- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

When artists or bands reach a certain level of established dependability, the songs they hold back become almost as important, for hard-core fans, as the songs they release.

The Internet has made it possible for more listeners to achieve geekdom, as unofficial fan Web sites and peer-to-peer servers have become catalogs of and sources for bootleg material.

The songwriters and bands with the richest inventory of unreleased tracks, B-sides and rare covers have the most to lose — and the most to gain in fan enthusiasm — in this new age. It helps, though, to throw fans an official bone every now and again, as Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam have done recently.

Bruce Springsteen

The Essential Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records

Why would Bruce Springsteen fans want “The Essential Bruce Springsteen” when they already have all the albums? Obviously for the same reason they sprang for a 1995 “Greatest Hits” package: new stuff.

This three-disc set doesn’t include freshly cut material as the ‘95 compilation did, but it does have the added enticement of a 12-song bonus of unreleased tracks, live recordings and castoffs Mr. Springsteen donated to movie soundtracks.

While far more modest than the archival flood of 1998’s “Tracks” — at 66 cuts, even that didn’t completely satisfy Bruce fans — “Essential’s” rarities disc follows the same pattern of providing a chronological smattering of songs left behind.

It reaches only as far back, however, as 1979, with “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come),” a bubbly rocker picked up by Dave Edmunds in 1980 and resurrected by Mr. Springsteen on his most recent tour.

Disappointingly, “Essential’s” best “rare” moments don’t reveal much we didn’t know already, as they’ve been available for years, albeit on obscure albums. The legitimate basement discoveries are underwhelming.

The solo rockabilly of “The Big Payback” and the wistful acoustic number “County Fair,” both cut shortly after the “Nebraska” album, are barely compelling, while “Held Up Without a Gun” is a live throwaway of dubious audio quality from a show in 1980.

Contrast that with Mr. Springsteen’s inspired cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped,” first released on the “USA for Africa” album in tandem with the 1985 Live Aid concert, and a concert staple for the E Street Band ever since.

Other songs stand out, probably not coincidentally, because of their relation to movie projects, which seem to have given Mr. Springsteen a jolt of atmospheric stimulation.

Each track captures Mr. Springsteen in his underrated and underexplored mid-‘90s period, which followed an elephantine tour and a frequently lousy pair of albums without the E Street Band (“Human Touch,” “Lucky Town”) and preceded the celebrated 1999 reunion with his old band mates.

Around the same time he was producing the dark folk-country of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Mr. Springsteen was working alone and in an experimental frame of mind. “Streets of Philadelphia” (included on the official section of this collection) is the most familiar fruit of Mr. Springsteen’s movie offerings, and a trio of tracks here are in a similar vein.

Like “Streets of Philadelphia,” “Missing,” found originally on the soundtrack to Sean Penn’s “The Crossing Guard,” is another interesting trial in drum looping, this time with a Middle Eastern rhythmic flavor. It’s also a lyrical precursor to “The Rising’s” “You’re Missing.”

“Lift Me Up,” composed specifically for the ending of John Sayles’ “Limbo,” displays the tender falsetto voice Mr. Springsteen says he developed in the ‘90s. “Dead Man Walkin’,” the title track to Tim Robbins’ meditation on the death penalty, is as brooding as the movie it graced.

“Code of Silence,” a middling but enthusiastic rocker co-written with Joe Grushecky and performed with the E Street Band in 1999-2000, and a country blues version of “The Rising’s” “Countin’ on a Miracle” cap off the rarities disc uneventfully but solidly.

It’s hard not to notice that the strongest rarities from this collection were written after 1990. Perhaps Mr. Springsteen is trying to tell us something. Like, Don’t write me off as an oldies act.

If so, good for him.

Pearl Jam

Lost Dogs: Rarities and B-sides

Epic Records

Pearl Jam is one of those maverick acts with enough fan power in its sails to do pretty much whatever it wants. For their loyalty — and to make bootlegging obsolete — Jam fans for the past three years have been rewarded with boatloads of official live releases.

Now, with more than a decade under their belt, Eddie Vedder and company find themselves in the very maverick-y position of being, by choice, without a major-label record deal. There’s talk of an Internet-only release in the offing or at the very least an independent record, a move that could shake up the music industry in interesting ways.

Whatever form Pearl Jam’s next album takes, “Lost Dogs,” a two-disc collection of rarities, very likely will be its last major-label product, perhaps making it a watershed statement of sorts. Musically, though, there’s little here that’s revelatory.

Thirty missing canines are found on “Lost Dogs,” comprising two hours’ worth of Jam archives that date back to early leftovers from “Ten,” such as the foreboding “Wash,” and songs left off last year’s “Riot Act,” such as bassist Jeff Ament’s “Other Side,” which is at least as good as anything that made it onto that record.

Some “Dogs” are gathered here from B-sides, fan club singles, multiple-artist compilations and other places. The Hendrixian ballad “Yellow Ledbetter” and “Last Kiss,” a hit cover of the J. Frank Wilson teenage death ballad (guitarist Stone Gossard says, but isn’t sure, that the latter was recorded in Constitution Hall), will be very familiar to FM-radio listeners.

Jam fans will find “Dogs” a handy one-stop for interesting castoffs such as the harmonica-flavored country ballad “Drifting” and “Leavin’ Here,” a strong and punky cover of the old Motown song that the band frequently plays live.

Less stalwart fans, however, may find in “Dogs” a reminder of how Pearl Jam became increasingly introverted and smarmily self-satisfied over the years.

Compare the twaddle of “Sweet Lew,” a leftover from 2000’s “Binaural,” with “Dirty Frank,” a funky and fun-loving “Ten”-era attempt to sound like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. An early cover of the surf-rocker “Gremmie Out of Control” is another welcome light moment.

Only the hardest of hard-core Jam fans will be able to make it through all 10 minutes of Mr. Vedder’s boringly epic “Bee Girl,” by which time “Dogs” either will have worn out its welcome or delighted the listener with its incomparable breadth.

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