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Pearl Power

[whitespace] Pearl Jam
Anton Corbijn

Opening Band for the Sun: Personal angst and the struggle to stay faithful still inform all of Pearl Jam's music.

Pearl Jam does not 'Yield' to the mainstream on its new album

By Gina Arnold

AS EVERYONE WHO CAN read is perfectly aware, the Rolling Stones are currently on tour. At most of the band's performances, the audiences--busy fighting their way up stadium ramps like cattle looking for their seats--have greeted the opening acts with indifference.

Such a reaction is understandable when it comes to younger acts like the Dave Matthews Band and Third Eye Blind, especially since the Stones' fans tend to be aged either 5 or 50 and thus not aware of music by new bands. But although the Stones' core audience often professes a great love of rock & roll, few things show its ingrained indifference to the music than its uncomprehending reception of Pearl Jam, which opened the Bay Area shows last November.

After all, Pearl Jam is one of the most important acts of the '90s. Though the band has never quite recreated the phenomenal cachet of its debut record, 1991's Ten, it has been extremely active in the subsequent seven years, churning out an album a year and getting into various industry scrapes. A recent MTV News special pointed to Pearl Jam as the fourth-most-mentioned act in the history of the show, and yet, in Oakland, the audience was left cold by the band.

True, the hit songs "Jeremy," "Daughter" and "Better Man" got cheers, but in general, one felt a yawning sense of "Who's this?" emanating from the crowd. It was the same sense that dogged lesser-known opening acts such as the Blues Traveller, and no wonder: as seen from the boondocks--and make no mistake, all seats are "the boondocks" at Stones shows--Pearl Jam's many strengths were not in evidence.

Singles aside, Pearl Jam songs can seem tuneless on first listen, based as they are on a churning groove laid down by Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, topped by the keening emotional vocals of Eddie Vedder. In a nightclub, this powerful stew can turn a crowd to mush, but from the third tier of the Oakland Coliseum, it leaves much to be desired.

Moreover, Pearl Jam is a band for whom fandom involves a bit of prior knowledge. Ironically, however, the possession of such knowledge precludes liking the Stones, since Pearl Jam is also, of all bands, the most diametrically opposite all the things the Stones currently represent.

Where the Stones are glamorous, for instance, Pearl Jam is unpretentious. Where the Stones glorify sex, drugs and money, Pearl Jam's favorite subject matter is coping with personal angst and remaining faithful to lovers and friends.

And last and most important, where the Stones show is augmented by lights, explosions and moving sets. Pearl Jam is a five-piece band that eschews any kind of glitzy sonic boost. Because the members of Pearl Jam are personally rather anonymous, one's love of the band also depends heavily on one's love of the personality of Vedder. At the Oakland show, Vedder was at his most charming, giggling and chattering to the audience about this and that, but compared to Jagger, he looked like a local stoner whose wife cuts his hair.

That very contrast is at the heart of the matter. To begin with, grunge was always about demystifying rock and bringing it down to a more ecologically sound level.

"Small is beautiful" was one of grunge's original tenets, which is why bands such as Pearl Jam--and Nirvana and Green Day--have worked hard at downsizing not so much their record sales as their image.

Pearl Jam has beaten back the tide of extreme superstardom in part by refusing to make videos, thus alienating the mainstream music industry. (The band also instituted a costly and, in the end, hopeless lawsuit against TicketMaster, which has won them few friends and no real allies.)

The result has been that in the past five years, the band has seen its sales base diminish from the multiplatinum level to a merely platinum plateau. But although Pearl Jam is comfortable with commercial self-sabotage, there's a deeper (and sadder) truth at work.

With the exception of Ten, Pearl Jam has never made a great record. If it had, there's no question that it would still be at the top of the charts, videos or no--and Stones fans, however unfamiliar with Pearl Jam's work, would have been on their feet that night in Oakland.

PEARL JAM'S LATEST album, Yield (Epic Records), its fifth LP (or sixth, if you count Mirrorball, a collaboration with Neil Young), is not the great record that one continually expects from the band. It is, however, an interesting and rich album, with many songs that Pearl Jam fans will appreciate and not a few that will impress even the band's critics.

The record begins with "Brain of J," an "RVM"-ish romp that refers to JFK (incidentally, the line "The whole world will be different soon" is strangely prophetic in light of the current political scene). The gentle "Low Light" (which was written by bassist Jeff Ament and sounds a bit like an R.E.M. outtake), "MFC" and, especially, "In Hiding" are the album's highlights.

On "Push Me Pull Me," Vedder mouths off a bit artily; there's an untitled track that sounds like a Ween outtake; and the record ends with a Middle Eastern instrumental. These are throwaways, but mostly, Yield maintains a pleasingly thoughtful emotional texture throughout.

Yield does seem to be deliberately avoiding hooks--read: hits. On many of songs, Vedder sings in a higher register than usual, which has the effect of lessening the intensity (some would call it pomposity) of his voice.

When it comes to the lyrics, however, Vedder is in fine form. "Do the Evolution" begins with a pithy kicker: "I'm at peace with my lust / I can kill, 'cause in God I trust." On "Push Me Pull Me," he storms, "I'm like an opening band for the sun," while on "Wishlist," a gorgeous ballad that may become Pearl Jam's signature tune, he sings, "I wish I was a messenger and all the news was good ... I wish I was the full moon shining off a Camaro's hood." It's a lovely moment--and a lovely song.

In the past, Vedder has excelled as a songwriter when he tells stories about other people: "Jeremy," "Daughter," "Better Man" and "Why Go" were compelling narratives.

Except for the first single off the album, "Given to Fly," Yield doesn't contain anything remotely like those songs (and neither did No Code); but it's got some phat grooves and a few effective choruses: "I'm not trying to make a difference--stop trying to make a difference" on "No Way" and the keening arc of "In Hiding." The oddly phrased chorus of "Pilate" goes "Like Pilate, I have a dog who obeys, listens, kisses, loves," a reference perhaps to the complex nature of loyalty.

As that last line indicates, Vedder's lyrics can range from stream-of-consciousness to sudden flashes of genius, and the music has a similarly off-the-cuff feel to it. Many of the best Pearl Jam songs in the past have been hugely anthemic, but that's an impulse the band itself seems to distrust and to fight against.

Pearl Jam is not an internally contentious group, but perhaps it errs too hard on the side of democracy. The combination of Stone and Gossard's rhythmic churn, McCready's classic-rock guitar solos and Vedder's vague, poetic introspection sometimes creates a very strange ambiance. There's nothing straightforward, conventional or pop about Pearl Jam.

On the other hand, this very desperateness is what keeps Yield from being boring and repetitive, a trap that a singer-driven band can easily fall into. Pearl Jam is one of the few bands I can think of that has retained the same producer, Brendan O'Brien, for its entire recorded career, and the continuity has served it well.

Pearl Jam always sounds like Pearl Jam, even when it's experimenting, but rest assured, this album is not called Yield because the band is, at long last, yielding to the mainstream. I think that the album is more about yielding to the right of way--and then, perhaps, taking the road less traveled. That's something Pearl Jam has always made an effort to do, and this time, the strategy has paid off.

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From the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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