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Ready for a storm

Pearl Jam slashed through the '90s status quo, often sabotaging its own ambition. Now, after a decade on the fringe, the band is stoked, polished -- and raging again.

April 30, 2006|Ann Powers | Times Staff Writer

Seattle — ON a typically blustery spring Seattle afternoon, Eddie Vedder sits in a blue vinyl booth at West Seattle's Easy Street Records and Cafe, catching up with the owner. The small shop is a favorite hangout, and Vedder is barely noticed. In this beachy district where many of the city's rockers -- including the 41-year-old Pearl Jam singer -- have settled and started families, everyone's equal. "It gives us protection from being swallowed up by the world," Vedder says of my hometown.

Vedder's been here for 16 years, and I was born here, but we're part of a generation that has benefited from the city's shift from isolated industrial port to New Economy hub. At times, rock 'n' roll has taken both of us from these gray-blue environs, but no matter where we live, we'll always call it home. Like Pearl Jam, Seattle has grown with care, its Uptown condos and upscale urban malls never overwhelming the no-nonsense pioneers who own its soul. The sound I first heard at punk clubs like the Gorilla Room circa 1980 developed into the paradigm for the quality rock that Pearl Jam represents, and Microsoft millionaires belly up to its tavern bars next to the skippers who still fish its harbors. For all its 21st century largesse, Seattle remains unpresumptuous. Like Vedder himself, it wants to be just folks.

It's been a while since Vedder has left this comfort zone. Fifteen years ago, Pearl Jam ruled rock, but its zealous high-mindedness -- which led the band to abstain from music videos, to favor experimental jams over Top 40 fare and to take on big targets of the left, including Ticketmaster and the Bush administration -- put the band in a strange category: celebrated, yet obscure. Its last four albums have gotten little radio attention and led to a sound that Vedder complained was too cerebral.

By keeping to itself and its subculture of fans, Pearl Jam lost momentum. Over the years, band members began bringing into the mix distinctive influences, reflected in outside projects, in a way that didn't always lend itself to coherence. Guitarist Mike McCready, whom I first got to know when we were in our teens and he was in the metal band Shadow, continued to play with some of his old bandmates in side groups such as the Rockford. Along the way, he fought, and overcame, various addictions. Now McCready battles Crohn's disease, and he has become focused on charity work to fight the intestinal disorder.

Bassist Jeff Ament, a bearded Montana native, went off to record with the world-music-tinged Three Fish and to check out skateboard parks nationwide. Guitarist Stone Gossard, whom you could easily picture working at a Seattle Internet start-up, co-led the soulful, Seattle-based band Brad. Drummer Matt Cameron became active in his son's grade school. Vedder, meanwhile, stumped for Ralph Nader and other causes. At best, the band was a cozy, slightly frayed home.

Then, after 15 years with Epic, Pearl Jam signed to Clive Davis' J Records label, though before he sealed the deal, Davis insisted on seeing the band. "I wanted to see their hunger, their freshness, their magic again," he says. "To see if in their songwriting they would come up with a vintage Pearl Jam album with its great storytelling that could put them on top again." The band passed the audition.

Known for creating comebacks for such stars as Carlos Santana and Rod Stewart, Davis saw those possibilities in Pearl Jam.

"I thought we could focus a laser beam on the band consistent with their artistic integrity," he says. Vedder and his mates have answered with a self-titled J debut that's focused, furious and outward-looking. Like U2, Pearl Jam has made a conservative choice with liberating results -- an act of remembering that's pushed them into a new phase. The proof is in the first single, the antiwar cry "World Wide Suicide," the fastest-charting of the band's career. "Pearl Jam" will be called a return to form -- indeed, contrarians such as the reviewer at hipster website Pitchfork are yawning at "the group's efforts to quote rock unquote" -- but what's poured into that mold is very different than what the band produced in 1992.

Even before the album's release Tuesday, a fiery "Saturday Night Live" performance earlier this month -- the band's first in a decade -- kicked off a media blitz. This year's tour will include headlining spots at England's huge Reading and Leeds festivals, a co-headlining American jaunt with Tom Petty and arena dates throughout the Western world.

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