letting the requirements of a project be what’s important and not their past or any expectations of people.

“They don’t really have the expectations of performing a particular song that they’re known for, because they’re not really known for any.”


With Jann Arden, the jokes are as good as the songs

Celebrity bitch-fight, eh Jann?

Jann Arden performs at Massey Hall on Jan. 27, 2010.

Nick Krewen 
Special to the Star,
Published on Thu Jan 28 2010

Celebrity bitch-fight, eh Jann?

It was during the Q&A portion of her opening four-night residency at Massey Hall when someone in the audience asked Alberta songbird Jann Arden if she would be appearing on this year’s revival of Lilith Fair, the all-female concert tour founded by Sarah McLachlan.

“Not that I’m aware of,” replied the hostess, “I’m in the middle of a bitch-fight with McLachlan.”

Arden then proceeded to picture herself as a bitch-right foe against a “celebrity Canadian chanteuse lineup” consisting of McLachlan, Shania Twain, Céline Dion and Anne Murray.

” I could take Sarah,” she deadpanned, “And I could kick Shania’s ass. And Céline hasn’t eaten since March.”

However, Anne Murray was a different story, Arden conceded.

“Anne Murray would kick my ass!” she said, as gales of laughter from the willingly partisan crowd ricocheted throughout the building.

The improvised monologue might have felt awkward or out of place with another performer, but when you’re in for an evening with Jann Arden, you’re not just getting a talented singer and songwriter who is satisfied with parading her proven hits: you’re getting a raconteur, a hilarious comedienne and an earthy gal pal that you would feel privileged to hang out with.

Of course, there’s also the music, and the eight-time Juno winner (she should be awarded a ninth just for being able to keep her balance in those knee-high stiletto boots) delivered on well-chosen selections from 10 albums worth of material that offered few surprises, much to the delight of her extended family.

Fronting a six-piece band that included Bryan Adams‘ right-hand guitarist Keith Scott, respected bass player Maury LaFoy and violinist/singer Alison Cornell, Arden bounced between intimate acoustic renditions of “Insensitive” and “I Would Die for You” to spirited peaks like “A Million Miles Away” and “Where No One Knows Me.”

The ballad-heavy set also included the usual mixture of love and lament from a woman who knows how to deliver melancholy mellowness when it comes to matters of the heart, although the occasions in which she punched it up with unexpected power and passion proved to be some of the most rewarding moments of the two-hour-and-15-minute set.

Unfortunately, there were also too many pitch-challenged wavers, that usually occurred during the show’s softer moments, particularly noticeable during Arden’s tender cover of Janis Ian‘s “At Seventeen.”

Not that anyone particularly cared or noticed: they were just happy to be sharing the same space with the side-splitting lass.

Just don’t bring Céline if you know what’s good for you.


Toronto’s transit of venues (or, weep not for the bop)

Veteran rock writer Nick Krewen takes a tour through defunct Toronto concert venue history – from the ’60s in Yorkville, to the subsequent decades when the action was mostly around Yonge St., to the rise and apparent decline of Queen St. W. 

Nick Krewen and Garnet Fraser
Published on Sun Jan 03 2010

On Queen St. W., the concert scene is changing, and it’s leaving some fretful. Hard-rock hangout the Big Bop – home to early shows by Alexisonfire and Billy Talent, among others – is closing at the end of the month, and a few blocks to the east, the Cameron House – site of early gigs by Blue Rodeo, Ron Sexsmith and more – is up for sale, with its future uncertain.

But it was always this way; with a few exceptions, good concert venues typically have a golden age, make a few memories – and then lose their backers, their audience or possibly their liquor licence. The city sees bits of its musical history disappear every year in this way. The Rural Alberta Advantage, 2009’s rising stars, cut their teeth at the now-closed Winchester; the Constantines played their first local show at now-gone Ted’s Wrecking Yard; Ultrasound, a Queen St. W. venue that was a sentimental favourite of the Barenaked Ladies and the Rheostatics, is now a spa; and much more.

On this page, veteran rock writer Nick Krewen takes a tour through defunct Toronto concert venue history – from the ’60s in Yorkville, to the subsequent decades when the action was mostly around Yonge St., to the rise and apparent decline of Queen St. W. There are also newer concert spots at the Garrison (on Dundas St. W.) and Studio BLR (on Lower Sherbourne St.) that are drawing attention; check them out but know that you’ll probably be saying goodbye to them, too, someday.



Location: 134 Yorkville Ave.

Heyday: 1964-1973

Known for: A breeding ground for folk and blues music’s most influential talents, this sizeable coffeehouse earned a global rep during its hot streak. Oh yeah, and people would actually be polite enough to stay quiet and listen to the music.

Notable headliners: Gordon Lightfoot, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, John Lee Hooker.

Closed: 1978

The historical plaque commemorating the existence of the Riverboat in Yorkville


Location: 21 Scollard St.

Heyday: 1983-1986

Known for: Flavour-of-the moment world music and pop acts in the midst of 15 minutes of fame, with sporadic detours into not-quite-ready-for-soft-seater veteran acts, sporting crowds of regular Joes, well-coiffed yuppies and the occasional Flock Of Seagulls hairstyle.

Notable headliners: Fela Kuti, Erasure, Herbie Hancock, Berlin

Closed: 1992

A concert ad from the days of The Copa on Scollard Street


Location: 888 Yonge St.

Heyday: 1983-1996

Known for: Its lack of air-conditioning, this humid sweatbox (also known as Rock Pile and Masonic Temple) offered intimate rock in semi-cramped quarters, although the balcony provided first-come, first-serve step-seating. Great showcase space for breakout acts and Rolling Stones rehearsal space until CTV bought it and made itThe Mike Bullard Show studio.

Notable headliners: Led Zeppelin, Stevie Ray Vaughan, INXS and Tin Machine (with David Bowie)

Closed: 1996, although recently resurrected for Polaris Music Awards and a few episodes of Spectacle



Location: Hudson’s Bay Centre, Lower Level, 2 Bloor St. E.

Heyday: 1980s

Known for: If you were a headbanger when rock `n roll was all spandex, leather and hairspray, Rock `N Roll Heaven – not to be confused with the current North York nightclub – was the place to be: Plenty of mirrors, leather seats, and hot vixens.

Notable headliners: Skid Row, Paul Stanley, Killer Dwarfs, Black Crowes

Closed: 1992



Location: 121 Carlton St.

Heyday: 1978-1984

Known for: Being a fleabag hotel (although fleas themselves cowered in fear of suffering infestation) and Petri dish of nihilism; a basement perfect for hosting outsider punk/ska/new wave gigs.

Notable headliners: R.E.M., Bauhaus, Bad Manners, Sun Ra

Closed: 1986

Larry’s Hideaway on Carlton…frankly, I don’t remember it being that opulent.


Location: 585 Yonge St.

Heyday: 1971-1986

Known for: Being the resident training ground of some formidable Canadian rock bands that went on to sell millions of records, as well as the inspiration behind Mike Myers’ Wayne’s World franchise (“The Gasworks! Always a babefest,” Wayne once exclaimed) and frequent stopped for irreverent comedy duo Maclean & Maclean. Lunch-bucket ambience and etiquette ruled the day in a mishmash of wall-paneling and poster décor.

Notable headliners: Rush, Triumph, Saga, Platinum Blonde

Closed: 1993

One of the Gasworks’ last facelifts…


Location: 70 Gerrard St. E.

Heyday: 1977-1982

Known for: Living up to its name in terms of eclecticism: a dark, spacious abode facing Gerrard that housed tastemaker promoters Gary Topp and Gary Cormier, who booked punk/new wave acts like 999 and The Mods with the occasional jazzy Don Thompson/Ed Bickert or folkie Ralph McTell date.

Notable Headliners: The Police, XTC,Ultravox, and what would have been the first Joy Division performance if singer Ian Curtis hadn’t offed himself a week before the gig

A poster from the heydays of The Garys Cormier and Topp


Closed: 1982

Location: 203 Yonge St.

Heyday: 1947-1978

Known for: One of Canada’s most famous jazz and blues venues later stretched into rock in the late `60s and, in the 1970s, punk. Pillar-free, it provided great sightlines everywhere.

Notable headliners: Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Captain Beefheart, Muddy Waters, The Jam

Closed: 1987

Credited to the site of John Chuckman
Another look at the Colonial prior to demolition…


Location: 249 Victoria St.

Heyday: 1990-2005

Known for: Jazz acts with an odd foray into pop and rock in a classy atmosphere. Steps leading up to venue were covered in jazz portraits.

Biggest Attractions: Diana Krall, Terence Blanchard, Cassandra Wilson, John Hiatt

Closed: 2005


Location: 312 Queen St. W.

Heyday: 1982-2001

Known for: A venerable home for roots and reggae music and spoken-word shows, the Bam Boo had a decent sized dance floor to go with its Jamaican/Thai cuisine.

Notable headliners: Messenjah; Lillian Allen, The Sattalites

Closed: 2002

The Famous BamBoo cookbook


Location: Canada’s Wonderland

Heyday: 1983-1999

Known for: As an outdoor venue, this 16,000-seater competed with Exhibition Stadium as an incentive to attract folks to the theme park. Hence you could be dazzled with Depeche Mode synth-pop one night; be serenaded by James Taylor the next, then be rocked like a hurricane with the Scorpions or shimmy to the sounds of a heavily choreographed Paula Abdul concert when she was still forever your girl.

Notable Headliners: Neil Young, Kim Mitchell, Barry Manilow

Closed: 1999, but still used sparingly


Location: Ontario Place

Heyday: 1971-1994

Known for: With a 360-degree revolving stage, this picturesque, hilly 8,000-capacity outdoor venue offered a variety of acts for kids and adults alike without costing an arm and a leg. The scene of a Teenage Head riot and a stellar annual weekend jazz festival that boasted everyone from Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald to Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny, it hosted shows by Blondie, Sharon, Lois & Bram and Bill Cosby with equal aplomb. Sorely missed, in spite of being replaced by the Molson Amphitheatre.

Notable headliners: The Tragically Hip, Tom Jones, B.B. King

Closed: 1994


Post mortem:  As of 2018, both The Senator and The Concert Hall have been resurrected…

Jay-Z: King of the No. 1 album

Judged solely on his string of No. 1 albums, Jay-Z has accomplished the unexpected: he’s become bigger than Elvis. 

Jay-Z performs at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York on Sept. 13, 2009.


Jay-Z performs at the MTV Video Music Awards in New York on Sept. 13, 2009.

Nick Krewen
Special to the Star,
Published on Fri Oct 30 2009

Judged solely on his string of No. 1 albums, Jay-Z has accomplished the unexpected: he’s become bigger than Elvis.

With the Sept. 11 arrival of The Blueprint 3, Brooklyn-born rapper Shawn Carter scored his 11th straight chart-topper on the Billboard 200 retail charts, surpassing the King’s total and establishing a record for solo acts for most No. 1 albums in history.

With 19 chart-toppers to their credit, The Beatles claim overall supremacy.

To reach the exclusive 11 club, Jay-Z eclipsed such superstar sexagenarians as Elton John, the Rolling Stones, Barbra Streisand, Led Zeppelin and, at 60, the relative baby of the bunch, Bruce Springsteen.

In fairness, Jay-Z’s accomplishment may have more to do with changing times than actual sales numbers.

According to figures provided by music industry retail tracking system Nielsen SoundScan, the multiple Grammy winner’s sales are substantial, but well below those of his chart-topping peers: 27 million albums sold south of the border and 964,000 here in Canada, with digital songs adding another 245,000 in sales here and 6.5 million in the U.S. With an additional 30 to 50 years of exposure on their side, the aforementioned artists can claim sales that double, triple and even quadruple Jay-Z’s tally.

Still, a younger generation armed with more disposable income than ever is making its collective voice heard, says Will Strickland, president of the Urban Music Association of Canada.

“Whereas in the ’80s rap used to mimic pop culture, today it is pop culture,” says Strickland. “Regardless of the era or timing, when you’re good, you’re good.”

He notes that in this era of fickle tastes, Jay-Z has learned to give the public what they want, when they want it. “Everything is fast food now,” Strickland observes. “The other artists benefited from a slow burn.”

So is Jay-Z’s statistical vault past Presley really that impressive? “It’s an amazing feat,” Strickland says. “Rap is a young man or young woman’s game. To have a rap artist accomplish this when their careers usually have the longevity and lifespan of mosquitoes – and adding the fact that Jay-Z has accomplished this in just 15 years – speaks to the prolific nature of his recordings.

“There are not a lot of rappers who are still relevant in their 40s.”

Well, 39, actually – Jay-Z doesn’t hit the big four-oh until Dec. 4.

But Strickland has a point. The artist, who’s scheduled to play the Air Canada Centre on Halloween (with a top ticket price of $175), has managed to ascend to pop music royalty on the wings of a genre known for its finite careers.

Through 13 studio albums of seasoned, futurist and street-savvy observations that began with 1996’s Reasonable Doubt, includes a trio of Blueprint projects and was interrupted in 2003 by a two-year self-imposed retirement, Jay-Z seems to be unstoppable, even attaining his latest pinnacle in the glaring absence of another stat.

“It’s crazy – he’s never had a No. 1 single,” notes Ashton (Famous) Bishop, the 25-year-old Toronto rapper who’s looking to stake his own claim on the international hip-hop scene.

Rappers come and go, but what makes Jay-Z so consistent? “He’s always … in touch with the times,” Famous says. “He just set out The Blueprint 3, and now every hip-hop song in the next two years is going to sound like him. He’s a trendsetter.”

Adds UMAC’s Strickland, “When Jay-Z says it, he’s E.F. Hutton – everyone follows his words. He name-drops products in his songs and it impacts sales. When a rapper of influence affects the purchase of luxury items, it’s no longer a niche thing.”


Matthew Good speaks from the heart

Matthew Good isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve.


West-coast musician and activist Matthew Good, 38, has a reputation for being outspoken about social problems. With 'Vancouver,' his eighth album of original material in 14 years, Good is true to form.


West-coast musician and activist Matthew Good, 38, has a reputation for being outspoken about social problems. With ‘Vancouver,’ his eighth album of original material in 14 years, Good is true to form.

Nick Krewen
Special to the Star,
Tue Oct 06 2009

Matthew Good isn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve.

On Vancouver, in stores Tuesday, he’s wearing his home on it as well.

Either way, he’s not mincing his words, notwithstanding the fact the upcoming Winter Olympics have raised the profile of his hometown.

“I use the city primarily as a backdrop and my own personal history in terms of living in the city is implied over top of it,” Good, 38, explains in reference to the title and contents of his eighth album of original material in 14 years.

“Of course, there are several instances of where I talk openly about social problems – and other parts of the record where I talk about the transformation of the town from maybe having more of a soul than it does now.”

Nowhere is he more blunt with his assessment than on “The Vancouver National Anthem,” a song featuring Pete Yorn on harmonies. The arrangement builds tension with a blazing guitar riff as it lyrically decries the apathy of an increasingly upscale neighbourhood ignoring its homeless problem with the haunting words, “We all live downtown/We all die downtown/Step over ourselves.”

“There are certain songs where I’m very direct, and that is the most direct song on the album,” says Good, who blogs about current affairs at “That song is very much about the hypocrisy within Vancouver in which you can take a cab from this nation’s poor urban neighbourhood to one of its wealthiest in seven minutes.

“And the fact that even with that neighbourhood, the Lower East Side – I’ve lived there the last three years, right off of Hastings and Carroll – the gentrification has been stunning and has been done in such a forceful way. It could be because of the Olympics. It could be because in a city that’s on a peninsula, you run out of prime real estate pretty quick, and you have to expand somewhere. So it’s either/or.”

Not all Vancouver songs are about the city: On “The Last Parade,” Good sings of “a small town where people have lost their jobs, and they have their last antiquated parade,” and “A Silent Army in the Trees” is an astute commentary “on how influenced we are by militarism at a young age without being ever exposed to its realities and that, when we are, a harsh truth is learned.”

His search for truth first drew Good to public attention in 1995 with the independent Last of the Ghetto Astronauts.

Anthems about cultural obsession (“Apparitions”), medication-fuelled ADD (“Hello Time Bomb”) and the capacity for self-destruction (“Weapon”) have found him to be a lyrical mastermind when it comes to astutely deconstructing social and personal psyches, a consistent ability that fuels his uniqueness among Canadian songwriters.

It’s a gift that the candid Good refuses to censor. “As an artist I believe that if you are true to yourself you don’t shy away from personal revelation,” he notes. “It’s something that is ever present and that I don’t have control over.”

Witness 2007’s Hospital Music, a collection of songs emanating from a breakdown he suffered that was triggered by the shock of an unexpected divorce.

It led to Good being diagnosed and properly treated for Type 2 bipolar disorder, bringing him some much-needed relief and peace of mind.

“For me, it was such a massive epiphany,” Good declares. “For years, I had always wondered what was wrong. I never did drugs. I didn’t drink from the age of 20 until I was 31.”

Good’s ordeal also opened his eyes to the state of mental health treatment – and the plight of the homeless who go untreated.

“We put people into an environment in which they can’t take care of themselves, and the structure of that environment is set up to prey upon them as soon as they step out the front door of whatever slum hotel they’ve been set up at.”

Good says charities can only do so much. “It’s not the ability of throwing a million dollars at the problem. We have to look at the problem from a human level.”

Good, who will wind down his 34-date Canadian tour to promote Vancouver with a pair of Massey Hall shows Dec. 18 and 19, is living a happier life these days.

He’s found new love, and admits his 2 1/2-old stepdaughter is the apple of his eye.

“She’s so precious to me,” says Good. “Although I have a nephew who is 12 and a niece who is 7, who I watched grow up, I’ve never really had the day-to-day experience of being a parent.

“I’ve never been awoken at 8 a.m. with a child sleeping on my head. I’m not opposed to it.”


Pearl Jam’s gem (from 2009, The Toronto Star)

Pearl Jam’s gem

Backspacer, the new album out today from Seattle rock icons Pearl Jam, finds the band in a dramatically different headspace. 

Pearl Jam - notably Jeff Ament, second from left, and drummer Matt Cameron - have come together on their latest album "Backspacer" (out Sept. 20, 2009) to create a blazing scramble of electric guitars and driving beats, with a notable increase in optimism and fist-pumping tunes.


Pearl Jam – notably Jeff Ament, second from left, and drummer Matt Cameron – have come together on their latest album “Backspacer” (out Sept. 20, 2009) to create a blazing scramble of electric guitars and driving beats, with a notable increase in optimism and fist-pumping tunes.

Nick Krewen
Special to the Star,
Published on Sun Sep 20 2009

Backspacer, the new album out today from Seattle rock icons Pearl Jam, finds the band in a dramatically different headspace.

Oh, the aggressive energy crackling of the speakers from such fist-pumping sonic blasters as “The Fixer,” “Got Some” and “Supersonic,” is vintage Pearl Jam, all right; a blazing scramble of electric guitars and driving beats fuelled by the high-octane chemistry of Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron fused as one.

But if you’re expecting the socio-political punch of a “World Wide Suicide” or an “Even Flow,” those types of topics are conspicuously absent on the 11-song, 36-minute Backspacer.

Instead, singer Vedder – perhaps inspired by his recent soundtrack solo foray for the Sean Penn film Into the Wild – has dialed back the lyrical politics, favouring words that are big-picture philosophical, personally romantic (“I’m a lucky man to count on both hands/ the ones I love”) and, in songs such as “Just Breathe” and “Force of Nature” – dare we say it – optimistic.

In fact, the band’s ninth studio effort (or 94th overall album, if you include compilations and officially released live CDs) portrays Pearl Jam in a surprisingly sunny and grateful mood, according to bass player Ament and drummer Cameron. Life – the music, the shows, band relationships and time spent with family – is peachy.

“I really think so,” says Cameron, 46, relaxing on a Molson Amphitheatre green-room couch with Ament before last month’s sold-out concert. “Most of us have families, and that’s been a godsend for a lot of us, because a lot of times when you’re in a successful group, you can get kind of narcissistic and just think about yourself all the time.

“It’s nice to let that go and think about your kids. And I think it can have a really positive effect on your overall outlook on life, you know?”

Adds Ament: “We can still bring it live the way that we did when we were young to some degree, so we’re in that sweet spot right now.”

Since they’re no longer on a U.S. label, the band also enjoys artistic and marketing carte blanche. This has led to a controversial retail agreement to stock physical copies of Backspacer exclusively in the U.S. with Target. (In Canada, Backspacer is on Universal Music Canada with no retail exclusions.)

Creatively, this sense of freedom was further invigorated by the return to the production chair of the Grammy-winning Brendan O’Brien for the first time since 1998’s Yield.

It was O’Brien who helped Pearl Jam engage in a practice apparently absent from previous releases: preparation.

“We’ve always known what Brendan’s strengths were, how he likes to make records, and in talking to him early on, we decided we wanted to have the songs together before we went into the studio this time,” says Ament, 46, one of Pearl Jam’s co-founding members with Vedder and guitarists Gossard and McCready.

“So consequently we made the record really, really fast. We had the basic tracks down the first 10 or 11 days. Then it was up to Brendan and Ed to work their magic and kind of finish the songs off – and they did that really quick, too.

“It made for a more concise, less fatty record – a great way to make records,” Ament says, beaming. Ament said that O’Brien’s objective was simple. “He said he wanted to make the best Pearl Jam record that we’d made up to that point.” Cameron said O’Brien also served as the catalyst for gathering band instrumentalists at Ament’s Montana homestead prior to Vedder setting foot in the studio.

“One of his ideas was to get together in the writing stage a bit before Ed was brought into the fold. We wrote a lot of instrumental music we eventually finished up with Ed.

“It was a really great way to work. On the last record (2006’s Pearl Jam), we had a lot of music that Ed tried to write lyrics for, and I think that might have overtaxed him to a certain degree. This time, everything was super focused.”

The quick and confident execution on Backspacer spurred Vedder’s own spontaneity, notably on “The Fixer,” the rousing single that both fans and radio stations have embraced.

“I think he really trusted his first instinct,” says Cameron. “If Ed came in and we were working on a song, he would go right up to the mic and I remember, with both `The Fixer’ and `Got Some,’ those lyrics came instantly …

“I think that’s probably a lot of the reason the record’s so positive. When he started singing `The Fixer,’ we thought, `Man, this is going to be something special.’ You just knew.”

Ament says Pearl Jam, which has sold more than 30 million records, started to build toward this artistic crescendo with the arrival of Cameron as a full-time contributor for 2000’s Binaural. “When Matt started to make a lot of the songs his own, he loosened up and we started to trust each other more.

“That to me was the first time, maybe even ever, that it really felt great on stage. And I think this is the first record we’ve made where I felt like everybody was really pumped. So, in some ways, it really has all come together right now – live, making records.

“We’re already talking about making the next record, and how stoked we are. And we’re making it with Brendan obviously – although he doesn’t know it yet.”