Because of its physical size and relatively tinny sound, the ukulele is almost an automatic punchline.
But the gravitas Eddie Vedder brings forth from it on his new solo album, Ukulele Songs, is undeniable.
Like early Dylan or the Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson, Vedder recorded Ukulele Songs unaccompanied, finding beauty in the simplicity and the nuances of the material rather than layers of complexity. His silky baritone hums beneath the plucked and strummed chords. Instead of silly or festive, it is a rich, almost dreamy sound as far removed from traditional ukulele as it is from his work in Pearl Jam.
The opening track, "Can't Keep," is a hard-strummed folk song as raw and percussive as the Richie Havens classic "Handsome Johnny."
Two songs later is the masterful "Without You," a mournful arpeggiated ballad with a haunting melody that slyly moves in unexpected directions. It sounds expansive, full of space and purpose, despite being stripped down. It's the sort of song to put on repeat while staring at the ceiling and pondering the nature of melancholy.
The penultimate track on the album, "Tonight You Belong to Me"--a '20s-style duet performed with Cat Power--sizzles with emotion. You can practically hear them staring into each other's eyes on a moonlit beach as they sing.
Other songs on the collection toggle from moody folk ballads to classic jazz numbers.
While the unaccompanied timbre of the ukulele may be wearying for some ears over the course of the whole album, there isn't a bad track on it. Of all people, Vedder somehow managed to record an album that could go down as the Freewheelin' of ukulele music.