When last we saw them, the members of Pearl Jam were still the stars of the Seattle scene. Viewed by most of the rock world as being la grunge de la grunge, the quintet's sound typified grunge's relentless guitars and vocal intensity.
Its attitude, meanwhile, remained purist and populist. The band refused to give in on either its refusal to make videos or play venues that sold tickets through TicketMaster (the band objected to its service fees).
Despite refusing to play by the rules, Pearl Jam's winning ways continued. Even though there was no video for MTV to play, the band's fourth album, "No Code," entered the charts at No. 1, and quickly sold millions, while its live shows sold out even without the help of TicketMaster.
But that was two years ago. Since then, Seattle -- once seen as the alternarock capital of the world -- is now just the place Bill Gates lives. Grunge, likewise, has ground to a halt, its over-amped guitars and anti-commercial attitude seeming as passe as flannel shirts and unwashed hair. The world has definitely changed.
Luckily, so has Pearl Jam.
Where once the band seemed determined to give no ground, "Yield" (Epic 68184) finds Pearl Jam doing just that -- giving way to pop culture's prevailing winds, and going, however grudgingly, with the flow.
Granted, "Brain of J" opens the album in classic PJ style, with a live-in-the-studio false start that quickly kicks into a raging, punky guitar riff. All in all, it's everything a Pearl Jam fan would have expected, from the fevered flailing of Mike McCready's guitar break to the throat-straining intensity of Eddie Vedder's vocal. Never mind the chorus' hoarse insistence that "the whole world will be different" -- "Brain of J" makes it sound as if Pearl Jam intends to remain pretty much the same.
But they don't. Rather than rest on its scruples, the band has clearly kept up with the times. Don't take that to mean there are techno beats or Puff Daddy remixes on the album; instead the band has modernized its approach without altering its essential sound or feel.
"Faithfull" is a case in point. Although the song's basic dynamics are no different from a dozen other Pearl Jam songs, from its dramatically shifting dynamics to the fist-pumping power of its chorus riff, it nonetheless comes across as another genus entirely. There's a sense of comfort and ease that makes the track feel utterly unlike the bouncing-off-the-walls intensity of the band's earlier work.
It's as if the band finally cracked the secret of grooving, and realized that it's easier to generate momentum by rolling with the beat than by pushing it.
Credit drummer Jack Irons for some of that. Even though he still clearly drives the band, what's remarkable about his playing on "Faithfull" is its laid-back, almost soulful restraint as he moves from a jazzy shuffle in the opening verse to a muscular, funk-inflected pulse beneath the chorus' raging guitars. There's plenty of power there, but no needless bashing.
Much the same can be said of "Given to Fly," the album's first single. Like "Faithfull," the verses are quiet while the chorus is loud, and the rolling, gently percolating pulse is more insinuating than overwhelming.
But in this case, there's an agenda to the song's development. The melody Vedder sings at the beginning is a gloss on Led Zeppelin's happy hippie ode, "Going to California," and as the HTC arrangement slips from pastoral calm to power-chord crunch, it's as if Pearl Jam were giving its impression of the Led Zep canon, from quiet to crunchy in four minutes flat.
Nor is the Led Zeppelin association entirely accidental. True, Zep, with its money-hungry management and legendarily indulgent backstage life, hardly squares with Pearl Jam's clean-and-humble image. But Zep's willingness to take musical chances without surrendering its identity clearly has resonance for this crew.
Maybe that's why the band is willing to indulge itself on this album, and balance message-oriented tracks like "Do the Evolution" and the self-mocking "No Way" with purely musical efforts like the untitled percussion number that follows "Do the Evolution," or the mock Middle Eastern "Humus" (an uncredited bonus track).
What such exercises seem to say is that Pearl Jam feels free to be itself even if the music doesn't always fit the band's old image -- that it's possible to change with the times without letting the times change it.
Pub Date: 2/03/98