If your impression of ukulele music is formed, like mine, from painful memories of grade school, Don Ho records found hidden at the back of your parents’ record collection, and the occasional novelty hit like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere (Over the Rainbow),” then “Can’t Keep,” the opening track of Eddie Vedder’s Ukulele Songs will set your head to spinning. It’s hard to believe the stringed instrument propelling this song along so frantically is that much maligned cousin of the mandolin. It’s only well into the album on “Sleepless Nights” (an Everly Brothers’ song) that a hint of the ukulele we’re all used to appears.
Creating an entire album of ukulele songs smacks of gimmickry, but Vedder’s artistic bona fides are well established. And the true test is “Does the instrument serve the songs?” Of that there is no doubt. Listen to a song like “Longing to Belong” and you just can’t imagine another instrument playing it.
The ukulele proves to be a remarkably supple and expressive instrument in Vedder’s hands, producing a surprising number of sounds, not with effects but with different chords and fingering techniques. “Light Today” features a repetitive ringing pluck. “Many True” opens with the “Pinball Wizard” chords before sliding into some nice 7ths. He plays percussively on “Without You,” giving the instrument a piano-like sound.
Vedder’s voice has always been more nuanced than a simple listen to “Even Flow” or “Spin the Black Circle” might suggest. Still, I’m surprised by the degree of restraint and subtlety here, particularly on the many covers, including “Tonight You Belong to Me,” an original ukulele song from 1926, or Broadway standard “More Than You Know” from 1929. Between his impressive knowledge of American music, his obvious respect and reverence for the instrument, and a well chosen repertoire, this is a surprisingly affecting album from the Pearl Jam singer.