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Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam

J

The overall critical take on Pearl Jam is that it's something of a return to form for the proto-grunge band. I would submit that the Seattle outfit never really lost form. They took a lot of side streets in the name of growth and experimentation, and some turned out to be back alleys, but those failures have enabled them to endure, to be the last band standing from the early '90s flowering of alternative rock.

Pearl Jam is the quintet's first for J Records after a long tenure with Epic. Did they feel the pressure to deliver a hit? Maybe. They accomplished just that, though, and made their hardest rocking and most accessible album in many a year — without the aroma of compromise.

Pearl Jam comes at you like a body slam from the top rope, opening with three adrenalized rockers — "Life Wasted," "World Wide Suicide" and "Comatose" — that manifest the band's sublime melding of punk and classic rock. Shards of guitar noise spray out of corrosive chords; Eddie Vedder deftly modulates his vocals between simmer, boil and rage (his larynx-shredding on the chorus of "Comatose" will raise the hairs on your neck).

After this dose of whiplash, Pearl Jam takes on a more measured pace, alternating rock blasts ("Big Wave," "Marker in the Sand"), midtempo tunes that burn to exalted crescendos ("Army Reserve," "Unemployable") and a merciful helping of one gentler acoustic song ("Parachutes"). The disc's most intriguing number is "Come Back," an R&B ballad that would've sounded good coming out of Otis Redding. Vedder seems to relish the bluesy chords and lost-my-baby lyrics, issuing a nuanced and moving performance.

In all, Vedder's words skew away from self-examination and look outward to the world. He doesn't like a lot that he sees — especially war. Pearl Jam is not a protest album, but it does have moments of pointed social criticism: "Medals on a wooden mantel, next to a handsome face/ that the President took for granted/ Writing checks that others pay." Vedder stops short of outright preaching, though, preferring to throw jabs instead of haymakers.

After 15 years, Pearl Jam seems to have embraced their status as alt-rock's elder statesmen. Though in my view the band never ceased to matter, Pearl Jam does feel like a watershed. 4 stars Eric Snider

St. Elsewhere

GNARLS BARKLEY

Downtown

If you haven't heard "Crazy," the lead single from Gnarls (the duo of producer Danger Mouse and singer Cee-Lo), put down this paper and head to the group's Myspace page immediately. The track is just unforgettable: tasty, subtle funk and some beautiful crooning. It's little wonder that the track shot up to the top of the British charts with little promotion but an Internet leak. The rest of St. Elsewhere is just as mesmerizing. The title track is pure 21st-century soul; "Who Cares?" is a Candyland strut; hell, even a Violent Femmes cover ("Gone Daddy Gone") goes down easy. This is exactly what postmodern hip hop/R&B crossovers should be. 4 stars Cooper Lane Baker

Reiter In

CHRIS WHITLEY & THE BASTARD CLUB

Red Parlor

Cut before he knew he was dying from lung cancer, this posthumous CD finds the late Chris Whitley revisiting his noisy, rambunctious ways — not achieving the sublime cacophony of the '90s masterpiece Din of Ecstasy, but making an uneven, unruly slab of dirty sludge-rock and garage blues. While such grimy gems as "I Go Evil," "I'm in Love with a German Film Star" and a cover of the Flaming Lips' "Mountain Side" really score, other songs come off as little more than rehearsal throwaways. Reiter In ends with an instrumental, "Come Home," which showcases a thrilling Whitley slide solo. In all, the album is not the uncovered gem that Whitley fans might've dreamt of, but it's a keeper nonetheless. 3 stars ES

Realistic

MARY LORSON & SAINT LOW

Cooking Vinyl

Lorson's fourth album since the dissolution of her '90s band Madder Rose, Realistic is a collection of beautiful melancholy, with Lorson's cozy vocals and tinkling piano tying everything together. "Spider" creeps along like its title creature, with a mournful organ and slow-motion drums, while the title track is an up-tempo shuffle with a memorable melody and some great strings. My only complaint is that a certain homogeny creeps in over the album's 47 minutes, making the songs — while all solid — sometimes blend together. 3.5 stars CLB

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