Spin Control

April 30, 2006



Pearl Jam, "Pearl Jam" (J Records)

Pearl Jam has the distinction of being the last band of its era that can still fill arenas, having survived the breakups (or worse) that sidelined peers such as Nirvana, the Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails, and thriving despite long periods of inactivity, the lack of recent support from radio and MTV and the fact that after 15 years, the Seattle quintet has yet to top the commercial or artistic accomplishments of its multimillion-selling debut, "Ten." But Pearl Jam was always the most meat-and-potatoes group of the alternative movement -- with its classic-rock roots, it cites the Who as its model, though more generic arena-rockers like Grand Funk Railroad are closer to the mark -- and its last two albums, 2002's "Riot Act" and 2000's "Binaural," straddled the border between pedestrian and downright boring.

The group's first release in four years comes as a bit of a surprise, then: There are more signs of life in the best of these 13 tracks then on any release since 1998's "Yield." Eddie Vedder & Co. know it, too -- bands trying to trumpet a return to form on their eighth studio album always self-title such a disc -- though "Pearl Jam" is hardly the brave new rebirth being hyped by the musicians or their new major-label hosts at Clive Davis' J Records (so much for the mavericks who always dissed the corporate machine).

The album starts strong, with a number of high-octane rockers full of anger and energy. This is a band that has almost always been at its best when it's been moving the quickest, and Vedder's gruff-voiced howling, the rhythm section's insistent pulse and the two-guitar attack of Mike McCready and Stone Gossard prompt some enthusiastic head-banging on songs such as "Life Wasted," "World Wide Suicide," the ironically named "Comatose" and "Marker in the Sand." There isn't a single melody as memorably anthemic as those that powered "Evenflow," "Alive" or "Jeremy," but at least there are a couple of hummable bridges. And, as I said, things keep moving quickly.

Unfortunately, the album derails when it hits two obstacles the group easily could have removed. One is its enduring fondness for slow, soggy, cell-phones-in-the-air arena ballads, which dominate the second half courtesy of utterly forgettable numbers like "Gone," "Wasted Reprise," "Come Back" and "Inside Job." The other roadblock is and always will be the lyrics of Evanston native turned Southern California surfer dude Vedder, which range from obtusely impressionistic scrawling in the sophomore poetry notebook -- "Darkness comes in waves, tell me/Why invite it to stay?" he ponders in the midlife crisis ditty "Life Wasted" -- to annoyingly ultra-earnest, far-beyond-obvious political philosophizing.

"It's a shame to awake in a world of pain/What does it mean when a war has taken over," Vedder sings in "World Wide Suicide," while in "Marker in the Sand," he waxes even more anti-war-philosophical: "Now you got both sides/Claiming killing in God's name/But God is nowhere to be found, conveniently." Gotcha, and thanks for the geopolitical-sociological insights, Ed. But we just wish you'd rock more.


Wolfmother, "Wolfmother" (Interscope)

"It's such a fine line between stupid and clever," David St. Hubbins famously noted, and in the world of heavy metal that spawned "Spinal Tap," it's an even finer line between stupid self-parody and clever, loving homage. Wolfmother is a power trio from Sydney, Australia, that falls squarely on the latter side of that divide, though it could easily have gone the other way; witness England's initially much-hyped and now thoroughly played-out hair-metal heroes, the Darkness.

Produced by D. Sardy (Oasis, Dandy Warhols), Wolfmother's self-titled full-length debut finds guitarist-vocalist Andrew Stockdale, bassist and keyboardist Chris Ross and drummer Myles Heskett following in the footsteps of many of the best stoner rock bands of recent years by plundering the fertile era spanning the late psychedelic era and the birth of heavy metal. But they differ from others in that subgenre thanks to a smart sense of humor, keeping their tongues firmly in cheek while reveling in over-the-top cover art, even more over-the-top stoner/fantasist lyrics (witness titles such as "White Unicorn," "Mind's Eye" and "Where Eagles Have Been") and vintage '70s poses, fashions and axes -- though they haven't really mastered the long hair yet.

None of the above would matter a whit if the group didn't also deliver a massive, fist-pumping bottom, considerable guitar and vocal firepower and most of all a bounty of the kind of indelible but oh-so-heavy melodies that power the very best of Hawkwind, Deep Purple or Black Sabbath, whose heights they're obviously aspiring to match while simultaneously smiling at the very notion.