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'Pearl Jam' returns band to its core


Pearl Jam has always been built to last.

Created out of Mother Love Bone, the Seattle band whose singer Andrew Wood died of a 1990 heroin overdose, the rockers had already gotten the self-destructive behavior out of their system by the time San Diego surfer Eddie Vedder came to lead the clenched-fist charge.

If Nirvana stared into the void with pop songs that exploded in punk noise, Pearl Jam was always a classic rock band in disguise, harking back to The Who and the Doors. They shouted a life-affirming message in stentorian, heroic tones that pushed their 1991 debut, Ten, to sell that many millions of copies.

The flannel-shirted brigade led rock's last attempt to hold the center of the cultural stage before hip-hop and pop pushed it aside for good. So it's no surprise that a decade and a half later, Pearl Jam soldiers on as the elder statesmen of grunge.

What is startling is how much punch Vedder, drummer Matt Cameron, bass player Jeff Ament, and guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard (all of whom will be in their 40s before the year is out) still pack on Pearl Jam, out today.

And what's equally surprising is how many people still care. Pearl Jam's recent studio albums - Riot Act (2002), Binaural (2000) - hardly set the world aflame. Even so, the band has nourished a multigenerational fan base the old-fashioned way: by singing for its supper.

Pearl Jam rarely toured at the peak of its popularity, amid a failed mid-'90s campaign to bring down Ticketmaster. But the band has turned into a road hawg in recent years. Varying each night's set list, Grateful Dead style, and throwing in encore covers including Neil Young and the Ramones, the quintet has released a jaw-dropping 176 official bootleg CDs through its Internet fan club since 2000.

And as was evident from the set Pearl Jam played at the Borgata in Atlantic City, N.J., in the fall, all that barnstorming has turned the band into a blistering live act. Pearl Jam harnesses that fury in a marriage of metallic thunder and high-voltage punk energy, leavened with slow-building balladry that makes room for Vedder's sonorous baritone.

The experimentalism of albums such as No Code seems far off. Pearl Jam, appropriately enough, is more akin to emblematic albums such as Vs. and Vitalogy with which the band made its name, and which inspired hordes of imitators, from Creed to Bush. It sounds like Pearl Jam.

So what's got the band so agitated, and focused, at this late date? The war in Iraq.

The album's only mention of President Bush comes in "World Wide Suicide," the album's fire-alarm first single (already a hit on rock radio). And it comes, mercifully, without resorting to bludgeoning, which is somewhat surprising, given that in 2003, Vedder impaled a Bush mask on a mike stand and slammed it to the ground during a performance of "Bushleaguer" in Denver.

"Medals on a wooden mantel, next to a handsome face," Vedder sings on "World," with McCready's and Gossard's guitars set permanently on churn. "That the president took for granted, writing checks that others pay."

Vedder is not the most consistently elegant lyricist, and he's prone to mumble mouthfuls of big words as he strains for big ideas. "Explore and not explode/A preternatural other plane, with the power to maintain," he ruminates in "Severed Hand." Whatever you say, Ed.

But when he's at his best on PJ, Vedder keeps it earthly. "Unemployable" is a lament for a laid-off working man, and a deferred American dream, that makes its story stick with imagistic detail: "He's got a big gold ring that says 'Jesus Saves,' and it's dented from a punch thrown at work that day."

And in the rugged riffage of "Marker in the Sand," Vedder resists finger-pointing: "Now you've got both sides, killing in God's name/But God is nowhere to be found, conveniently."

With Pearl Jam, music is always a serious business. Things of import need to be said. Principles must be upheld. Fun is not on the agenda. (Unless it's putting a picture of an avocado on the album cover.)

That air of sanctimony can suck the life out of a band, and it has done exactly that to Eddie Vedder's band in the past. But on Pearl Jam, the group's mouthpiece and his compatriots are at once loose and tightly focused as they rev up into a righteous rage that's right in their non-ironic comfort zone. And after all these years, it's an impressive feat: They still mean it, man.

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