Last night, I would have been giving my middle child a ukulele lesson. I taught his sister when she was his age, and she has augmented this with violin through school and, this year, singing in the church choir. I would have been teaching him, only last night, he joined his sister for choir practice, a step he’s really excited about.
We’ll have to find another time for uke lessons, though, because he’s been progressing really well and there’s still so much to learn. But with a vacant hole in my early evening, I picked up a book by Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain member Will Grove-White – I’d thumbed through it when I bought it, but I was writing up my PhD at the time, so I didn’t give it a proper “look”. It’s fun and good advocacy, and maybe I’ll pop a review of it up here shortly. But reading it sent me back to an old piece of writing of mine. Before I started “maintaining” this blog (that may be too grand a word for it), I would put occasional longer pieces of writing on Facebook in the “notes” category – remember those? Thing is, those don’t always get a lot of reading, and they’re rather buried. But I thought this was a rather good piece of writing that deserved a second public.
So, it’s a recycled blog post (20 January 2012), reviewing two records – one dated even at the time and the other largely inaccessible outside the snug Ottawa market. Obscure, as the ukulele itself is. But not small: it’s a long read, so grab some popcorn.
“We all cherish strange things”
– Neil Gerster, “Set Me On Fire”
This is partly a review of two albums – Neil Gerster’s Hearts and Other Shipwrecks and Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs – and partly an essay on the ideas these records inspire for the strange thing that I, or we, cherish, the ukulele. (Vedder’s record barely qualifies as “new” anymore, but both were released in 2011, so I’ll take that as “recent” enough to give me licence for writing this.)
First, my own interests on the table: I am a ukulele performer, and so my appreciation of these records is overly informed and rather biased. I like the instrument, and I want others to like it, too. As well, I am personally implicated with both these artists. I’ve known Neil for 13 years – though we’ve not been in close contact for all of that time. But we played at Carleton University’s sadly (for all intents and purposes) defunct pub, Rooster’s, and shared a love of good lyrics and melodies. More recently, he played bass and sang on my own record, I Am with the Hunters; and while he was putting his own record together, he asked me for thoughts on arrangements and such. Whilst I have no such direct contact with Eddie, I might as well have done. From the release of Pearl Jam’s second record, Vs, I have faithfully followed his musical progress, memorising and personalising his words, learning his changes and riffs, and letting myself get swept up with thousands-strong audiences during his performances.
Ukulele Songs is not his first solo outing. He recorded the soundtrack to Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild, drawing on a pack of sonic textures presented mostly in brief songlets – courageous not to let himself be too expansive. Some reviewers see the ukulele record as a follow-up to that, but I disagree. The soundtrack supported the story of Christopher McCandless and offered a meditation on freedom and journey. This record is much smaller and more personal (though we ought not to confuse the term and assume these songs are all “about” Eddie Vedder). Aside from a few exceptions, they’re all about moony sentiment and sad-ass love songs. When he sings “And the sun it may be shining/ But there’s an ocean in my eyes” or, still more, “I’m alright/ It’s alright/ It’s just a broken heart” we have leapt with two great Doc Marten-clad feet into the wading pool of cliche.
This may seem trite from a songwriter whose fixations have been more lofty and existential or direct and political, but I’m not so quick to condemn. It fits the scale of the instrument and, as I will discuss below, it fits with what I’m gathering his project is. But among the Vedder originals, some of the songwriting you’d expect still shines through: “Can’t Keep” and “You’re True” would be at home on a Pearl Jam record with or without fleshier arrangements (indeed, one of them first appeared on 2002’s Riot Act with nary a ukulele in sight… er, sound), and “Without You” and “Satellite” show a lot of verve.
Neil Gerster’s collection is a different beast. Neil does not write easy songs – though Eddie is still a dab hand with a metaphor, he doesn’t hold on to it with Neil’s tenacity, as seen in the lyrically complete “23 Harbours”. Seldom straightforward and always poetic, Neil can still be accessible (sometimes the plainness of his observations comes to the detriment of artistry, in my opinion, but different people want different things from poetry). His music challenges your expectations about the next chord without ever sounding wrong or out of place. More brilliant than either of these parts on their own is how he weaves the components into a song: I envy Neil’s ability to embed a lyric within a phrase of melody. You have to hear how the line “This new spark of life threatens to turn me to cinders” works in the context of the changes and the melody to understand how simultaneously natural and deliberate his writing is.
And this inventiveness points me to Neil’s project, which diverges from Eddie’s bigger-budget but smaller-sounding record. Although all the songs on Hearts and Other Shipwrecks were written on the ukulele and incorporate the instrument, they are seldom ruled by your ideas of what that instrument ought to sound like. After a very brief and careful nod to the ukulele’s vaudeville pedigree with the opener “An Efficient Love”, we are into full-scale indie pop. We have drums, bass, guitar, keys; we have accordion, glockenspiel, and melodica; we have the feel and the concept of a big pop record, and sitting in the heart of it like the short, geeky kid who just shot the three-pointer at the buzzer to win his high-school basketball final is the ukulele. He is showing you everything it can do: summery grooves on “Confederation Park”, relentless funk on “Saskatune (Part 2)”, and gentle balladry on “Goodness”. He brings in surprising techniques such as the riffs on “These Wee Hours” and the outright unorthodox with a finger-picked roll on “Ocean Lover” (which bears an uncanny resemblance to my own unorthodox finger-picked uke song “Instead”, a fact we discovered on the patio of Ottawa’s Cafe Nostalgica a few years ago). Neil’s evangelical project with this record is to force pop listeners to take the ukulele seriously, not relegate it to memories of George Formby or Tiny Tim. It’s not just a tack-on, like the banjo in Feist’s “1-2-3-4” – let’s face it, the song is lifted by the part but it didn’t need it. Hearts and Other Shipwrecks is your favourite indie sound, and it never would have happened without the ukulele.
Vedder’s project is equally committed to the instrument, but it’s more pedagogical. When he adopted the ukulele some years ago (it first appeared on a Pearl Jam studio album in 2000) Eddie with all his prominence said, “Look at this.” With Ukulele Songs, he is saying, “Here’s how it sounds.” It is flush from beginning to end with the vaudeville sounds Gerster only winks at. He has chosen the covers with care – all but one span the period between the two world wars – and matched them with his own writing: those trite cliches about loneliness and broken hearts are underscored with augmented chords and minor-seven-flat-fives, so that the record sounds complete. Outside of two guest vocalists and a supporting cello on a third tune, all that we hear are the thin plink of a ukulele and Eddie’s rich baritone. There’s a lot of sense in that. My old high school band teacher, Bryan Stovell, encouraged us to listen to certain records because, in pop music, people weren’t playing trumpets, clarinets, barely even saxophones anymore. How could we make these instruments sound right if we didn’t know what they were supposed to sound like? So Vedder is literally giving us the songbook – look again at the album’s title.
And it’s working. I hit a coffee shop in Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield neighbourhood last month where a songwriter was giving an afternoon gig all on ukulele. Finishing her set, she brought out Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You” (itself part of the New Uke Canon though its musical origins are elsewhere… just type it into YouTube and see what you get) and, to close it all down, “Tonight You Belong To Me”. It’s possible she was thinking of Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, not Eddie Vedder and Cat Power, but that is at any rate immaterial. The continuity of the performance is a chain that links 2011 to 1926, when Billy Rose and Lee David first penned the song.
It’s a project I can get behind. My point is not to say it has to go one way or the other. Vedder’s conservative and anthropological ukulele record lets new listeners hear some of the classic motifs that defined the instrument’s music before it turned into cheap novelty. Gerster’s wild and adventurous ukulele record showcases the potential of the instrument as it digs its way out of that same cheap novelty. For my part, whilst I appreciate what Eddie is doing, I play Neil’s album more. I had myself harboured thoughts of an all-ukulele record, but hearing Ukulele Songs, I think it is too limited sonically to sit through for that length of time. You hear the cello on “Longing to Belong” as though it were seven of them, so welcome is the additional texture. Politically (if you will) he was right to restrict the arrangements, but I just would like to hear some of these songs richened up. I wanted more from Eddie; it’s Neil who gives it to me.