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Quiet Riot

 

Pearl Jam: Riot Act

Epic, 2002

Rating: 2.7

 

Posted: December 1, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Pearl Jam has a funny habit of misnaming its albums. The band's 1991 debut, the smash hit Ten, contained 11 tracks (yes, we know all about the Mookie Blaylock connection, but go with us on this one); 1993's confrontationally-titled Vs. was released at the peak of the band's popularity, amidst a crushing wave of media hype; the dense 1996 effort "No Code" required a decoder; and 1998's Yield, despite its we-can-go-no-further moniker, was a stirring return to accessible, rocking form that suggested a future of bright musical possibilities. It's doubtful that such misleading titles have been intentional, although given some of the band's almost willfully difficult output and its occasional contrarian stances (tilting at Ticketmaster's corporate windmill, shilling for Presidential spoiler Ralph Nader), it wouldn't come as a complete surprise.

Either way, the streak continues with Riot Act, a title suggestive of unbridled passion stuck on an album of middling, hook-free doorstops. Oh, there's a riot goin' on, all right, but it's a quiet one, of the internal variety. Riot Act is the sound of a popular band fighting hard not to be populist, continually trying to distance itself from the hits that afforded the financial security that in turn allows its latter-day experimentation. Don't get your humble reviewer wrong: it's always laudable to see a band of Pearl Jam's stature tinker with its sound, especially given the disturbing hegemony, the almost calculated accessibility, of some of the band's earlier and most revered hits. But while it's an easier listen than 2000's Binaural, Riot Act isn't exactly listener-friendly.

Not that it doesn't try. One can hear attempts to engage on songs like "Can't Keep," the reaching "Get Right" and, especially, the strident, individualist anthem "I Am Mine." But if the spirit seems willing, the flesh is all too weak. None of the songs ever truly achieve lift-off, hobbled by somber melodies and wrong-turn riffs that stumble more often than soar. And thoughtful lyrics (including tunes from bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron) often trip over their self-importance. On the spoken-sung "Bushleaguer," Vedder lambastes our current President in a non-moving monotone, using a clever baseball analogy ("Born on third/ thinks he got a triple") to obscure the fact that his own beloved Green Party candidate bears some of the blame for getting George W. elected.

The most egregious moment, however, comes during "Love Boat Captain," in which Vedder solemnly intones "It's been sung before/ but it can't be said enough/ all you need is love." Well, um, yes, wrong, and wrong again, Eddie; what is it with high-minded political rock stars like you and Bono, who can rattle off reasoned, intelligent opinions on political matters but end up falling back on over-worn rock tropes like this one? Take heart, all you bombed-out residents of Afghanistan, you withering AIDS sufferers, you starved and disease-scarred Third World denizens, all you political prisoners atrophying away in dank dungeons the world over, hoping against hope for Amnesty International to turn you into the next Nelson Mandela -- all you need is love!

It's hard to fault Vedder's idealism, dismayingly simplistic though it might be, and one is more than willing to cut the band some slack, especially given that "Love Boat Captain" touches briefly on the painful subject of the nine fans stampeded to death during the band's performance at the 2000 Roskilde Festival in Denmark. And Riot Act does boast a couple of moments that break out of the miasma; the bracing "Save You" recalls the vitality of Yield and 1994's Vitalogy, and "Cropduster" and "You Are," to name a couple, prove engaging if not fully engrossing.

But good intentions and a smattering of interesting arrangements aren't enough to fully absorb the listener. Riot Act is ultimately quelled by a near-palpable hesitation to go for the bright chord, the singalong hook, the Vs.-era anthem rock at which Pearl Jam is so skilled. Surely there's a happy medium between treading too-familiar musical ground and Riot Act's diffuse refusal to let go the restraints and unashamedly rock. If the members of Pearl Jam don't find that middle ground before long, they'll find themselves going all too gently into the dark night of irrelevance. What if Pearl Jam held a riot, and nobody listened?

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