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Pearl Jam
Live on Two Legs
Epic

Pearl Jam is an unlikely story of how a band learned to do things its own way. It began with the grunge revolution of 1991. On the strength of its multiplatinum debut, Ten, the band was everywhere, including the '92 Lollapalooza tour and MTV. But when Pearl Jam achieved success, it pulled back, refusing to make videos and going all the way to Capitol Hill in a fight against Ticketmaster. Part of the retreat included making less bombastic records, and, best of all, singer Eddie Vedder no longer appears to be campaigning for the post of spokesperson of his generation. Pearl Jam's loss to Ticketmaster kept it from touring for a couple of years and stunted its popularity but helped the band regain a bit of a fighting edge.

Part of the desire to maintain credibility is evident on the song selection of Live on Two Legs. It's not a greatest-hits package; only two hits, "Black" and "Even Flow," from their first and best-selling record, Ten, are included. Instead, Live is evenly culled from the group's five studio albums.

The gleaming guitars of "Corduroy," with ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron (a temporary fill-in) providing a low-end boom, come close to delivering the epiphanies of which Pearl Jam is capable. And "Given to Fly" starts with Cameron's tribal and flowing instruments, then the guitars catch up, and Vedder lets loose with impassioned singing. But "Hail, Hail" comes closest to the essence of the band live, offering an almost punk passion (without the sloppiness), with Vedder chewing up the scenery, singing through gritted teeth.

Unfortunately, that's about it for the bright spots. The downfall of the record is its lack of variety. It offers just one tempo and one mood: mid-tempo and rocking. Song after song, the band hits its instruments hard but without much deviation. More passion would help as well.

The world is short on rock bands that can carry Neil Young's earnest torch and piss off people in the music business by handling fame with integrity. On Live, Pearl Jam covers Young's "Fuckin' Up," and Vedder sings a verse of "Rockin' in the Free World" during "Daughter." But the band doesn't demonstrate much of Young's exuberance. In fact, what the record proves is that, as well-intentioned as it is, Pearl Jam has created a lot of similar-sounding songs.

-- David Simutis

Marianne Faithfull
A Perfect Stranger; The Island Anthology
Island Records

Long before Alanis, Fiona or Liz Phair, there was Marianne Faithfull. She, once the fair-haired paramour of Mick Jagger, was the very definition of "pristine pop chanteuse" at the height of Swinging London. She disappeared after a scandalous drug bust followed by series of failed stints in rehab and the famous, inevitable breakup. In fact, she was all but forgotten when, seemingly out of nowhere, she re-emerged in 1979 with a stunning new album, Broken English, now recognized as one of the masterpieces of the era. The album's single "Why'd Ya Do It," a gritty, aggressive redemption of the woman scorned, (and a far superior prototype to Morrissette's "You Oughta Know") broke new ground for women in rock, erased all associations of her as Rock Star Girlfriend and established her as a singular, viable solo artist. She has slowly but surely continued to evolve as an icon ever since. Her ravaged face, still incredibly beautiful after years of abuse, complements her craggy, resonant growl of a voice. Her live performances have become legendary. Like the famed, drunken poet Rimbaud, Marianne Faithfull disappeared into oblivion. But, unlike Rimbaud, she came back.

Faithfull has recorded for Island Records for nearly two decades now, and this collection is absolutely essential. Her career has spanned everything from "Sister Morphine" to an appearance with Metallica, including her more recent (non-Island) immersion into the Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill netherworld of "songs of the Weimar Republic," which are alluded to here with "Ballad of the Soldier's Wife," recorded for a compilation of their material. There were a lot of songs to choose from, and the choices here could not have been better. The finest selections from her solo albums are included, along with some harder-to-find soundtrack and compilation singles, as well as (yes!) unreleased material (an aching version of John Lennon's "Isolation," for one) and the stunning live version of "Times Square" from Blazing Away. No singer alive is as powerful an interpreter of the ballad form, nor more artful when it comes to weaving a hypnotic tale lifted from her own dance with death. Patti Smith dedicated a poem to Faithfull in her book, Seventh Heaven, and it starts with a quote from Faithfull herself: "I needed to lose." Her losses have been our gain.

-- Liz Belile

Various Artists
Jermaine Dupri Presents12 Soulful Nights
of Christmas
So So Def/Columbia

It's a mistletoed jungle out there for holiday-album consumers, but these days you don't have to subject your loved ones to Nat King Cole going on about roasted nuts or Bing Crosby riffing about some drunk reindeer. Eye-catching new titles this year include Natty and Nice: A Reggae Christmas and A Dysfunctional Family Christmas: Music for Your Misery. So it's not a surprise that So So Def label head/hip-hop mogul/Mariah Carey ogler Jermaine Dupri has rounded up some Christmas ditties of his own.

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