Critic's picks: Pat Metheny, 'What's It All About,' and Eddie Vedder, 'Ukulele Songs'

Contributing Music WriterJune 20, 2011 

Who could have imagined Pat Metheny and Eddie Vedder simultaneously releasing albums full of such unexpectedly kindred spirits? Well, at least, they share common ground in terms of design.

Both are unaccompanied solo acoustic works that play with stylistic expectations but yield, in intimate and unplugged terms, some glorious new summer music.

Metheny's What's It All About is not the first album of solo baritone guitar music from jazz impressario Metheny (One Quiet Night takes that honor), but it does mark the only time the guitarist has devoted an entire recording to interpretive works.

The song selection comes from pop hits of the '60s and early '70s — and commercial ones, at that. Several enjoyed at least some previous life in orchestrated form (The Beatles' And I Love Her, Burt Bacharach's Alfie). Others were rooted in folk (Simon & Garfunkel's The Sound of Silence), Brazilian music (Antonio Carlos Jobim's Garota de Ipanema, aka The Girl From Ipanema) and soul/pop (The Stylistics' Betcha by Golly Wow). There is even a moody stab at the surf classic Pipeline.

But nothing is obvious here. While the repertoire and solo guitar setting suggest a relaxed, contemplative feel that is most assuredly delivered, Metheny digs very deep into these tunes. Tempos are tampered with, time signatures get shuffled and the entire feel of the recording take on trance-like tone.

Typifying the album's temperament is a wildly unexpected cover of Carly Simon's 1971 debut hit, That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be. The song has long had a beautifully ghostly arrangement. But Metheny creates orchestration on the baritone guitar that patiently wraps around the melody. During improvisational passages, however, the light dims and the song turns into a sort of autumnal elegy.

Initially, Vedder's Ukulele Songs sounds pretty much as you think it should given that the Pearl Jam frontman is performing only with the tiny island string instrument suggested by the album title. The album-opening Can't Keep, in fact, chugs along as if an early '70s Pete Townshend were at the wheel.

While the mood soon lightens, there is still an understandably wistful demeanor to much of Vedder's Ukulele Songs. Broken Heart is a suitably melancholy work that can't help but sound sunny given the ukulele's unavoidably harp-like tone. Vedder still sounds vexed on Sleepless Nights, but the deep tenor of his singing seems almost relaxed. And on an album-closing cover of Dream a Little Dream of Me, he goes for a Tom Waits-like feel. But the slyness of the deep, breathy singing still underscores the inherent cheer of the ukulele and the tune.

Like it or not, Vedder succumbs to island bliss here. Thus, Ukulele Songs is a snapshot of one of rock's great clenched-fisted singers on holiday. Good for him.

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