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Vedder's sobriety has also been the best element on each of Pearl Jam's albums. Curiously, the band has always lacked the basic rock function -- the ability to rock. The rhythm section has always sounded as if a big stick were firmly stuck up its butt, making them uptight, unable to loosen up and get funky, or at least to swing. And isn't it curious how every time they hire a new drummer you read how this time the chemistry is just right. It's like reading about a new Rolling Stones album: This one is the one that will bring them back to their old glory. Well, no matter; Matt Cameron, formerly of Soundgarden, is in the chair at present. He's damn solid and a pleasure to watch, but he may never teach them to swing.
Instead, they've adopted a jackhammer rhythm that makes them sound like a lawnmower caught on a nasty patch of weeds. Vedder's wailing above this mess often comes across like a dog's bark; quick, punctual, and struggling against itself to be heard above the din.
Pearl Jam has succeeded most with their Bic-lighter standards, the songs that sound best when there's a cheap bottle of wine in your system. Think "Black," off their debut, Ten. Or "Indifference," from Vs. Or "Immortality," from Vitalogy -- all songs that demand that you sit in your room staring at candles, pondering the great depths of it all. Vedder will sing, "Cannot find the comfort in this world" or "I will hold the candle till it burns up my arm." Every sensible part of you wants to scream out, "Enjoy the millions, Ed. They're yours. Take a cruise. Get some Prozac." Another part of you gets tired and weak and thinks maybe he's on to something. It's the same goofy melodrama that made those old Doors albums such fun. Jim Morrison was never a poet, no matter what anyone says. But he was able to get weird and make stupid things seem significant. He risked making himself look like a fool so the rest of us could sit back and laugh. Vedder emulates ol' Jim. Again, it's that sacrificial lamb thing he just can't shake.
But PJ's bread and butter has always been their early hits: "Alive," "Even Flow," "Jeremy." These are the tunes that brought them their great fame and the tunes the band has been rebelling against ever since. They're what drove them to cut their hair, stop making videos, lay off touring, and concentrate on the insular detail of making records. Vedder may have Morrison's sense of martyrdom, but he refuses to take up Jimbo's sex-god status, though for a while he could've had it. Instead, he reacted against it.
Obstinancy may be the only option for a smart guy in a postmodern world where every action and reaction has been labeled and filed even before it occurs. At least PJ has never gotten cheap and taken the easy way out. No, Vedder vents his passions, but it's up to the band to pull him back. No Code was interesting that way. Like a textbook, the album attempted to educate the palette of anyone who dared enter its domain. The album may one day prove to be among the group's most satisfying, but initially it came off as dense and labored, words that also describe obvious masterworks such as the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street and Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On, or cluttered failures like Van Dyke Parks's Song Cycle or nearly anything by Elvis Costello in the past ten years.
Yield, however, finds a stronger balance between their intellectual restraint and their primal urge to beat the audience's head in. It bursts out of the gate with "Brain of J," a song with a strong descending guitar riff and just enough menace to blow the cobwebs off the stuffy art-rock self-indulgence of, say, Radiohead, a band that is sharing PJ's sober mantle, but with far less panache. "Given to Fly" has a cinematic caress that scores a moody desert scene worthy of Paul Bowles's Tangiers reveries. "Wishlist" is just the sort of muted tone poem that has replaced the anthems of yore. It threatens to detonate but then backs away from the confrontation.
Maturity has taught Pearl Jam it's best to walk away from a fight. The song "MFC" is multitextural and effective with its swirl of guitar tones. But tracks like "Low Light" and "In Hiding" point out the journeyman rock these fellas could face if they don't get their shit together. Don't believe me? Keep in mind, Vedder's closest vocal antecedent is Iron Butterfly's Doug Ingle. "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" might have been a landmark of something or other, and Owsley knows it sold a billion copies (all of which have become garage-sale staples, on eight-track no less!), but it didn't do much for the band's staying power. Vedder and Co. may be struggling with whether it's better to burn out or rust, but their greatest danger might be neither. They may end up forever running in place.
Pearl Jam and opening act Rancid perform Tuesday, September 22, and Wednesday, September 23, at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach; 800-759-4624. The shows are sold out. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.