Pearl Jam
Live on Two Legs

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.

The superfluously titled Jermaine Dupri Presents 12 Soulful Nights of Christmas may be the first Christmas album you can also get your freak on to. But it's a surprise that basshound Dupri would come up with a collection that's as dry as a wall of fruitcakes.

12 Soulful Nights is mostly made up of tenderoni ballads about Christmas loves lost from the likes of Faith Evans, Chaka Khan, Kenny Latimore and Brian McKnight (who's got a damn Christmas album of his own out), but most of the performers do manage to prevent the songs from turning into pure schmaltz. The album does get a bit of bumpy rhythm from a few tunes, like the Dupri-produced "My Younger Days," featuring the underappreciated Trey Lorenz. On the somewhat perplexing "Little Drummer Girl," Alicia Keys gets some uncredited help from an old Al Green backbeat, and So So Def's own Jagged Edge gets sultry with it on "This Christmas" (not the Donny Hathaway favorite). Ultimately, the disc is a saturated, safe affair for So So Def fans. I'd much rather hear a bunch of carolers grooving on your front porch with these songs than the same old junk about snowmen, good will to all mankind and other things you can't find in Texas.

-- Craig D. Lindsey

Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub
Wire To Wire
Checkered Past

Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub are an important part of Nashville's underground music scene, capturing a decidedly retro sound, with roots in honky-tonk and the hillbilly music of the '50s. It's a style that hasn't been fashionable in Music City in quite some time, but Burch and friends have brought it into the present day with the respect it commands and with an uncommon, striking sense of vitality. Wire to Wire is presented as a song cycle, a series of events that happen in the space of 24 hours, from sundown to sundown. The concept breaks down at times, but the group's spirit shines through on tunes like the hillbilly anthem "Borrowed And Broke" and a clever take of Webb Pierce's easy-loping "Drifting Texas Sand." Burch's high, nasal vocals are a perfect match for his countrified, mostly acoustic songs and stories, and he's assembled a solid group of players for his highly stylized sound. Fans of Texas acts like the Derailers and Wayne Hancock are sure to find lots to like in Wire to Wire's no-frills country music of the highest pedigree.

-- Jim Caligiuri

The Offspring

Americana sold 200,000 copies its first week, basically on the strength of "Pretty Fly (for a White Guy)," the most annoying song this fall, and a cover of "Feelings" with new parody lyrics which change it to a hate song. Pretty clever for a ten-year-old, pretty stupid for 30-year-olds. But what do you expect from a band that gets Calvin DeForrest (a.k.a. Larry "Bud" Melman, of Dave Letterman fame) to sing on its record? Orange County's favorite punk band refused to become respectable after tasting success with 1994's Smash. The follow-up, Ixnay on the Hombre, bombed, but the Offspring resist defeat -- though the band seems to be carrying on out of inertia.

Singer Dexter Gordon has his Ph.D., but he's built the band's career on schoolboy-crush lyrics. Here, "She's Got Issues" revisits the "that crazy girl is making me miserable" territory of "Self-Esteem," and the fact that it sounds like Loverboy doesn't help. Originality isn't a priority elsewhere, either. "Why Don't You Get a Job?" rips off "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da"; the tongue-nowhere-near-cheek "War Pigs"-style intro of the title track apes Black Sabbath; and the closing "Pay the Man" mimics the psychedelic post-punk of Jane's Addiction, right down to the corny pseudo-deep lyrics and endless buildup to the eight-minute mark. It's depressing that they're playing it so safe, refusing to grow beyond the style that helped them sell 11 million albums. Pretty lame (for a punk band).

-- David Simutis

Human Being
Warner Bros.

On his third album, Seal ditches the sappiness of his Grammy-winning "Kiss from a Rose." Human Being, with Seal's warm, multitracked vocals and Trevor Horn's crisp production chasing each other around its alternately saddened and hopeful lyrics (which dabble in New Age sentiments even as they memorialize Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.), sits squarely between Peter Gabriel's Us and Sade's Stronger Than Pride. The music -- light dance-rock or danceable light rock -- is given far less importance than the rich voice that bathes in it, and that's part of the problem. Seal's voice is great, to be sure, but it doesn't have enough emotional range to carry an entire album.

The disc's grandiose musings on what constitutes humanity reach high, which means that when Seal comes up short, he has a long way to fall. Acoustic guitars and swelling strings make "When a Man Is Wrong" sound like a more soulful but more overblown version of a Hootie and the Blowfish song, complete with Hallmark-card sentiments and a rote, bombastic instrumental interlude. The album drags toward the end, too: Song after song is in the same slow tempo and the same minor key, and the vigor of old recordings like "Crazy" is nowhere to be found. The instrumental trip-hop-style break at the end of "Still Love Remains" and the nearly buried electronic percussion of "No Easy Way" suggest that Seal could stretch his sound, but for some reason he reins it in. Maybe producer Horn, who's worked on all three Seal albums, in addition to producing Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow, needs to be replaced by someone more adventurous, but Seal could really stand to learn some new tricks.

-- David Simutis


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