* * * PEARL JAM "Vs." Epic
Earlier in its career, Pearl Jam briefly named itself after journeyman basketball player Mookie Blaylock, to symbolize its bond with the regular guy who has to struggle to survive.
As a singer, though, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder is closer to a Magic Johnson or a Michael Jordan in the open court. Combining power and finesse, running on pure instinct, he could go in any direction at any time, and you don't know what to do when he's coming at you. That makes him one of rock's most intriguing figures and compelling singers, and he makes Pearl Jam much more than the journeyman band it might otherwise be.
Vedder's voice can be slippery and introspective like that of jazz-leaning '60s folk singer Tim Buckley, then shoulder its way through the thick sound with the steely strength of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant. Growling, wailing, chanting and murmuring, his voice is a finger on a pulse of surging emotions.
On Pearl Jam's 1991 debut album, "Ten," the rest of the band wasn't nearly as agile and eccentric, and the predictable execution of its '70s-grounded hard rock with psychedelic undercurrents ( grunge , for short) often hemmed Vedder in.
Still, the combination of voice, songs and attitude was enough to spearhead an upheaval in rock, finding a mass audience for which this music really mattered .
Pearl Jam is still a band of limited imagination--more Steppenwolf than Doors, to cite two possible models. But "Vs." is a palpably stronger album. The players are much more attuned to Vedder's stormy nature, and the music claims a broader emotional and sonic turf.
The Seattle quintet remains rock's voice of dysfunction, tapping a deep reservoir of pain and rage. It's a pressure cooker heated by personal and societal wrongs--incest, child abuse, cops beating blacks. No wonder they called it "Vs." But the turmoil is balanced by occasional moments of reflection, efforts to make sense of a confusing panorama--most notably, the R.E.M.-like "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town."
Pearl Jam also extends its range in the folk-ish "Daughter," in percussive tribal grooves and liquid, moody trance atmospherics. The playing is focused but loose, pushing Vedder into intense, engaged performances.
By the time he closes "Vs." by offering himself as a sacrificial figure in the quasi-religious "Indifference," he and Pearl Jam have reaffirmed that a rock album can be a grueling, blood-and-guts experience that leaves a listener bruised, muddy--and ultimately elevated.
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