Album Review

Eddie Vedder "Ukelele Songs"

Brian Ahnmark
Lost in the shuffle on Pearl Jam’s 2000 album Binaural was “Soon Forget,” a lonesome ditty performed solo by Eddie Vedder, his voice accompanied only by ukulele. Since then, rumors have swirled that Vedder actually had an entire album’s worth of ukulele songs stowed away.

It took over a decade, but the aptly-titled Ukulele Songs finally sees the light of day. This 16-song collection is surprisingly robust, given the bare-bones simplicity of the presentation. The vast majority of these compositions (11 originals, five covers) feature just Vedder’s distinctive baritone – in fine form throughout – and ukulele, with a sprinkling of guests. Glen Hansard of The Swell Season delivers powerful harmonies on “Sleepless Nights,” Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) duets with Vedder on “Tonight You Belong to Me,” and cellist Chris Worswick contributes lovely accompaniment to “Longing to Belong” (Worswick made the cut based on the “four-string rule,” Vedder explained; a cello has four strings, just as a ukulele has four strings).

Because these arrangements are so sparse, the effect of the overall work is necessarily based entirely on the strength of the songs. Good thing Mr. Vedder does this for a living and knows his way around a tune.

“Can’t Keep” is a treat for Pearl Jam fans, who will recognize the song as the opener to Pearl Jam’s 2002 record Riot Act. This stripped-down rendition makes a creepy, insistent impression. From there, Ukulele Songs shuffles along sweetly, a batch of love songs sincere and sad. “Sleeping By Myself,” “Without You” and “Longing to Belong” are standouts; “You’re True” is an exuberant nod to the strumming wizardry of Pete Townshend, one of Vedder’s heroes; and the cover of the 1926 standard “Tonight You Belong to Me,” sung as a duet with Marshall, may be the sexiest farewell ever written: “I know you belong to somebody new / But tonight you belong to me.”

As a whole, this album feels considerably meatier than Vedder’s slight (and frankly overrated) first solo effort, the soundtrack to Into the Wild. As Vedder plows headlong into his third decade on the popular music landscape, Ukulele Songs proves that he still has an abundance of creativity in the tank.