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Pearl Jam Learns a Lesson

Vedder & Co. resharpen the band's focus with better songwriting.

*** PEARL JAM, "Binaural," Epic

May 14, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN

If Eddie Vedder and company found it perhaps a bit embarrassing to have their casual version of the '60s teen-death novelty "Last Kiss" become their biggest-ever hit last year, they also seem to have learned a lesson about the appeal of time-tested pop values. Let's face it--since its first album nine years ago, the group's songwriting has grown increasingly inconsistent and forgettable.

But this album (due in stores Tuesday) showcases a resharpened focus. It's hardly a light pop romp, but it winningly touches on classic traditions, with a wider musical vocabulary and more sophisticated shadings than the band has shown before, guided by new co-producer Tchad Blake (Los Lobos, Latin Playboys).

The opening "Breakerfall" kicks off with a rock flourish copped from the Who's "I Can See for Miles" and then tears along with '60s garage-rock verve. It's a bracing setting for Vedder's lyrics about a lonely, despairing girl--hardly new territory for him, but freshly presented nonetheless.

The catchy thrash continues for several songs, but with the fifth track, the single "Nothing as It Seems," things start taking unexpected turns. Written by bassist Jeff Ament, the song features images of isolation and a droning acoustic guitar foundation that echo Pink Floyd's "The Wall." Later, "Of the Girl" sounds almost like a darker Stephen Stills, while "Soon Forget," crooned by Vedder over just a ukulele, could come from Tin Pan Alley--if Tin Pan Alley had Corvettes and Benjamins.

This is hardly a U2-scale redefinition, but by striking that tricky balance between ambition and entertainment, it's a big step out of a rut.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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