Pearl Jam

Eddie Vedder has always been a better star than artist, and don't let any critic who slept through Ten and raved about No Code tell you otherwise. He's best at grand gestures, belting out "Alive" or vowing to bring a concert-ticket monopoly to its knees. But these days, "Ed" (as he now calls himself) seems desperate to prove he's just a guy. One of us. A regular. In public, it never quite works, because he's only seen in the company of other stars -- Pete Townshend, Michael Stipe, Mick Jagger.

Funny, then, how on Yield, the most audacious gesture doesn't belong to Vedder at all, but rather to guitarist Mike McCready, who swipes the melody of Led Zep's "Going to California" for the first single, "Given to Fly." Thieves themselves, I hope Page and Plant are too proud to sue.

Anyone looking for a return to rock-god form won't find much else to cheer for on Yield. The ballads are fine, some of Pearl Jam's best, but the rockers are deliberately modest -- either sloppy, as on the CD-opening "Brain of J" (as in -FK), or leaden, as on "No Way." "Stop trying to make a difference, not trying to make a difference ... no way," Vedder sings on the latter, and it's hard to say whether he's genuinely defiant or simply bitter about being roasted for his messianic zeal. (Given that the song was written by Stone Gossard, rumored to be less committed than Vedder to the band's anti-Ticketmaster crusade, it may be both.)

Ed and the boys do sound like they're having fun on "Do the Evolution," a thrashy rave-up that could pass for early Pere Ubu, but it's a goof, almost as much of a throwaway as the 67 seconds of " -- " or "Push Me Pull Me," a noisy sound collage distinctive only for its Who-like harmonies. When reaching for sweeping rock-anthem choruses, Yield offers bland reassurance ("Faithful") or confusing mush ("Like Pilate, I Have a Dog!").

Perhaps, the wider world has grown so confusing for Pearl Jam that the group no longer knows what to make of it. This is a band that's sacrificed about $20 million in tour receipts, and its members still get criticized for acting too much like rock stars. How many abortive tours or years between videos will it take to prove otherwise? Or maybe this will be the year they finally surrender to Ticketmaster. In the meantime, Yield's most satisfying moments are its most personal: the lovely lilt of "Low Light," the near-regret of "All Those Yesterdays" and, especially, "Wishlist," in which Vedder yearns for all the things he can never be, including a neutron bomb and the key chain of a loved one. Ain't that just like Eddie/Ed: He can't decide whether he wants to blow up the world or simply disappear from plain view. (***)

-- Keith Moerer

Finley Quaye
Maverick a Strike
Sony Music

It takes more than a little cheek for a 23-year-old Brit of Ghanaian descent to claim co-writing credits on his first CD with reggae legend Bob Marley. After all, Marley was buried back in 1981, when Finley Quaye was still in kindergarten.

Sometimes, however, chutzpah is justified. On his debut CD, Maverick a Strike, Quaye transforms Marley's sleepy "Sun Is Shining" into the acid-rocking "Sunday Shining." And as a bonus, he offers several other solid tracks that retain their sensuous inventiveness after repeated listenings. Quaye's songs arch across a rainbow of styles -- from jazz to dub to rock -- and they absolutely defy pigeonholing.

A percussionist by trade, Quaye comes from a family of musicians: His father is jazz composer Cab Quaye and his brother Caleb has played guitar for the likes of Elton John and Hall and Oates. A quick listen to Maverick a Strike backs up Quaye's claim that he's a drummer first and foremost. Each track is anchored by a distinctive rhythm arrangement, with the other components built on that foundation.

Fortunately, Quaye's singing and songwriting are as exceptional as his percussive talents. At times, his singing suggests Taj Mahal; in other instances, Sly Stone comes to mind. Composition-wise, Quaye is at his best on a handful of love songs. "Even After All" lays out his warm, flexible phrasing in lines such as "Even after all the murdering / Even after all your suffering sow / I love you so."

Maverick a Strike's title track offers the clearest proof that Quaye is more than a one-shot deal. "Here I come again / To take away the pain / Lift up your arms," he sings with the authority of a young Jimmy Cliff, as a hypnotic ratchet beat drives the track home. My arms are raised, Finley -- and so are my spirits. (**** 1/2)

-- Tim Fleck

Victoria Williams
Musings of a Creekdipper

In a single week, two different writers in the same newspaper described Victoria Williams's voice as "an acquired taste" -- critic-speak for something the general public might not like and embrace. But in the case of Williams, the situation is somewhat more complex than that.

Admittedly, Williams has a vocal instrument that is chirpy and girlish, rife with arty inflections, like some small bird with colorful paisley plumage. But these days, when emotive female singers such as Tori Amos, Fiona Apple and Jewel can find chart success, Williams isn't such an anomaly as a vocalist, even if her tones and attack are somewhat quirkier than most. Still, Musings of a Creekdipper isn't the sort of work that has any real chance at mass acceptance, even as it deserves a wider airing than that it will doubtless receive. That's because Williams's music is as much (if not more of) an acquired taste as her voice.

The thematic setting of Musings is Williams's high-desert home in Joshua Tree, California, which she shares with her mate, ex-Jayhawk Mark Olsen. The disc is indeed a pastoral suite, filled with the terms and images of a basic existence close to nature. Just look at the titles: There's "Periwinkle Sky," "Rainmaker" and "Tree Song (Eucalyptus Lullabye)," not to mention two bird songs ("Hummingbird" and "Blackbirds Rise") and two that refer to corn ("Kashmir's Corn" and "Grandpa in the Cornpatch"). Such overt crunchiness seems to suggest something of a hippie-dippy consciousness -- Williams's use of "groovy" in a lyric even gives that charge some weight -- and at first blush, Creekdipper sounds like it might be the product of just that.

Yet there's a seductive, almost narcotic quality to this collection. In spirit, Musings resembles Neil Young's Harvest, in that it's a rumination on life from a far-rural point of view -- albeit a rumination more musically resembling something Joni Mitchell might have made. Jazzy inflections, folk roots, country steel guitar, vocal choruses, horns and even strings swirl throughout, frequently in the same song.

What finally makes this the best sort of all-too-rare eclecticism is Williams's songwriting talent. It's what she's best known for, and her inventive turns of phrase and ability to build small themes into something greater give this disc an undeniable allure -- that is, if you can give it time to work its way into your consciousness. Musings of a Creekdipper is an odd and multifaceted gem of a CD, and one that draws your ear along from start to finish a bit more forcefully every time it's played. (*** 1/2)

-- Rob Patterson

Michael Bolton
All That Matters

At this point, slamming Michael Bolton is about as challenging as dissing the Spice Girls, John Tesh and Oilers owner Bud Adams. But in the interest of fairness to the singer, I gave All That Matters an open-minded listen. Twice. And if anything, I came away knowing this sad truth: He sucks twice as hard as I ever imagined. If music criticism came with hazard-pay bonuses, then by the time you read this, I'd be sipping margaritas on a beach in the Virgin Islands and counting my Benjamins under the warm, sunny sky.

Bolton, like fellow MOR screecher Celine Dion, has his vocal volume controls set permanently at one level -- high. Subtlety is not a word in the vocabulary of a white man with cojones large enough to cover the biggest hits of Otis Redding and Percy Sledge, and to do so poorly. But alas, he's had the hair (emphasis on had) and the marketing smarts to snare throngs of female fans. Remember, to the average Boltonite, "hot flash" does not connote an exploding stage light.

Just a perusal of the song titles here speaks volumes: "A Heart Can Only Be So Strong," "Forever's Just a Matter of Time," "Can't Get Close Enough to You" and the prophetic "Let There Be Love." Through them all, Bolton's constipated vocals, cheesy keyboard flourishes and faux jazz backgrounds rarely vary. It's only fitting that also included is Bolton's version of "Go the Distance" from the Disney film Hercules -- one cartoon star paying tribute to another. (*)

-- Bob Ruggiero

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.

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