Sunday, May 7

Smells Like Flannel

ARTIST: Pearl Jam
ALBUM: Pearl Jam

Comments: I missed Pearl Jam by about five years. I had a copy of “Ten” and I recognized their songs on the radio, but I never really thought they were anything special. At the height of their popularity, I was just too young to really appreciate their music. Now that I’m older, I understand their importance, but I’m still not a huge fan by any means. I listen to their greatest hits album, which is very good, and the more popular tracks off of “Ten” and “Yield” but I am by no means a fan boy like some of my older peers.

So when I heard that Pearl Jam had a new album coming out and that it was supposedly their best album since “Ten”, I was excited. This album was going to be my chance to really listen to Pearl Jam and try to understand what they were really all about. This was going to be my way of making up for the fact that I was just too young to appreciate them; this was my chance to give them an honest look. What I see in Pearl Jam is a band that can still has the magic, but is struggling to remain relevant.

The grunge “revolution” of the early 90s was a big time for rock music; it shattered the stranglehold of ridiculous hair metal and androgynous synth-pop that was the late 80s. Pearl Jam was one of the three big bands who were leading the charge with their stripped down, aggressive sound and their less outrageous, more grounded lyrics (the other two being Alice in Chains and Nirvana). But the grunge revolution is long over, and Pearl Jam is the only one of the three still active. The point of all of this is that Pearl Jam had a decision to make; do they build off of their roots and try to change with the times, or do they keep on rocking like its 1993?

The answer is found in the opening riffs of the first track, the fast passed rocker “Life Wasted”. With its 4/4 drum beat and lead guitarist Mike McCready’s stadium rock riffs, this song could sound right at home on “Ten” or “Vs”, Pearl Jam’s first two albums. Lead singer Eddie Vedder is in top form, all of his screams, slurs, and croons sound as sharp/stupid as they always have, depending on your opinion. As “World Wide Suicide” kicks in, it becomes obvious that Pearl Jam are fighting the clock and sticking to their guns. And for the first two tracks, it works. Carried by confidence, Pearl Jam dares you to tell them the revolution is over and that their music is out of style.

The act gets old quickly though. The drums keep beating, the guitar keeps squealing, Vedder keeps screaming then talking then screaming. It all starts to run together until it sounds like one big 20 minute song that just keeps repeating the same chorus over and over without much change. It starts to sound like the same solos, the same howls. Vedder’s lyrics, sometimes inspired but often flimsy, deal with issues like the war in Iraq in thinly veiled metaphors and clever turns of phrase, but never make you sit up and listen like they can on some better Pearl Jam tracks.

When Pearl Jam slows it down a little bit, the songs seem to get good again. Songs like “Gone” and “Come Back” change the pace of the album, and give it a sense of intimacy and sincerity that if often lacks. However, you start to wonder if these songs only stand out because they break up the average songs which surround them. Pearl Jam finishes the album off strong with the seven minute epic “Inside Job” which builds on sounds of records skipping and a haunting guitar harmony played over an acoustic riff peppered with some piano.

At the end of the day, this album stands as a testament to a band trapped in time they cannot hope to understand. Maybe it’s better that Nirvana and Alice in Chains died; they served their purpose and changes music, but would they have become anything more than an afterthought after 1996? Pearl Jam is trying to fight off obscurity the only way they know how, with grinding guitar and wild man howls mixed with slower ballads. The final problem with this album is that it delivers on its promise; it sounds like Pearl Jam from the 90s.

RATING: 6 out of 10

KEY TRACKS: “Life Wasted” “World Wide Suicide” “Inside Job”

WORTH THE MONEY: Diehard Pearl Jam fans will love this, but average Jack and Jill should save their money

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