It's the summer of '92. The nation is preparing to oust the first President Bush from the White House, the saga of Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco unfolds to the smug delight of millions, and Sister Act is tops at the box office. At an über-price-gouging Sam Goody located near Boston's Fanueil Hall, a oversensitive 13-year-old boy is inducted into the world of rock-and-roll completism. With the information superhighway still under construction, the existence of extra-album cuts is a fringe phenomenon. So for a kid, finding the Japanese import of Pearl Jam's Alive EP is like finding the Holy Grail. "Wash"? "Dirty Frank"? At $25, what price fandom?
Cut to the summer of '04. The nation is preparing to oust the second President Bush from the White House, myriad untold "reality" show sagas unfold to the smug delight of millions, and Garfield the movie mercifully tanks. On the shelves of records stores everywhere is Pearl Jam's Lost Dogs (it's been there for seven months, but whatever), a compilation of 31 b-sides, fan club-only, and unreleased tracks from the band's long and varied history, including the aforementioned tracks from '92. And all for under $20 -- just one more fan-friendly gesture from one of rock's fan-friendliest bands.
Pearl Jam has long been the subject of widespread bootlegging, not just for its live-shows. Hard-to-find b-sides and studio cuts have also surfaced over the years on expensive bootleg compilations of dubious audio quality. The advent of the internet also helped the circulation of these tracks, which have been cherished by Pearl Jam fans as being on par with their official output. But Lost Dogs, while a gracious round-up of a good portion of their extra material, is not only that. Considerate sequencing, remixing, and re-recording all help to make the release an enjoyable and cohesive listen -- not your typical spotty odds 'n' sods stopgap product.
Lost Dogs is loosely split between aggressive (disc one) and mid-tempo songs (disc two). "All Night" leads off with a big, sweaty punch. Recorded for 1996's eclectic and grossly under-appreciated No Code, the song features multi-tracked and oddly harmonized vocals from Ed Vedder. "Sad", "Hitchhiker", "Education", and "In the Moonlight", all represent 2000's Binaural. With the exception of "Hitchhiker", they were all originally slated (along with "Fatal" from disc two) to be a part of the record, turning up on tracklist that was modified in the 11th hour. It's hard to figure why they weren't. "Sad" is one of Vedder's best compositions in the vein of "Corduroy" and "Insignificance," built on a spindly, Eastern-tinged guitar line. "In the Moonlight", written by drummer Matt Cameron, stomps along with an odd meter that recalls his former band, Soundgarden.
Other highlights on the first disc include "Don't Gimme No Lip", sung by guitarist Stone Gossard, "Hold On" from the Vs. sessions, and the Jack Irons song "Whale Song", thoroughly drubbed by critics and fans alike, but which I contend is one of their better benefit contributions (appearing on the third volume of Music For Our Mother Ocean). The b-sides culled here span all the way from early favorites "Yellow Ledbetter" and "Alone" to the more recent "Down" and "Undone." Most of these feature alternate mixes, some more noticeable than others, which is a nice treat for fans who've spent the past decade collecting singles.
The second CD features quieter selections and demonstrates more of the range Pearl Jam was always capable of, but which casual observers tend to miss. "Hard to Imagine" is a sparsely recorded gem that was attempted for both Vs. and Vitalogy. "Strangest Tribe", written by Gossard and released as a fan-club Christmas single, is undoubtedly one of the band's most beautiful songs. "Driftin'" the other song from that single, is updated here with a different vocal take, just as the Jeremy b-side "Footsteps" features added harmonica. In the generous notes that accompany each song, Gossard laments the fact that "Dead Man" did not surface on No Code, which would have also felt perfectly at home on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack it was intended for.
Even the goof-offs feel welcome here; "Sweet Lew", for example, won't demand more than one curious listen -- but its inclusion shows Pearl Jam's sense of humor, and the trust it places in its fans. Mainstream radio sold its soul long ago for third- and sometimes fourth-generation Pearl Jam ripoffs, while today's hipsters ironically haven't paid attention to the band's catalog since 1994. Lost Dogs is a worthy reentry into the Pearl Jam canon for the strayed, and a delirious gift to the faithful, including that once 13-year-old boy.