If we were to broadly outline two different approaches to uke playing these days, one example could easily found on the web in the work of instrumentalists like Jake Shimabukuro. He is a musical genius pushing the boundaries of what the instrument is capable of. In fact, much of the current--yes, faddish--popularity of this tiny instrument probably has to do with his impressive antics. He is cool. Very, very, cool. No doubt Vedder (also--let's face it--cool) would like to surf off if he could.
However, there is another approach. In many ways it is more traditional. That approach begins with the idea that the uke is primarily a singer's instrument. It rolls along behind and under a distinct and expressive voice, encouraging the singer to new heights of story-telling. Again, on the web, it isn't hard to find examples of the style. Most famously, perhaps, there is the work of Israel Kamakawiwoʻole.
In his album, "Ukulele Songs" Eddie Vedder--a singer by trade and vocation--falls into this second tradition.
I bought the album over the weekend and it has been on short rotation ever since. The songs--not surprisingly considering the source--depart from the stereotyped "happy" image of beach parties where one might expect to find Jimmy Buffet-types wandering about drinking beverages with unusual names. Vedder's work is introspective, folky (even a bit country) and unadorned. There is no band, really, and the accompaniment is sparse. It has some of the drive of his work with the other members of Pearl Jam without, of course, the loud grungy aspects. It is a slightly more mature (yet ironic) album which should appeal to his maturing-yet-still-ironic fan base.
During the first couple of times I listened to the album what I most noticed was his very simple playing style. Of course, this doesn't mean he was hacking around! I have to say that I am dedicated ukeist of merely (or hopefully!) average competence but to my ears he played it well. In addition, closer inspection of the rhythmic patterns, fingering, and chord progressions revealed some to be quite complex. Still, they felt simple. The uke served the songs. This is a good lesson for all of us who try to play over our natural gifts. It isn't how fancy you are that matters. What matters is that everything fits. This is also good advice to worship leaders, I think.
I wonder if he is touring with this. I saw him of Letterman (via Youtube) and can only think the overhead would be minimal. If I were him, I would book myself into a few folk bars and clubs, drive myself there, set-up, play, and get a free meal. People would love it.
So there you go. It's not quite a full review, obviously, but from my perspective as someone looking for good models as a player as well as solid entertainment, this album works. It isn't a "look at me" album (something he is sometimes capable of) but a "here it is" album. That, I think makes it both refreshingly honest and appealing.
Here are the links:
Update: Of course he is on tour...