Pearl Jam's rhythm-rich 'Vs.' scores higher than 'Ten'


Let's get one thing straight from the beginning: There's more to Pearl Jam than Eddie Vedder.

Granted, the singer is the most identifiable and charismatic member of the group. It's his energy and stage presence that fans talk about after seeing the band live, his good looks and tortured sincerity that set hearts aflutter after MTV started showing the "Jeremy" video. And when people complain that Stone Temple Pilots is just a Pearl Jam rip-off, it's mainly because STP frontman Welland's singing seems such a dead cop of Vedder's vocal style.

But Pearl Jam is a group, not some singer-plus-accompaniment set-up, and nothing drives that point home more clearly than the sound of the band's second album, "Vs." (Epic 53136; CDs and cassettes arrive in stores today).

This isn't a grunge album -- it's a groove album, one where the songs build from the rhythm section up. And even when Vedder or lead guitarist Mike McCready may seem to take center stage during a song, there's never the sense that any individual member ever overshadows the band as a whole.

Just listen to the way the various elements come together in "Animal." The song's pulse is in place from the first, with Stone Gossard's clanging rhythm guitar seeming just an adjunct to Dave Abbruzzese's roiling drum kit. Even Vedder takes a secondary role, focusing so much on the rhythm that his opening line -- "One-two-three-four-five against one" -- sounds less like a lyric than a simple count-off.

It's not the most dramatic intro ever recorded, but it sets up enough itchy anxiety that the song fairly explodes as the guitars shift to a stop-time figure and Vedder roars, "Torture from you to me . . ." And it's that deft use of rhythmic tension -- the push-pull effect of dropping from a funky double-time to a hard-rock backbeat, for instance -- that carries the song, fleshing out the drama of Vedder's tales of human cruelty so vividly that it's easy to understand why he'd "rather be with an animal" than take his chances with man.

Or take "Rats." Lyrically, it's hardly the album's most profound moment, drawing some none-too-flattering parallels between human and rodent society. But how the words might read on the page isn't really the point here; what matters is how they sound in the song and, to that end, Vedder plays his part perfectly.

As with "Animal," it's the music that sets the tone, with Jeff Ament's swinging, jazzy bass line giving the groove its swaggering confidence (perfect for lines like "they don't push, don't crowd/congregate until they're much too loud") while Gossard's and McCready's guitars provide the edge. And, once again, the song owes much of its power to the way the music gathers momentum as the song goes on, so that the ominous, ascending figure in the chorus finally gives way at the end to a glorious, thumping thrash -- the perfect platform for Vedder, who quotes ironically from the Michael Jackson hit, "Ben."

It helps, of course, that Vedder is the kind of singer who understands that a whisper is sometimes more powerful (or appropriate) than a scream, and so has no trouble ending the song with such deadpan wit. In fact, many of the album's most dramatic moments come when Vedder pulls back unexpectedly (as at the end of "Leash") or cuts loose with a raw-throated scream to push a performance to a higher level of intensity (as in the "Always keep it loaded" bridge in "Glorified G").

But the real strength of these songs isn't what Vedder does with his voice, so much as the sounds he's reacting to. Because more often than not, the mood of the music is what completes songs like "Daughter" or "Rearviewmirror," providing enough emotional detail to flesh out the sketchy details of Vedder's lyrics.

There's nothing in the words to "Daughter," for instance, that explains the specifics of its familial drama, but it's easy enough to follow the song's emotional course through the shifting mood of the music, from the workaday placidity of Gossard's acoustic guitar on the verse to the worrisome circularity of the minor-key chords leading into the chorus. And that's what brings the song into focus, much in the same way that the music filled in the emotional details to "Alive" (the song that put Pearl Jam on the map).

Being able to make music that's so emotionally articulate is one of the reasons Pearl Jam struck such an immediate rapport with its audience in the first place, and why the band's last album, "Ten," was one of the biggest-selling debuts in recent memory.

What makes "Vs." so impressive is that it manages to build on that strength, significantly increasing the music's breadth and power. This time around, the band's arsenal includes everything from the dark chords and tom-tom-driven pulse of "W.M.A." to the crashing cymbals and wah-wah guitar of "Blood," to the eerie quiet of "Indifference," and as such, the album covers a far wider range of emotion than is usually found on pop albums.

Whether that means "Vs." will be an even bigger seller than "Ten" remains to be seen. But one thing's certain -- it's definitely a better album.


You can hear excerpts from Pearl Jam's "Vs." on Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service.

You will need a touch-tone phone. Call (410) 783-1800, or from Anne Arundel County, (410) 268-7736. After the greeting, punch in 6110.

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