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Better Men

Pearl Jam outlives its grunge-life expectancy


Grunge was good for one thing and one thing only: It put Seattle on the map, turning the world on to a spectacularly beautiful corner of the States long overdue for recognition. Although critics spewed orgasmic loads of giddy blue ink all over angsty, edgy bands such as Nirvana, Mudhoney, Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, they apparently neglected to listen to what these bands were trying to pass off as music -- which was cacophonous, diarrhetic butt rock in the wake of hair metal's timely demise. Indeed, every rose had its thorn, and that thorn was grunge.

Despite being defined by MTV as grunge's standard-bearers (along with Nirvana, of course), Pearl Jam really only released one grunge album, their 1991 debut, Ten. Sure, Pearl Jam had the sordid backstory necessary for grunge street cred: Vedder's paternal confusion and angst (made famous in the group's first hit, "Alive") and the heroin-driven implosion of Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament's previous band, Mother Love Bone, were grist for several Rolling Stone cover stories. But look past Ten's one-word titles, Eddie Vedder's flowing mane, Jeff Ament's goofy Jamiroquaiesque coonskin hats and some top-heavy rockers, and it was evident even then that Pearl Jam was, at its core, a luxuriously talented, stylistically adventurous pop band in wolf's clothing. To wit, the Pearl Jam songs with the most staying power have proved not to be megahits like "Jeremy" and "Even Flow" but, rather, midtempo ramblers such as "Daughter," "Better Man" and the brilliant "Yellow Ledbetter."

From the peak of their multiplatinum popularity, Vedder and company have consciously sought to winnow down their fan base by cranking out self-indulgent tunes, sales figures be damned. Fortunately, Pearl Jam is one of those rare bands with the chops to make these songs crackle -- especially during the group's scintillating live shows. Love 'em or hate 'em, this band is tighter than Kylie Minogue's arse, and Vedder's brooding baritone is a gin-u-wine rock & roll treasure.

The band's seventh studio release, Riot Act, is nothing special, and that's always been the point with Pearl Jam. It ain't about the single, at least not since Ten. Rather, PJ seem genuinely interested in putting together a body of work that, when the smoke clears, will place them alongside the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, R.E.M. and Toto on the rolls of rock deity.

If you're a rock fan and the Stones come to town, you go see them, no questions asked, regardless of their last output, right? This is precisely why you should go see Pearl Jam. They may not be in the Stones' league just yet, but they're well on their way. And Vedder gets bonus points for his recent anti-war stunt: impaling a faux President Bush head on a mike stand at the group's tour-opening Denver show, a defiant act that the band refused to renounce, despite the ensuing public outcry. Take note, Natalie Maines.

Nirvana and grunge may have captured the zeitgeist, but the '90s are so over. Yet Pearl Jam plays on -- and does a damn fine job of it at that.

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