Jammed with brilliance, self-indulgence

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Bands, like the people in them, are rarely perfect. They only seem that way because the best bands usually have somebody looking out for their best interests -- a manager or producer smart enough to nurture a band's creative impulses but sufficiently canny to keep it from including the unsuccessful experiments on an album.

Too bad Pearl Jam didn't have that kind of input when it put together its latest album, "Vitalogy" (Epic 66900, to be released on CD and cassette Tuesday). Because as good as the best songs are, it's hard to get around the fact that much of the album is ill-conceived and self-indulgent.

Don't take that as a dismissal; the good definitely outweighs the bad on this album, thanks to strong, smart, passionate songs like "Nothingman," "Not for You" and "Immortality." But in a way, the brilliance and ambition of the album's best moments make its missteps all the more irritating. It's enough to make you wonder if the band really can tell the difference between brilliance and bull.

That "Vitalogy" means to be more than just another album is obvious from the first. Instead of the usual jewel box and booklet, the CD comes tucked away inside a tiny booklet, complete with gold-stamped cover, contents page and general index.

What the package tries to evoke is the odd combination of science and morality typical of turn-of-the-century health tracts. Indeed, there's a certain amount of sly fun to be had with old-fashioned essays suggesting that "If you desire beautiful children, fix your thoughts on beautiful things," or warning that "two tall, slim people . . . should not marry."

Trouble is, these excerpts aren't offered entirely in jest. Even as the packaging for "Vitalogy" seems to deride the notion of scientifically derived moral instruction, the album itself has no such reservations. In fact, it's tempting to believe that "Vitalogy" was itself intended as a sort of guide to life -- only instead of offering advice on personal health and fitness, what these songs teach is how rock music can be kept pure and vital.

It's actually not a surprising move, given the band's principled rejection of music videos (there were none for "Vs.," despite the interest of MTV) and attack on Ticketmaster's service charge policy (a move that kept the band off the road all summer). But "Vitalogy" is a more complicated statement about the alternarock aesthetic than those actions might suggest.

Some songs are obvious enough, like the noisy, swaggering "Satan's Bed," in which Eddie Vedder sings about rejecting the easy-and-profitable route while admitting how hard it is to avoid temptation ("I've never slept in Satan's bed/ Though I must admit [he] still visits my place"), or "Not for You," a declaration of artistic independence in which Pearl Jam's compulsion to seek idealism and beauty is echoed in the song's slow-churning groove and stubbornly ascending guitar riff.

Even the punky "Spin the Black Circle" has its points, though it would be nice if this tribute to the ways of analog had a deeper message than "spin . . . spin . . . spin . . . spin!" (Interestingly, the LP version of "Vitalogy," which has been in the stores since Thanksgiving, actually does sound better than the CD.)

But what could have prompted the inclusion of "Bugs," a tortured accordion-driven rant against pests (human, I suspect) that makes "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha!" seem catchy? And will any listener have the patience to sift though the muffled voices of "Hey, Foxymophandlemama, That's Me" to see if there's a point to its shapeless, noisy drone? Probably not.

Still, it's worth enduring such indulgences if only for tunes like the tender, self-deprecating "Nothingman," or the muscular, rampaging "Last Exit." Perhaps the album's best moment is "Immortality," a dark, beautiful ballad that may be the best elegy, intended or otherwise, to Kurt Cobain yet. The weary intensity of Vedder's vocal brings out the deepest resonances in lyrics, but there's equal eloquence in Mike McCready's lean, bluesy guitar solo and the way the rhythm section manipulates the music's energy and momentum.

In short, it's the kind of thing Pearl Jam does better than any band on Earth. Can you blame me for wishing they did more of it?

HEAR THE MUSIC

To hear excerpts from Pearl Jam's "Vitalogy," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6118 when you hear the greeting.

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