November 22, 2002

Do the Evolution

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Throughout their decade plus of existence, time has not clarified the true character of Pearl Jam. A giant among mainstream rock bands, yet underrepresented on radio and music television. A fighter for fans’ rights (battling the Ticketmaster behemoth) while a slave to commercialism (18 bucks a pop for their twenty thousand “bootleg” albums?). A product of the early ’90s grunge scene yet unravaged by drugs. From the first note to the last, Riot Act is unmistakably Pearl Jam, despite their continual musical evolution.

Gone are the days of the raucous album opener. “Can’t Keep” climbs up on the defiant proclamation “I don’t live forever/ You can’t keep me here,” before crashing down into a wave of softly ominous guitar chords. The upbeat “Save You” centers around some obvious rock riffing reminiscent of the already-tiresome Hives, but augments it with a hovering background organ. Classic, Vs.-era rawk breaks out on tracks like “Cropduster” and “1/2 Full,” and the eccentric “anti-song” filler that started on Vitalogy returns in the form of “Arc,” 65 seconds of Eddie Vedder’s spiritual moaning that does little more than give off foreboding vibes. Riot Act shows off PJ’s newfound jam-band leanings on the meandering “Love Boat Captain” and the good-naturedly bitter “Bushleaguer,” a jab at America’s favorite son from an outfit of Naderites. As PJ experiment with liquid sounds and swinging moods, they sound more today like the British band Gomez than they do like ghostly ex-contemporaries Alice in Chains and Soundgarden.

Not one of the fifteen tracks stands out as an obvious hit (not even the straightforward single, “I Am Mine,” would seem to have a place on modern radio apart from the brand-band-name recognition), and this is indeed the ongoing pattern of a band whose last huge hit was a remake of the excruciating oldie “Last Kiss.” PJ haven’t consciously dropped out of mainstream viability, they just move at a different pace than everyone else. These guys have taken a few missteps along the way. The mellow No Code — though it would fit well alongside Riot Act — was a leaden downer as a follow-up to the odd yet blistering Vitalogy. Contemplative slower songs that once felt forced, however, now give way to “Thumbing My Way” and the downtrodden swelling of the closer “All or None.” Such tracks are tightly-wound pieces of musical craftsmanship in the hands of Vedder-as-Neil Young. Vedder’s inimitable voice, once a wailing rasp, is as crisp and inviting as ever.

Pearl Jam’s seventh studio album invokes the heydays of Zeppelin, the Smiths, and Dinosaur Jr. while remaining distinctively PJ. The layered, mature sounds of Riot Act will certainly surprise anyone who took the disturbing “Jeremy” as an indication of the band’s direction. That song, off of the first album, Ten, taught us about teenage rage and its violent accompanying video helped lay the ground for the Papa Roachs, Slipknots, and their angsty minions. Today’s Pearl Jam is light years away.

Archived article by Dan Schiff