Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Pearl Jam: Single Video Theory (1998)
Studio Line: Sony Music

Single Video Theory is a lo-fi glimpse into the world of Pearl Jam. Set in their downtown Seattle rehearsal space/warehouse, it is a fly-on-the-wall view of the band practicing for their upcoming tour. Intercut between performances, the band members discuss the process behind the creation of their most recent album, "Yield," and the evolution of Pearl Jam as a band. Songs include "All Those Yesterdays," "Given to Fly," "Wishlist" and "Do the Evolution."

Director: Mark Pellington
Cast: Eddie Vedder, Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Jack Irons, Mike McCready
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1 & PCM Stereo; subtitles none; single sided - single layered; no chapters; Unrated; 45 min.; $19.98; street date 11/24/98.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/A-/F

To say the least, Pearl Jam have never appeared to be one of the world’s chattiest and most gregarious bands. They’ve never been too fond of the publicity machine, which is why there are music videos for only a smattering of their songs, and they don’t provide a tremendous number of interviews. They really do seem to want to let the music speak for itself.

In that regard, there are few better acts around, especially because PJ truly do try to make their fans happy. Their 2000 Binaural tour proved this in spades. The concerts themselves were top-notch. Very few bands at their level of success mix up their set lists with the fervor shown by PJ; although a handful of songs made pretty much every show, you could always count on some surprises, and almost no two set lists were identical.

They also kept ticket prices down to a very reasonable level; in an age when Springsteen’s $67.50 top-level has become cheap compared to the peak costs of shows by U2 ($130) and Madonna ($250), PJ maintained seats at about $30, if I recall correctly. I think lawn seats at amphitheater shows were even less expensive, but that $30 or so could get you the best spot in the house.

Speaking of which, PJ continued their allegiance with what may be the best fan club bargain you can find. The Ten Club costs a mere $10 a year, but in addition to some sporadically interesting newsletters, they offer a yearly Christmas single - on vinyl - and special ticket offers. The latter are the main reason I keep up my membership. I joined back in 1994, which is long enough to put me high on the seniority list. During the 2000 tour, ticket location was based on the length of your stay within the Ten Club. As such, I scored a front row spot that made me exceedingly happy.

This probably shouldn’t have occurred, but the good folks at the Ten Club seem to be forgiving. I’d let my membership lapse during 1999. PJ tend to tour every two years, so the club slipped my mind in that down term. As such, I assumed that when I rejoined in early 2000 I’d go to the back of the line. Nope - the club treated me as though I’d never missed a step, and my high seniority spot remained with me. That was a wonderful example of customer service, and I plan to repay them by always maintaining my membership; I renewed for 2001 as soon as I could.

Another example of PJ’s “fans first” attitude came through an absolutely unprecedented series of releases that followed the 2000 tour. For one, they produced their first official concert video with the entertaining and lively Touring Band 2000. However, their most ambitious project resided in the audio domain, as each one of the band’s 72 full concerts appeared on “official bootleg” compact discs. Except for their three-CD November 6 finale in Seattle, each of these occupied two discs and they sold for very reasonable prices; they generally go for around $15, which is a definite bargain.

If you start to collect these discs, be warned that they’re rather addictive. Initially, I planned to pick up only three of the CDs. I got the Washington DC show that I attended, and I also figured the three-CD Seattle show was a given. I chose the August 30 Boston show as well solely because I really wanted to have a live version of “Brain Of J.” and this concert seemed like the best one that included it.

However, once I got those discs, I really enjoyed them, and I felt the desire to grab more. I have a natural tendency towards a collector’s mentality, and I love to get full rosters of materials. Even so, I couldn’t justify the purchase of all 72 packages just because I’m not that big a fan. I like them very much, and these releases have helped endear them to me even more, but they remain on my second tier. How would I react if someone on the top level - such as David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, or U2 - were to release official CDs of all their shows from a tour? I don’t know, but I’d be very tempted to catch them all.

In the case of PJ, I definitely expanded my net past those initial three purchases. After hours of research, I narrowed down the field to the minimum number of concerts that would include almost every different song they performed. Ultimately, that led me to grab an additional six CDs. This wasn’t a perfect representation of every possible tune. For example, I excluded a one-off playing of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” that showed up only in Amarillo, and I also didn’t particularly care about the cover of “I Am A Patriot” from the August 29 Boston show. Nonetheless, I ended up with the vast majority of the songs, and I have to admit I think this is a terribly cool thing. (If anyone wants to know the full collection I amassed so the can recreate the almost-full PJ live collection, e-mail me and I’ll send you the details. By the way, I’m listening to the Las Vegas show as I write, and it may go down as my favorite; it has a loose but energetic and lively performance, and Eddie proves to be especially chatty and fun.)

After the release of the American concerts in early 2001, “Entertainment Weekly” provided a very smarmy report on the lack of fervor that accompanied their arrival on shelves. Their reporter behaved as though there should have been a mad rush of buyers and sneered when this didn’t occur. This condescending article - which basically tried to convince everyone that PJ were has-beens - totally missed the point.

Media set the bar high for PJ early in their career due to the enormous success of the first releases. 1991’s debut Ten sold millions of copies, and 1993’s Vs. established a record at the time with sales of about 950,000 copies sold in one week. Inevitably, future releases couldn’t keep up with this pace, and with their last couple of albums, PJ have settled into a groove; their records move acceptably well but they don’t approach the highs of the early years.

For all the media nastiness, I don’t regard this lessening of sales as necessarily being a bad thing. I can’t claim to know this to any degree of certainty, but PJ don’t strike me as a band who really want to be the biggest thing in existence; I get the impression they might prefer their core stable of fans and not particularly desire an enormous following. They seem to enjoy a decent lifestyle, and they get to perform their music on their own terms; I doubt they’d want to alter that.

The jerk from “EW” seemed to think that there should be enormous interest from the general public for a collection meant for the band’s serious fans. Even at their peak, this sort of package wouldn’t have caused much of a stir, for there simply could never be a slew of people who really desire an effort of such enormity. The “bootlegs” were meant as a thank you to the die-hard fans, most of whom have responded with appropriate happiness. These discs were one of the coolest gestures ever made by a major act, which is why I still want to slap that moronic reporter silly.

It’s jerks like him who probably made the band wary of the media, and that’s likely part of the reason why they keep such a low profile. However, it’s also entirely possible that they just don’t have much to say. That latter possibility seems more plausible once one checks out Single Video Theory, the 1998 documentary that followed the sessions for their album Yield.

As a whole, this was a very simple program. It mainly provided shots of the band as they rehearse and record the record’s tracks, and we also encounter some interview snippets with the various members. The latter elements won’t become a significant selling point. While it was good to hear them speak about their work, none of them offered any information that appeared to be particularly compelling or revealing.

Many times these kinds of pieces are bland because they take on a promotional flavor; the artists involved want to provide a happy-happy look at things. I didn’t get that impression from PJ, as I have no reason to believe that they aren’t consistently open and honest. However, I did feel as though they just aren’t the most expressive or expansive subjects you’ll encounter. As such, the interviews were watchable but they seemed to be fairly drab and unspectacular.

Much more interesting were the recording sessions themselves, partially because they offered some real insight into the band’s workings. Mainly these scenes focused on the actual performances, but we also got to see some good shots of the interplay between the musicians. I always love “behind the scenes” clips from movie sets, for they provide the most honest and revealing demonstrations of how things actually work. These shots of PJ functioned in the same manner. While they weren’t long enough to provide tremendous depth, they nonetheless were a delight to see.

As for the songs themselves, they remained the focus of the program. While I enjoyed these somewhat unrefined performances of Yield’s tracks, the presentation left something to be desired for much of the show. Of the DVD’s ten tunes, only four of them appeared in their entirety; “Given to Fly”, “Wishlist”, “In Hiding” and “Do the Evolution” all received complete renditions.

Some of the other tunes almost made it through full performances. “All Those Yesterdays” got close to the end, but the conclusion was covered by a few environmental noises as we watched the band members arrive at the studio. “MFC” and “Low Light” started at their beginnings, but they both cut off in the middle. “Faithfull” (sic) started in progress but went through to its end without interruption. “Brain Of J.” and “No Way” also started in progress, plus they provided additional disruptions. “Brain” almost finished, but a little speech covered the conclusion, while Eddie talked over the middle of “No Way”; after that, it kept going until its end.

Actually, my statement that the DVD included only these 10 songs wasn’t correct. A brief instrumental jam occurred between the appearances of “Given to Fly” and “No Way”. However, this really just represented some minor noodling, so I wouldn’t consider it a full-fledged performance.

Due to the loose and informal nature of SVT, I can’t say that the interrupted performances grated upon me terribly, but I thought they were unnecessary. As it stands, this was a good program that offered a nice look at the workings of a terrific band. However, Single Video Theory would have been more complete and less frustrating without the interference that marred six of the disc’s 10 tunes. Nonetheless, it remains an interesting show that should strongly appeal to the band’s fans.

For the record, only two of Yield’s 12 songs made no appearance on SVT. These would be “Pilate” and “Push Me, Pull Me”.

The DVD:

Single Video Theory appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Pearl Jam seem to prefer crude visuals for their productions, as we saw during Touring Band 2000. As such, don’t expect much from SVT, for it provided a decent but drab picture.

Sharpness generally appeared to be reasonably crisp and accurate, though the program’s blandness made it look somewhat fuzzy at times. The show maintained fairly good focus, but occasional bouts of softness occurred as well. Still, I felt reasonably satisfied with the sharpness, and I saw few examples of moiré effects or jagged edges. No true print flaws appeared, but a moderate number of video artifacts cropped up during the program. These weren’t as substantial as those seen in Touring Band, but they caused some distractions nonetheless.

Since almost all of SVT took place within a recording studio, the palette remained very subdued. The mild colors we saw generally looked accurate and respectably clean, though they could be affected by the program’s moderate muddiness; as such, hues periodically appeared a bit heavy. Black levels looked acceptably deep and dense, but shadow detail was a little murky at times. Low-light situations seemed to be reasonably discernible, but they suffered from that general drabness. Ultimately, Single Video Theory looked like the independent and loose documentary that it was.

On the other hand, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Single Video Theory provided a genuinely terrific experience, though it did show some erratic tendencies. To no one’s surprise, the emphasis was placed heavily on the music, and the songs almost uniformly sounded great. The forward spectrum dominated the mix, as the front speakers displayed very solid stereo separation for the tunes. All instrumentation appeared distinct and accurately placed, though Eddie’s vocals leaned a little to the left for some odd reason; they weren’t as centered as I’d expect. Still, all other elements demonstrated clean distinction and they were easily picked out from the mix.

During the non-musical band interactions, the general ambience was subdued but realistic, and the mix even included some speech that emanated from the sides. However, this effect didn’t always work tremendously well. For example, Eddie might look toward the left but the voice would come from the right. That could be a bit disconcerting, but overall, it didn’t create any significant problems.

Surround usage almost totally stayed with mild reinforcement of the music. However, this didn’t mean that no unusual audio appeared from the rears. Around the 23-minute mark, some trippy atmospherics popped up in the surrounds. These were a minor example, but they still added something different to the package.

Most importantly, audio quality seemed to be excellent. Vocals were consistently warm and natural, and guitars appeared crisp and appropriately distinct depending on the style of the tune. Their notes rang out cleanly and accurately at all times. The rhythm section received somewhat uneven treatment, as both bass guitar and drums varied slightly in intensity throughout the program. Nonetheless, both elements always sounded quite good, and the show boasted some very tight and deep low-end. In the end, I thought that Single Video Theory did what it needed to do as it provided vivid, lively music.

In regard to extras, you will never find a more sparse package than Single Video Theory. Not only does it fail to include niceties such as lyrics, discographies, or whatnot, but also it doesn’t even include a menu or chapters! You pop in the DVD and you watch it; that’s about as much as you can do. Granted, you are allowed to alter the audio track from 5.1 to stereo PCM, but this must be done on the fly; you won’t hear about it from any menu. Frankly, the starkness of the DVD is a little annoying, especially since it lacks chapters. It’s obnoxious that you can’t easily skip to certain tracks.

Nonetheless, I thought Pearl Jam’s Single Video Theory was a fairly interesting program. The show offered a reasonably compelling look at the band’s recording process, and it provided some fine songs as they were recorded. The picture quality was decent but bland, and the DVD completely lacked any extras, but the audio sounded simply terrific throughout the piece. Single Video Theory will lack much interest to anyone who doesn’t feel very positively toward Pearl Jam, but it should prove to be entertaining and useful for the band’s more dedicated fans.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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