Usually, when a band gives up the youthful aggression of breakneck riffs and screaming guitars, it loses its edge as well. It's as if these musicians think the opposite of loudness is soft rock and that musical maturity is a matter of quieting down and mellowing out.
Thank god for Pearl Jam.
Even though "Binaural" (Epic 63665, arriving in stores today) is softer than such earlier efforts as "Vs." and "Ten," this new disc hardly lacks aggression or intensity. In fact, there's as much adrenalized energy in "Grievance" or "God's Dice" as in such vintage crowd-pleasers as "Go" or "Do the Evolution."
What there isn't as much of is distortion-fattened, arena-sized guitar. Where once guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready would crank their amps and rattle the rafters, now they keep their sound in check, so that the guitars seldom carry more weight than the drums or bass -- and never threaten to overpower singer Eddie Vedder.
So even though "God's Dice" fairly leaps from the speakers, its spring-heeled attack owes more to Matt Cameron's frenetic drumming than to the guitars and bass. This not only lends the song punch without overwhelming us with crunch, but it also almost re-imagines the group's sound, painting Pearl Jam not as big-time arena-rockers, but as a smart, ambitious garage band.
Nor is "God's Dice" the only song offering a more intimate sense of the band's sound. From the dark, bluesy "Nothing As It Seems" to the tart, Middle-Eastern drone in "Of the Girl," Pearl Jam augments its small-scale rockers with introspective, quasi-acoustic tunes that keep the album's energy level up even as the the volume drops.
In fact, "Nothing As It Seems," for all its low-key playing, boasts the album's most moving guitar solo, as a cranked-down McCready screeches and wails against an understated groove anchored by Jeff Ament's upright bass. Likewise, "Of the Girl" impresses despite its lack of speed or volume, thanks to the power of the bluesy interplay between Vedder and McCready -- power that comes across even though Vedder's voice barely rises above a whisper.
Although some of the album's strengths can be taken as testimony to the instrumental strengths Pearl Jam has developed over the last decade, the writing is what truly sets "Binaural" apart from its predecessors. This is a band that not only understands the difference between a hook and a riff, but can also actually pull the pop appeal of the former from the hard rockin' velocity of the latter.
"Insignificance" is the album's most obvious example, playing off the band's signature strengths -- ominous, minor-chord arpeggios; dramatic shifts in rhythmic intensity; driving, tuneful choruses -- while packing memorable melody into every measure. But it's hardly the most pop-savvy song here. Indeed, from the bright, energized vocal harmonies on "Evacuation" to the ukulele-driven melancholy of "Soon Forget," this is the most pop-oriented Pearl Jam has ever been.
But no matter how appealing the melodies, the performances on "Binaural" never soften the band's edges or pull any punches. Instead, Pearl Jam finds the ideal middle ground between aggression and accessibility, miraculously managing to rock hard while keeping the volume down.
It's difficult to imagine a more grown-up sound than that.
Binaural (Epic 63665)
Sun score: ***1/2