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Pearl Jam is unusually tame on new album

Aggressive start gives way to classic rock cliches and weak lyrics
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pearl Jam continues to move away from the anthemic rock songs that defined the band and dominated alternative rock radio in the 1990s, settling into a more content, blue-collar sound on their latest self-titled album.

Their eighth studio album and first in four years traffics in modest, vaguely politicized songs, and is only challenging in regards to their early catalog. The overall sound here is surprisingly tame.

If anything, these songs sound like they were written for the road, as the group has developed a grassroots, Grateful Dead-like following and appear more concerned with material to fit the live show. Classic rock — specifically later Who albums, "Presence"-era Led Zeppelin, even The Beatles on one track — is the obvious touchstone here, the quintet exemplifying the tight musicianship of a band that's been to the top together and managed to stick around on their own terms.

The band wisely chooses the record's strongest track, "World Wide Suicide," as the lead single. For once Vedder actually sounds like he's having a blast, railing incoherently above the hooks and skintight groove. In the song, Vedder addresses the Iraq war and those that "tell you to pray while the devil's on their shoulder."

"Life Wasted" has a charging chorus that could have been lifted from the group's best album, "Vitalogy." Reminiscent of that record's opener, "Last Exit," guitarist Stone Gossard's incisive riff seems to be almost baiting ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron into assaulting his kit. Listeners may be mislead, however, because after this one-two punch not much really stands out.

Instead we get the Bad Religion-lite "Comatose"; the sugar-high surfer-punk of "Big Wave"; and lackluster ballad "Come Back." An exception is "Unemployable" which sounds something like vintage Thin Lizzy and treads similar down-and-out lyrical ground as the late Phil Lynott.

Vedder's notoriously deep tenor, which helped spawn a legion of third-rate imitators, is all but absent here. Sounding secure, utilizing his voice's upper register and even slipping into a falsetto ("Parachutes"), Vedder seems comfortable in his skin, like he's not trying to sound a certain way anymore. His lyrics, however, have digressed.

Closer "Inside Job" is the low point. Unexplainable lines like "Life comes from within your heart and desire" feel so tossed off they offend. Granted they come off better sung than on paper, but still, lyrical cliches abound. Check out selections from the same track's outro: "On my knees to rise and fix my broken soul... Let me run into the rain/ To shine a human light today." Sounds like something written for Celine Dion to sing.

Swearing they're not in the game for sales or fame, it's hard not to root for a band like Pearl Jam. They embody the word conviction in this hit-oriented, digital climate. The only problem with being this consistently uncompromising is that sometimes, the music suffers.