Vedder's solo ukulele version of the stadium anthem “Can't Keep” has been justly acclaimed for turning that strident rallying cry of freedom into a more personal quest for solace and self-redemption.
The ukulele has been a rock-friendly instrument for decades. Elvis Presley strums one in Blue Hawaii. George Harrison has one on hand throughout the Beatles Anthology documentary, and recorded a couple of uke songs on his final album. Long before the rock era, the ukulele was synonymous with the drunken college high jinks of the Jazz Age.
For some people the ukulele can be grating, undignified, an acquired taste. Of course, you could say the same thing about Eddie Vedder's voice. There are those who see Vedder's sultry vocal strains as the element that made the grunge genre commercially acceptable (whereas their Seattle contemporaries Nirvana never stopped trying to alienate audiences). The Pearl Jam singer's known for his diverse musical tastes, from obscure surf rock to the Ramones to Black Flag to Neil Young to U2 to the Who. Ukulele Songs adds a few pre-rock influences to that mix — Billy Rose's Tin Pan Alley standards “More Than You Know” and “Tonight You Belong to Me”; “Sleepless Nights” by country/pop composers Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (a famous duet for Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, which Vedder chooses to sing alongside his tourmate Glen Hansard); the swing band classic “Once in a While”; and even “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” which is to the ukulele what “Chopsticks” or “Heart and Soul” is to the piano.
Some of these selections seem shameless, yet the vocals on these standards are distinctive, slowing down tempos and audaciously altering melodies. And the rest of the tracks are Eddie Vedder originals which explore both the subtle mysteries of the ukulele and of his own voice. Since ukes tend to settle in the upper register and Vedder sings in low tenor or baritone, it can be a curious mix. Ukulele Songs' lead single, the leisurely ballad “Longing to Belong,” changes the dynamic by having Vedder's wail higher than usual (though still beat by the chirpy uke), with the low end covered by a guest cellist.
On May 31, the same day that Ukulele Songs hit record stores, Vedder also released Water on the Road, a live DVD of solo concerts he did in Washington, D.C., almost three years ago. Ukulele Songs has 16 tracks (including the seconds-long blooper “Hey Fahkah”) and Water on the Road has 24 (with “The Canyon” both opening and closing the set), but the discs have only one tune in common, the upbeat pop compliment “You're True.” Water on the Road does contain a so-labeled “Ukulele Interlude,” but it's an instrumental, while Ukulele Songs is notable for its complex lyrics and echoey, enveloping vocals.
The photos in the Ukulele Songs album booklet promote the uke's portability, depicting Vedder strumming in fields and forests and in the middle of a lake. This isn't exactly a low-rent, offhand project — the liner notes credit a host of engineers and producers, not to mention a “ukulele tech” (half a dozen types of uke are cited, included five- and six-string models) and a “chopper pilot,” plus there's this national tour to consider. But Ukulele Songs does its job of showing the wistful, contemplative, laid-back and low-maintenance side of a revered arena rocker.
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With Glen Hansard. $78, 7:30 p.m. June 18 at the Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. (860) 987-5900, bushnell.org. Sold out.