As soon as this album was announced music journos were busy checking their calendars to see if it was an elaborate April fool; Pearl Jam‘s Eddie Vedder – one of the godfathers of grunge – and… a ukulele? Really, what’s next? J Mascis‘ Banjo Greats? Thurston Moore‘s Spoon Anthems?
This seemingly odd career move lacks the controversy of Bob Dylan going electric, nor is it an ironic Joaquin Phoenix-style career meltdown. Vedder clearly has a lot of love for the uke and this album adds fuel to the current four string resurgence; the likes of Amanda Palmer have been blazing the way, showing the world that the uke is clearly no longer the bastion of gawky Lancastrians singing comedy ditties about window cleaners. This album is more graceful than the novelty aspects of the uke would suggest and Vedder’s watchwords are restraint and simplicity.
The album embraces the ukulele’s inherit playfulness and revels in the intimate nature of one man and his instrument. These 16 tracks breeze along like an informal campfire singalong rather than Pearl Jam’s usual stadium antics. Although there are some tongue in cheek moments, Ukulele Songs represents a genuine attempt to engage with the instrument. Vedder firmly embraces the restrictions placed by losing two strings, focusing on simple but effective songwriting.
For the most part the album sees Vedder playing alone and there’s something beguiling about the juxtaposition of his deep, fragile vocals with the playfulness of the strings. Everything moves along swiftly, with all of the tracks staying below the three minute mark. Highlights such as You’re True, Sleepless Nights and Satellite burst forth with energy and emotion, more than holding their own against their usual guitar counterparts. The album concludes with a cover of Dream A Little Dream, a playful wink to the audience and an crooning acknowledgement to not take the album too seriously; arguably this drags everything back into novelty territory, but there is something charming and lullaby-esque about it.
The production is crisp and effectively simplistic and slight mistakes here and there add to the campfire spirit. The inclusion of the pointlessly deliberate out-take Hey Fahkah adds to the atmosphere of the whole set being recorded in one take, but is ultimately a pointless diversion.
While it’s not a classic album, Ukulele Songs is a lively and enjoyable LP that easily warms the cockles. By deliberately adopting a simple approach Vedder has created an intriguing collection of songs. This may feel like a diversion for the Pearl Jam front man, but fingers crossed this is a watershed moment for the uke. Who’ll next take up the baton? George Formby may be spinning in his grave, but if you’re leaning on a lamppost with nothing to listen to then you could do a lot worse.