I visited Denton a couple of weeks ago, and if you know anything about Denton, you should know something about the social institution that is Sweetwater. While having dinner there, I ran into an old friend and current blog reader, and after a brief catching-up, he asked if I had heard Eddie Vedder’s recently released album Ukulele Songs. I am not a particular fan of Vedder, and in truth the only Pearl Jam album I ever really got behind was Ten, but it sounded interesting, so I filed it away - at least until two days later when I saw a single copy at a Starbuck’s check-out. I have reservations about purchasing music at Starbucks, but seeing this lonely CD tucked between stereotypical coffee house jazz compilations after hearing about it just days before seemed somehow serendipitous, so I picked it up.
Certainly, no one can accuse Vedder of false advertising. The album is exactly what it says it is: Vedder’s first solo release consists of songs that he wrote on ukulele, and he performs them with relatively little window dressing or studio manipulation.
Overall, I like the album. Vedder’s songs on the album are consistently quite good and he performs them with his characteristic fervor. While with Pearl Jam, Vedder would sometimes go a little over-the-top in my opinion, but when it is just him, a ukelele, and a song, the result feels more impassioned than melodramatic.
Although the way in which I came across Ukulele Songs is marginally coincidental, the instrument is featured in another album that recently came in the mail due to a much different chain of events. I was the music teacher at an elementary age summer camp in 2009, and the entire camp was doing a six-week unit on the ocean. I decided to spend a week on the music of Hawaii. In the process of doing research for these lessons, I ran across the artist Israel "IZ" Kamakawiwo'ole, a very interesting figure in recent Hawaiian popular music.
Increasing levels of media exposure put IZ in the position to bring Hawaiian music to a larger audience in the late 90s similar to way that Bob Marley brought reggae to the world in the late 70s. Health issues stalled his career, however, and he passed away prematurely in 1997. His 1993 album Facing Future was a key component in his increasing visibility, though, providing songs for several soundtracks and commercials. I put this album on my Amazon wish list during this summer research two years ago. Then, about a month ago, I was put in charge of putting together the music for an upcoming luau-themed wedding shower. My collection of Hawaiian music suddenly seemed very meager, and to compensate I ordered Facing Future.
It seems that there is a definite duality to the album: some songs seem to make a deliberate attempt to integrate non-Hawaiian elements while others are obviously in the Hawaiian traditional/folk style. The former attempts have drum machines and whatnot, which gives them a feeling of cliche. The more traditional tracks, though, capture something special (the song actually cranks up at :34):
Like many, I was struck by the sincerity and expressiveness of IZ’s voice, which belies his massive frame. Furthermore, I think that it is impossible to argue the authenticity of his “Hawaiian-ness.” Although Vedder seemingly conquers nature from his limestone fortress and marvels at the passing whales, IZ brings a quiet moment on the beach to life in a way that only a person intimately aware of the experience can do.