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Pearl Jam - Pearl Jam Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 June 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    7
sound:    8.5
release year:    2006
label:    Monkey Wrench/J/Sony
reviewed by:    Bryan Dailey

ImagePearl Jam has pulled off something quite extraordinary with their latest self-titled effort. They have found a way to sound modern and hip yet still retain the grungy, raw sound that brought them to the forefront of the music scene in the early ’90s. It’s been 15 years since the videos for “Evenflow” and “Jeremy” from their debut album 10 made Pearl Jam a household name; music has changed a lot in a decade and a half, but hearing Eddie Vedder's distinct baritone vocals and the dueling guitars of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready today doesn’t sound dated. Listening to the 13 tracks that comprise this new release from Pearl Jam, it never seems awkward to hear -- gasp! -- guitar solos in 2006.

The album kicks off in fine form with the straight-ahead rocker “Life Wasted,” which morphs into an odd-time pre-chorus before the chorus that sounds a little like something you’d hear from the Hives or Vines. A mellowed-out bridge section in the middle gives the listener a little break before segueing back into the chorus. The lyrical content is pretty standard angst-ridden fluff as Vedder croons, “I have faced it/A life wasted/I’m never going back again.” Doesn’t really mean too much and is very open to interpretation.

In standard form, the second track on the album is the big first single, “World Wide Suicide.” The lyrics here are a little deeper and leave the listener wondering if the song is about George Bush, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden or merely mankind destroying itself. It’s another straight- ahead rocker, marred only by the guitar riff in the chorus sounding exactly like the Offspring’s “Come Out and Play (Keep 'em Separated).” Pearl Jam can play circles around the questionable musical talents of Offspring, but the riffs are so similar that the comparison is hard to avoid.

“Comatose” is a frantic, almost punishing tune, with dissonant chords and dual guitar runs between verses that really grab your ear. Most of the melodic choices on the album up to this point are fairly safe, and this twisted little guitar part is used effectively. The rocking solo is by Mike McCready, who has the thinner of the two guitar tones.
“Severed Hand,” especially during the intro, sounds like post-‘97 Rush in terms of melody and song structure. When the verse kicks in and we hear Eddie instead of Geddy, we are reminded once again that we’re listening to Pearl Jam, but there are other elements that make this sound like PJ 2006 and not PJ 1991.

Being a drummer myself, I can’t help but notice the effect that adding former Soundgarden skinsman Matt Cameron to the mix has made on this album. I won’t lay a master class on drumming techniques on you here, but Cameron is one of the tightest drummers in all of rock, yet he has the ability to work around grooves and make them feel loose. He lets his high hats remain literally loose (or “slushy,” as drummers call it), so each hit of the drumstick is not precisely, distinctly heard. In contrast, former Pearl Jam drummer Dave Abbruzzese would frequently use complex open and closing high hat patterns that give songs a tighter, more structured feel. I like both schools of drumming, but it’s quite a departure to hear what are essentially Soundgarden drums on a Pearl Jam record. Both bands came to the spotlight around the same time, but Pearl Jam was always the more pop of the two, Soundgarden the more progressive. I’m not saying Cameron’s drums have somehow turned Pearl Jam into Soundgarden, but it has given them new rhythm direction. Check out the ride cymbal pattern on “Unemployable” for an example of another Matt Cameron signature drum lick.

Pearl Jam takes the crown from Jet’s “Look What You’ve Done” for the most Beatles-sounding song in recent memory, with their track “Parachutes.” The Beatles influence can be heard all over pop music but this is the first time I recall hearing it creep into Pearl Jam. Neil Young seems to have been the driving force behind most of Eddie Vedder’s musical and social moves, but the band actually sounds pretty good doing their Beatles impression.

The album’s a bit like Mr. Hyde turning back into Dr. Jekyll, beginning hard and aggressive then progressing into a slower, more ballad-driven album by the end with the track “Gone,” very reminiscent of their huge hit “Black.” Another slow tune is “Come Back,” with very low-key clean guitar lines and Hammond organ, staples of the all-American rock ballad. The chord changes and song structure sound a bit like a ’50s high school dance tune – not exactly the pinnacle of Pearl Jam artistry but it gives Eddie Vedder a chance to take the lead and really power the song ahead with his powerful vocals. (Remember “Last Kiss”?) “Inside Job” is the closer; the first half is quite slow and soft, but builds to a very Neil Young-feeling extended jam outro.

For me, the best Pearl Jam album was Versus, and the band has never reached the creative highs they hit with that sophomore album. But here they are, many many years later, still pretty darn relevant. Pearl Jam isn’t their most memorable album; even after 10 solid listens through, none of the melodies stick with me, where I can think of a handful of songs from their first two albums that have choruses that stick in your head like crazy glue. This latest Pearl Jam doesn’t have the big hooks, but you’d have to say it’s certainly a good effort, a good brew from one of Seattle’s finest.

The production by the band and co-producer Adam Kasper (Mudhoney, the Tragically Hip, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age) is very minimalist, with no gimmicks or heavy effects. To add noticeable delays or double tracking to Eddie Vedder's voice would alter the signature tone that brought the band to its pinnacle of success. It’s probably the rawest Pearl Jam album, but at the same time has a professional polish to it. The recording sounds good on all systems I tried it on (after legally ripping the disc to my computer), ranging from my home theater to my Prius to my iPod. The backing vocals are handled mainly by drummer Matt Cameron, so the band is set up to pull these songs off live.

Stone Gossard and Mike McCready’s guitar tones are distinct and panned to opposite sides of the stereo spectrum so the interplay between them, with Jess Ament’s bass right in the middle, is another Pearl Jam signature still alive and well on this album.

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