Waxed: Drive-By Truckers' The Dirty South

As a friend of mine recently said, "Drive-By Truckers, where have you been all my life?" Such is expected, though, when one first hears the opening stomp of "Where The Devil Don't Stay," the opening track from the Trucker's classic album The Dirty South. Except it doesn't stop there - that's just the hook to draw you in.

In 2004-2005 (memory is a little hazy as to the exact date), when I was engrossed in the wonderful Alt-Country (whatever that is) magazine No Depression, I kept hearing about this band called the Drive-By Truckers. I think I read a live concert review of one of the band's shows, or maybe a record review. I wanted to check it out, but didn't really want to make a blind purchase at the time - as all my friends can attest to, if I don't want to listen to something new, it ain't gonna happen. So, I did the next best thing to taking a chance on it - I convinced a friend to buy it.

There in the parking lot of the Shelbyville Wal-Mart, my friend (and, oddly and presciently enough, pastor) Andy popped the CD into his DiscMan (with the whole jury-rigged tape device to listen to CDs) and the opening notes of "Where The Devil Don't Stay" kicked up. Then the slide guitar hit. And then... by the end of the second track, "Tornadoes," I knew I had made a mistake. I should've bought that CD, not Andrew. I didn't let the mistake linger. I had my own copy of the record within a week. Such is the nature of The Dirty South.

Full of "y'alls" and out of tune and sometimes tuneless vocals, some out of tune instruments, with bad grammer, and fairly schizophrenic - except for the overall arching darkness that shrouds the record - The Dirty South is not a summer drive record, or a pleasant, warm winter listen. No, it is Southern Gothic Darkness personified by a band of vagrants tough enough to turn goat piss into gasoline, and just as caustic. Imagine, if you can, the best southern rock band meeting the tunesmith abilities of the great '70's songwriters. Kind of like a plane wreck/motorcycle accident between Skynyrd and the Allmans, but only if Billy Joel and Elton John were on the plane and James Taylor was on the back of the bike... and Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee, and The Man In Black were all standing on the crossroads of the devil, right there where the accident happened.

You can attribute that notion to the strength of not one, not two, but three ace songwriters/singers/guitarists/multi-instrumentalists - Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the founders of the band, and relative newcomer Jason Isbell. Isbell made his debut on the band's previous album, Decoration Day, and made his departure on the album preceeding this one, A Blessing And A Curse. I am sure there are many who would argue the point with me, but this is the period of the band that I like to refer to as "Classic Truckers."

It is precisely because of that bevy of songwriting talent that this is my favorite DBT's album. While the Truckers have always been Patterson Hood's primary vehicle, the addition of Isbell and the emergence of Cooley makes this record one tough cookie, with nary a bad song or even a well-meaning dud in sight. In fact, I could probably write an entry on each song - it's that damn good. As I don't have that kind of time or patience, and likely as you probably aren't that interested, I'll stick to just one long-ass review, and the best of the best songs on the album.

"The only blood that's any cleaner/ is the blood that's blue or greener/ without either you just get meaner/ and the blood you gave gives you away." This stanza ends the last verse of "Where The Devil Don't Stay," an opening salvo of a song that both long-time Trucker fans and newcomers should instantly love. Cooley's voice and lyrics rip through this swamp-stomp of a rocker, with Isbell's slide guitar eating up line after nasty line, propelling this dark prohibition story from the soul to the grave to Hell itself. There is no quite easy way to describe this song. It was the first I ever heard, and to be honest, it took a long time to adjust to the fact that not every song the DBT's write and play sounds like this. There's not anything like this tune. It screams, kicks, hollers, pulls, tugs, fights for every inch, and pulls you down with it, laughing as you choke on the duality of the hard life of the south.

Still, even after such a dramatic opener, nothing quite prepares you for the beauty, grace, and power of "Tornadoes," Hood's first track on the album. Chorusy acoustic guitars, echoing piano chords, reverb-drench slide guitar, and Hood's "lower-register" voice all adding atmosphere that builds until the bridge. You might think this is where all hell breaks loose, but you'd be wrong. For those who have ever been in a tornado, you'll always remember that eerie half-silence, half buzz that comes right before it hits. Somehow, the DBT's manage to capture that sound on record perfectly. Buzzing piano, eerie guitar, distant vocals ("pieces of that truckstop littered the highway, I've been told/ and I hear that missing trucker ended up in Kansas/ or maybe it was Oz) ... it's perfect, absolutely strange and enough to make your hair stand up. "I can still remember the sound of their applause in the rain," Hood sings as his band plays an outdoor concert in their hometown. "As it echoed through them storm clouds, I swear it sounded like a train."

The expert story telling continues on Isbell's first tune on the album, "The Day John Henry Died," and goes on through Hood's "Puttin' People on the Moon" and Cooley's "Carl Perkins' Cadillac," the band navigating hard southern rock and low-key swampy dirge with equal grace and power. "The Sands of Iwo Jima" finds Hood spinning yet another spellbinding tale of the south, this one about a family man war veteran, who could afford a new car but always drove what was available, and still believed in God and Country, because "things was just that way." The off-kilter banjo and churning guitars lend this back porch tale a serene, reverent beauty, and it's the type of tale that Hood tells best.

Jason Isbell follows up Hood's acoustic tale with one of his own, the lullaby-like "Danko/Manuel." The gently loping drums and softly played acoustic guitar complement Isbell's tired drawl as he sings, "I ain't living like I should." The repetiveness of the song is one of its best assets, drawing you in and holding you while it tells its tale, like being held by a grandmother in a rocking chair. The subtle electric guitars and gentle horns punch up the chorus just enough. "First they make you out to be/ the only pirate on the sea/ they say Danko would've sound just like me/ is that the man I wanna be?" Isbell sings with quiet passion, and continues to draw you down into the dark southern soul of this record. Even the solo section, with it's twangy steels, echoy electrics and chiming keyboards, adds to this twisted lullaby. "Can you hear that singing, sounds like gold/ maybe I can hear poor Richard from the grave/ singing where to reap and where to sow/ when you've found another home you have to leave/ something else you can't believe."

Hood speak-sings his way through "The Boys From Alabama," a late blooming rocker that ups the ante as the Truckers introduce a small tryptich of songs concerning Alabama Sheriff Buford Pusser and his efforts to clean up a dry county. Cooley steals the show here, though, with "Cottonseed," a deceptively simple, calm song with lyrics as deep as a mile wide ditch and as dark as the stories preachers use to scare children straight. Told from the perspective of a criminal that the system just can't beat and keep locked away, Cooley sings "They say every sin is deadly but I believe they may be wrong/ I'm guilty of all seven and I don't feel too bad at all." The impact of this song can't be measured without listening to it. A scathing reprisal of law and church and champions the criminal's way. "I used to have a wad of hundred dollar bills in the back pocket of my suit/I had a .45 underneath my coat and another one in my boat/ I drove a big ol' Cadillac, bought a new one anytime I pleased/ and I put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cottonseed." This is real true blue outlaw stuff, the kinds dark western legends and ancient religious tales are made from. Hood follows it up with the powerful "The Buford Stick," a song whose grindy guitars kick the band into full ass-kicking mode.

"Daddy's Cup" is Cooley's tale of racing, in a southern man's blood, and is followed by "Never Gonna Change," a rocker by Isbell that feels like a straight kick to the gut for anyone putting the southern man down, and "Lookout Mountain," which contains the most monster guitar riff on the album, sounding like some kind of monstrous combo of Metallica, pure electric blues, and Skynyrd. It also features some of the tastiest guitar licks on an album full of them.

But it's Jason Isbell's "Goddamn Lonely Love" that closes the album, and closes it so well. The lyrics, melody, and damn-near everything else about the song aches with broken beauty, from the warbling intro to the last notes. "I've got green and I've got blues/ and every day there's a little less different between the two," Isbell sings. "I belly up and disappear/ well I ain't really drowning 'cause I see the beach from here." He continues, " I could take a Greyhound home/ and when I got there it'd be gone/ along with everything a home is made up of/ so I'll take two of what you're having/ and I'll take all of what you got/ to kill this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love." This sad lament is somehow classic Truckers, and Classic Country all at once. It's visceral, dark, and hard, while being so descriptive you can feel the words as much as see them. Passionate sex is followed by bad regrets and hard drinking. It's a tale of loss and brokeness anyone can relate to, and Isbell delivers it with such passion and gravity that you'll likely be left with a bit of a broken heart yourself.

While I haven't explore later era Truckers as much as I should, and haven't touched early releases like Pizza Deliverance, I think I can still say that, so far, The Dirty South stands as an incredible band's best album. And, at the risk of starting arguments, I wonder if the band will ever get this level of greatness back with Jason Isbell. By now you've probably figured I am an Isbell fan, and you'd be correct. I was and am enthralled with his first solo album, Sirens Of The Ditch, an eclectic rock tour-de-force with nary a bad tune to be found. Still, the promise of Hood, Cooley and Isbell together is what made The Dirty South so amazing, so deep and so dark and visceral and emotional.

For the uninitiated, do yourself a favor, and stop by your favorite local record store and pick up a copy of The Dirty South, and drown your worries in the dark and lonely tales of the broken South. Just be sure thank me later, and don't forget who your friends really are.


Waxed: Ryan Adams + The Cardinals' Cardinology

Every once in a while, you'll come across an album that grabs you - not completely, but just enough to tug on you, bring you back, and keep you coming back until it grows on you. These are the albums you learn to love - not immediate successes per se, but the type of albums you want with you on a cold lonely night or a sunny summer drive with the top down.

When your name is Ryan Adams, you aren't afforded much leeway. Your albums are expected to showers, not growers, so to speak. Your career has been littered with hits and misses. Some folks call you a genius, some an idiot, and most a copy-cat artist, a musical con man. With each album you put out, you confuse and delight and annoy and exalt, all at once and all the time. But, for those of us who love you (yes, I love me some Ryan Adams), we love you precisely because you're a nut job, a delightful temper-tantrum tornado that spins out blissfully sounding melodies and heart-wrenching lyrics as often as you spew foul-mouth tirades and (not quite so often) ordinary sounding tunes that are too basic to be memorable.

Cardinology, Adams' latest effort with his superb backing band the Cardinals, is a grower, not a shower. The record does start with an attention grabber, with the hard acoustic riff of "Born into a Light" reaching right out of the speakers and pulling the listener's ear close, and harkening to a return of the excellent sound Adams and crew mined on Cold Roses. But be careful - the song and all it's wonderful steel guitar, driving acoustics, and lazy-casual vocals goes by fast, maybe too fast. "We were born into a light," Adams sings, and this birth is a quick one.

"Go Easy" is pleasant enough, but every time I hear it, I expect to hear "Halloweenhead" from Adams' last record, Easy Tiger. Something about the chords reminds me of that latter song, but the tune is quite listenable regardless of what it calls to mind (again, for a reason I can't explain, the song also reminds of the Eagles, and part of me hopes that they would cover it. Such hopes are baseless and retarded, but hey, it's fun to dream). The song ends with Adams singing, "you gotta go, you gotta go now" repeatedly, and ends almost as quickly as the first track. In fact, the first four songs, and six of the album's twelve, clock in under three minutes.

"Fix It" slides in and continues the Cold Roses vibe, but with a distinct Neil Young feel, complete with ragged chopping guitar and slightly accusatory, revealing lyrics. The albums first real departure from the collective vibe comes next in "Magick," which is... simply bad-ass. Any song about a record just gets my blood going. The Cardinals doing a phenominal job of capturing the nasty sound of Rock N Roll-era Adams. Lyrically, Adams follows suit: "Everything you touch burns, scorched earth," sounds like a perfect line from that garage rock record.

I originally thought that "Cobwebs" was the song that held this release back from being a Shower - the song at first sounds a bit too bland. Even though it reminds me a my favorite Adams album - Love Is Hell - it just seemed... amateur. For Ryan Adams, anyway. But the song is sticky, and gets better with time, especially when you give it a spin listening to headphones. It's not perfect - Adams wailing at the end of the track doesn't really do anything positive for me, and kind of makes me long for the beginning of the song - but it is full of little ear candy, a guitar or steel guitar lick hidden here and there for your listening pleasure.

"Let Us Down Easy" is quintessential Adams and The Cardinals, if such a thing exists, all laziness and melody and a few stretches that keep it from being too samey. But "Crossed Out Name" really jumps out, starting with just Ryan's voice and a dual chugging acoustic guitars. "When I close my eyes, I feel like a page with a crossed out name," he sings, as piano chords fall in. "I wish I could tell you just how I am hurt," and the hits keep on coming. This song is fantastic - all mood and melody, heart on sleeve, scalpel in one hand and guitar pic in the other. It's an instant Adams classic.

The Cold Roses feel continues (which I consider a good thing) on "Natural Ghost," which features a great groove. It's also not the first song where Adams' voice brings to mind Willie Nelson, certainly in tone if not in phrasing (Willie is the coolest jazz cat around who isn't really a jazz cat, after all, and his odd ways of lyrical phrasing are totally unique and pretty hard to cop. the southern wispy drawl, however, lends itself well here to borrowing). The band then settles gently into the groovy "Sink Ships." You might wonder if Ryan is really saying anything here, other than his usual territory of love and growing up and living as a musical genius and misunderstood poet (because, you know, that is so hard), and to be honest, I am not sure he is. Lyrically, the album sounds pleasant without being too confrontational or too thought-provoking - there's enough buzz phrases ("the war is over") to keep it interesting, and the occasional triumph like "Crossed Out Name," but for the most part this is standard fare. And that isn't always a bad thing, especially when it leaves plenty of room for the amazing musicianship of the Cardinals, which is a very good thing.

"Evergreen lopes around at a nice, lazy country-jazz pace, with echoy steel guitar and a few flourishes of honky tonk piano. The easy vibe continues on "Like Yesterday," which gets awfully close to swarmy tripe '70's pop, closer than Adams has come before, as he continues to push his vocals into flowery falsetto ranges - not his best work, for sure. But the song isn't so bad as to bring the album down.

Cardinology ends with the pretty "Stop," a song that starts with just Ryan, singing and playing piano. It sounds all wounded and vulnerable - the way the best Ryan Adams song do. When the cymbals slowly chiming in and the pianos slow, we get typical Adams' lyrics: "Slow down/ you don't have to talk/ lie down/ breathe/ stop/ slow down/ it's not your fault," and what seems pretty simple and basic usually ends up endearing in Adams' hands. Strings creep in and almost overwhelm the last verse and chorus. Is it pretensious? Of course, it's Ryan Adams, but as a whole, Cardinology avoids some of the worst trappings that Adams falls into while staying neatly nestled into the things he does best - namely, solid tunecraft with a little emotional vulnerability and very hummable hooks.

Cardinology probably isn't going to win Ryan Adams any new fans, and it might only give his old ones enough of a taste of his best work to satisfy them for only so long, but it isn't a bad record. I'm not sure it meets the grand expectations that come with any Adams release, but it's a likeable, pleasant listen, with a few grabbers, a few toe-tappers, and a dud or two. And really, that's ok. It's ok to be a grower, not a shower. After all, so many of us can relate.

Waxed: Hayes Carll's Trouble In Mind

Thank God for Hayes Carll.

From the opening violin run of “Drunken Poet’s Dream” to the last notes of the Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year, “She Left Me For Jesus,” Hayes Carll’s new album Trouble In Mind is a refreshing gust of familiar wind in a current culture of tired retreads, pop country, and fly-by-night television reality show stars.

Carll keeps his tongue planted firmly in cheek on most of Trouble In Mind, his third album and first for Lost Highway. And while the record brings to mind obvious influences (Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, et al), Carll manages to make his songs his own – as well as a few covers, too.

While it was hard to miss “She Left Me For Jesus,” it’s the song that opens the album, “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” that may be the best treat. Amidst traditional country instrumentation and Nashville swing, Carll delivers the kind of wry wit that Texas singer-songwriters are known for. The expert musicianship of producer/instrumentalist Brad Jones and the assorted veteran players compliments Carll’s Texas drawl and well-crafted lyrics so well that nothing ever detracts from the whole, and on the first track, that allows Hayes devilish story to unfold with earnest humor and infections, catching energy. When he sings, “I’ve got a woman she’s wild as Rome/ She likes to lay naked and be gazed upon,” you can’t help but listen, watch in your mind’s eye, and smile. This is a return to the carousing country music your parents warned you about, far from the sugary-sweetness of Nashville’s pop music machine.

Carll wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 14 tracks on the album, and on first listen you’ll have to try hard to not grasp his natural talent for songwriting. Though Carll visits familiar themes like love lost and solace in good (or bad) liquor, he delivers lyrics with fresh new twists that keep the listener tuned in to hear what is coming next, be it heartbreak or humor.

Hayes picks excellent covers for Trouble, too; “Bad Liver And A Broken Heart” rocks like the best country rock, sounding like The Eagles, The Stones, and, well, Hayes Carll, all at once. You wouldn’t expect it to be a song penned by Scott Nolan if you weren’t familiar with that songwriter’s work, Carll so expertly makes it his own. It takes guts to cover Tom Waits, and much more than that to do that artist’s songs justice, but Carll and his wonderful backing band do just that on Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.”

This record stands as a testament to real Country music, real Rock and Roll… real American music. Much of that comes from the well-documented dues Carll paid playing and living hard for his music. Nowhere is that more apparently and more pleasantly portrayed, than in “I Got A Gig.” The autobiographical tune is filled with Carll’s enjoyable wit and humor, but also with a real grit that lends it the weight of truth. Once again, the expert cast of musicians makes the tune sound like old friends who’ve been on the road forever, playing their version of the blues behind old chicken wire.

The best thing about Trouble is how damned good it is – there’s nary a miscue to be found. This is music for music lovers, the kind of record that makes its way to your car stereo, home theater, or trusty iPod, and stays there for a while. It’s a record that sounds lived in, and is meant to be lived in.

Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention the reason you might have heard of Hayes Carll to begin with – “She Left Me For Jesus.”

To be honest, the first time I heard the song, I got a kick out of it but it didn’t really stick with me until I bought the record and discovered the rest of the excellent tunes (I am an admitted newcomer to Hayes Carll) and, more importantly, Hayes’ impeccable wit and knack with a song. What sounded like fun kitsch became so much more, simply because so many examples of Hayes humor and intelligent word craft are scattered throughout Trouble In Mind.

It’s a great song to end a great record, and truth be told, the lyrics are a perfect wink-wink that true music fans should get (and apparently did, as evident by the AMA’s Song of the Year award). “She’s givin’ up whiskey and taken up wine/ She prays for his troubles and forgot about mine,” Carll sings, “I’m a gonna get even, I can’t handle the shame/ Why the last time we made love, she even called out his name.”

The song moves through the story of lost love in the verses to the punch line choruses with equal aplomb, Hayes joyfully singing with mock sadness. “She left me for Jesus, and that just ain’t fair/ She says that he’s perfect, how could I compare/ She says I should find him, and I’ll know peace at last/ But if I ever find Jesus, I’m kickin’ his ass.” The song even ends with the Amen cadence, so commonly heard at the end of church hymns, but with the lyric sheet delivering yet one more sly wink, as Hayes and singing out, “Ahhh, man.” It’s one last perfect step, a look both forward and back, to close this excellent record.

As they say, though, the proof is in the puddin’, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better Americana record this year than Hayes Carll’s Trouble In Mind. Give it a listen, and I am sure you’ll be singing along with these hell raising tunes in no time.


Under The Knife: Do You See The Way That Tree Bends?

Long time, no post... I know. I'm workin' on it all, so get off my back. Without further delay:

From the first opening notes, the chiming melody played on an electric guitar, there is a hint that "Present Tense" is going to be a very special song.

Before it, there weren't many songs in the Pearl Jam catalog that started with just one spare and lonely electric guitar, and one vocal melody. Two tracks, two sounds, alone in a room, communicating.

The song is so different from everything before it, just like the album it comes from, 1996's No Code. A break from the stylistic mode of '90's grunge and alternative rock that Pearl Jam helped create, No Code is a stunning departure for a band who, had they chosen to play the part scripted them, would be on top of the world. As it were, though, Eddie Vedder and company decided to pull back - sticking to their no vidoes policy, thus shunning MTV's massive publicity machine. They also became less and less accessible to the media, pretty much shutting out the press entirely. No marketing campaigns. No interviews. No videos. Just music.

Because of the intense celebrity media attention they received at the outset of the alternative revolution, which became even more intense when Kurt Cobain committed suicide, Pearl Jam became increasingly introspective with thier music, as well. Some would call them anit-social, and hellbent on committing career suicide. No one knew then what we know now - that they are the elder statesmen of rock, less a grunge or alternative band and more just an incredibly good and sincere rock band. The missing link between the massive media explosion after Ten and the current lean classic rock machine and stadium-dominating tour-happy Jam we see now, then, is undoubtedly No Code.

As you may have guessed, I could go on and on about the music contained on this album. It is such a wonderful collective piece of music, and is essential to the band's lengthy and decorated career, not only for being perceived as a giant letdown to record lables and media pundits (and for some fans), but also for stretching the band into new and uncharted realms (for them and their music), stretches that would ultimately to some of their later experimentation and some of their strongest songwriting ever. The good thing about No Code is that all the experiments work, and in and of themselves are incredible gifts of song.

And for me, the greatest of these is the song "Present Tense."

"Do you see the way that tree bends? Does it inspire? Leaning out to catch the suns rays... a lesson to be applied." Eddie starts by asking these simple questions and offering this wonderful, achingly honest observation - after a half decade of pressure and trying to flee fame, maybe it was better to be positive, thankful, better to reach out, be inspired? He ends the first verse, with Mike McCready's chiming, mellow, ethereal guitar stretching out behind the vocals, with another question. "Are we getting something out of this all-encompassing trip?"

To a casual fan, this could just be an introspective mantra, and it is, but it's also so much more. This is a band wrestling with thier demons, their mercurial lead singer giving voice to frustration, disappointment, disillusionment. "You can spend your time alone, redigesting past regrets," Vedder sings in the chorus. "Or you can come to terms and realize you're the only one who cannot forgive yourself." The words are so effortless, so penetrating, both so personal and yet so universal. "Makes much more sense to live in the present tense."

I won't let, the song itself has been like a prayer for me, from the day I heard up until now, and I am sure, going forward. The words always seem to penetrating whatever I am going through. They are always meaningful, always relevant.

We're treated to a little more instrumentation in the second verse, as it builds with a beautiful acoustic guitar accompanyment. The words, again, are intoxicating in their beauty. The song sounds so much more like a conversation between close friends than just... lyrics.

" Have you ideas on how this life ends? Checked your hands and studied the lines. Have you the belief that the road ahead, ascends off into the light? Seems that needlessly it's getting harder too find an approach and a way to live. Are we getting something out of this all-encompassing trip?" This builds to another sparse chorus, this one more forceful, as drums creep in cymbal washes and the chiming guitar carries throughout the rest of the chorus. It's emotive and emotional. It just has the je ne sais quois. And that's all before...

The jam. One thing Pearl Jam has always done - Stone and Jeff were doing it back in their Mother Love Bone days, actually - is write incredible bridges and musical interludes. Often these are purely instrumental, and some close some of the best songs the band has written. "Present Tense" gets this magic-bridge treatment, and to wonderous effect. Out of the chorus, the band launches into one of their trademark grooves - heavy on the classic rock funk of the '70's. Vedder adds some chanting, but in this case it adds to the real treat - a monster jam thrown down by Jeff, Stone, Mike and the drummer Jack Irons. They ride a simple chord like a wave, and then let it crest, becoming bigger and bigger until it breaks.

The song ends like a wave breaking, crashing down into something beautiful, as the chiming guitar from the very first notes of the song returns, bringing with it its sweet melody. This time bass, drums, and another chiming guitar adding a strong, sweeping arppegiated counter-melody come along for the ride. Together the instruments lock up and ride the gentle drift back to shore, slowly fading out.

If that sounds a little melodramatic, as a description of a song, well, trust me, it isn't. The song is damn-near perfect, emotional and sweeping, epic by less-is-more, soaring in the way the Pearl Jam make a song do so well. Those familiar with the lost treasure "Hard To Imagine" might instantly see the connection between these two songs. Where "Hard To Imagine" wouldn't fit the stylistic tone of early Pearl Jam on Vs., here the band has created an album where "Perfect Tense" is the perfect fit, and an excellent way to sum up the entire No Code experience. For an album that was so named because it was "full of code," said Vedder, this song stands as a striking example to the tongues the band was speaking in, and the full effect they could have on a listener who really listened, who got involved with the music. The experience of hearing this song live only makes it that much sweeter. All the power and epic-quality of the tune is magnified in the live setting, McCready's excellent fret work and Vedder's soaring vocals taking the song, and fans, to another realm entirely.

And while No Code, and "Present Tense," may not make many critics "best of" lists, you'll find many a hardcore Pearl Jam fan that points to this album as the band's true Rosetta Stone. It holds the keys to understand their personalities, their struggles, their failures and their victories, their weaknesses and their strenghts, and most important of all, their humanity.