I remember when a new Pearl Jam album was an event.
Sure, it was during the whole Seattle craze, when any band with a bad attitude and a penchant for flannel could somehow galvanize a nation of malcontents, but really, are things much different now? We’ve got scores of “sensitive” nu-metal bands all complaining about their white suburban upbringings over poorly played guitars that sound a lot like Stone Gossard’s on Ten, and if Staind and Puddle of Mudd aren’t Seattle-style grunge acts, I’ll eat the remaining original members of Mudhoney. These guys learned everything they know from the Seattle boys, who learned everything they know from Neil Young, on and on, forever and ever, amen. The world really hasn’t changed so much.
And neither has Pearl Jam, really. I recall when their second album, Vs., was released in 1993. Man, everybody had to have this thing. The record store half a mile from my college campus held a midnight sale, and everyone from my dorm went and got in line. I mean everyone. I knew several people in several other states at the time, and most of them attended Pearl Jam record release parties at people’s houses or in dorm rooms. One girl I knew was so taken with soon-to-be-smash-hit “Daughter” that she went around one such party saying nothing but the chorus lyrics. “Don’t call me daughter,” she’d say to total strangers, and then turn her back, declaring, “Not fair to!”
Had I wanted to attempt such an experiment at the time, I doubt I could have found very many people who hadn’t heard at least some of Vs. one or two days after it came out. The same with Vitalogy, but on a slightly smaller scale, since the Seattle scene was slowly slipping southward, sucked somewhere by a sea of some more superfluous s-words. (Can you tell I’m sick today? My non-drowsy antihistamine isn’t so non-drowsy, I’ve discovered…) Once Saint Cobain ventilated his head, it was all downhill for the flannel set.
And it’s true that most of those bands have long since meandered off into the sunset, one way or another – Layne Staley’s death, Soundgarden’s split – but Pearl Jam soldiers on, and with each new record, I find it more bizarre that we ever lumped them into the same pot with their Washington State brethren. After the mostly successful detours of Vitalogy and No Code, Pearl Jam decided to get back in the business of being a great live band, and their recent albums have all sounded like their first two, to a degree. The brand-new Riot Act, out this week, is no exception – like its two predecessors, Yield and Binaural, it’s just another Pearl Jam album.
Which means that it will probably be moderately successful, selling to a small yet dedicated band of faithful, and that’s about it. What some people call finding your sound, others call getting stuck in a rut, and Eddie Vedder’s boys have been digging their own rut since Yield. The focus these days is on a tight live sound, and hence the studio projects have a live feel – few additional instruments, sloppy production and no stylistic deviations. If you feel like you’ve heard Riot Act before, well, that’s because you have. Same stuff, different packages.
And really, that’s not a bad thing by itself. I just wish they weren’t quite so defiant about making music just for themselves. The songs on Riot Act have gotten more complex and, as is so often the case, less memorable at the same time. If you’re not paying attention, the whole thing will glide by you without anything sticking. Like Binaural, this album sounds like it was recorded in a weekend, with fab guitarists Gossard and Mike McCready smashing into each other and Vedder mumbling his way through the proceedings as if on four bottles of Ny-Quil. Never has such a memorable frontman gone to such lengths to be forgettable.
Given a few listens, the songs start to grow on you, and you can see the logic behind stompers like “Cropduster.” Riot Act is unsurprisingly devoid of the big choruses that marked the band’s early years, and it takes some time to seep in. Standouts include “Love Boat Captain,” with some of the sappiest lyrics to ever drip from Vedder’s pen, and the terrific “You Are,” with its menacing, propulsive beat. Also nifty are the double-time “Green Disease” and the elegant closer, “All or None.”
There are some missteps, as well, most notably the spoken extended mixed metaphor that is “Bushleaguer.” “Thumbing My Way” is merely nice, and not even close to the heights Pearl Jam are capable of in an acoustic setting. And “Arc,” likely named after their hero Neil Young’s document of noise, is just that – a document of noise. Its inclusion only adds credence to my “done in a weekend” theory.
Unfortunately, while this album ably shows off the powerhouse live act Pearl Jam has become, it does nothing to distinguish itself from its immediate predecessors. Many disliked No Code, but even they have to admit it bore scant resemblance to the albums that came before and after, and that means the band was taking chances, accepting risks and leading us on a trip to an unknown destination. Since then they’ve been treading the same old ground. Take this for what it’s worth, but Riot Act, for all its good qualities, is just another Pearl Jam album. No more, no less.
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Sick as a really sick dog today, so that’s all from me. I was going to get to both Ours and Sigur Ros, but they’ll have to wait for my head to clear up. Audioslave hits next week as well, and I’ve been hearing good things. (One of those good things was not the single, the asinine “Cochise,” so we’ll see…)
See you in line Tuesday morning.