Pearl Jam
No Code

Eddie Vedder's extended vacation from touring -- and just about every other responsibility of rock princedom -- has given him loads of time to contemplate his navel. And apparently, he's found a lot of lint in its recesses, most of which made it onto No Code (just as the bellybutton itself made it into the CD's cover collage). And while it's easy to poke fun at a rock behemoth the size of Pearl Jam, there's no getting around the fact that while No Code isn't quite the affront to Pearl Jam's short but commendable history that some contend it is, it's still an unholy mess.

Where listening to 1994's Vitalogy evoked mixed feelings of confusion, frustration, ridicule and occasional inspiration, No Code leaves little more than a numbing aftertaste. Rambling, malformed excuses for songs such as "Sometimes," "Who You Are," "In My Tree" and "Habit" are littered with debris from what sounds like a band coming unraveled right before our ears, its leader lost in a crazed cycle of self-examination. Hear Eddie babble about God; hear Eddie babble about crazy people; hear Eddie babble about drugs; hear Eddie babble (again) about getting older; hear Eddie babble on and on.

Worse yet, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard and the others not only indulge Vedder, they egg him on with their melancholy splatter of brooding harmonics, vacant pauses, aimless, atonal strumming and choruses that fail to register. Even the all-out rockers -- normally a reliable fallback on any Pearl Jam release -- are devoid of memorable hooks. In the end, No Code's most palatable moment is also its least original. It comes on "Smile," when the band chugs along on a sawed-off Crazy Horse groove reminiscent of last year's Neil Young/Pearl Jam collaboration, Mirror Ball.

After the platinum-plus success of Ten and Vs., Pearl Jam was artistically justified in trying to free itself from grunge's stranglehold. But in striving to break from the format the group helped define, No Code has abandoned the traits that once made Pearl Jam great. Epic melodies, a blustery sense of dramatic structure and a fine-tuned sonic splendor propelled the tunes Vedder now denounces as too commercial (i.e., "Jeremy"), and all these things are in desperately short supply here. No Eddie, millions in sales, high-priced stadium tours and excessive MTV exposure don't necessarily diminish a band's innate excellence. But CDs as unsavory as No Code certainly go a long way toward tarnishing its past glory. (**)

-- Hobart Rowland

Various Artists
A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan

The commercial impact of Stevie Ray Vaughan can be easily gauged: in the 13 years since he leapt onto the charts with Texas Flood, blues music has found the largest audience it has ever known. Countless fans worldwide developed a fascination with the genre as an outgrowth of their enthusiasm for Vaughan and his willingness to pay tribute to the artists he considered mentors, teachers and role models.

Judging by A Tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan, the personal impact of the man, who died six years ago this August, was massive as well. When a much-loved musician dies, his friends grieve his death and then gather to celebrate his life. In this case, the people who gathered just happened to be some of the world's greatest bluesmen and women. Last year in Austin, a stellar collection of musicians whose lives were touched -- and whose genre was revitalized -- by Vaughan gathered to pay him tribute. What resulted was the finest moment in the proud history of Austin City Limits. That show, with all its ups and precious few downs, is what's captured on Tribute.

There's unabashed love in the voice and slide guitar of Bonnie Raitt as she turns Vaughan's "Pride and Joy" into an intensely personal paean. The rejoicing and sorrow that have forever been the left and right hands of the blues have seldom rung as true as they do when Jimmie Vaughan carries his little brother out one more time on the riffs of "Texas Flood." B.B. King's guitar rings like the bell of a backwoods church as he testifies on "Telephone Song" with all the passion and dignity of a veteran circuit rider. Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Dr. John also take their turns celebrating their friend. On the CD's soon-to-be historic closing jam, the assembled cast of stars bring an overt gospel air to "Six Strings Down" before celebrating the make-anything-happen joy of "Tick Tock" and bringing the house down with a wall of guitars on a frenzied nine-minute "SRV Shuffle." Stevie, we think, would be pleased. (**** 1/2)

-- Jim Sherman

Everything I Long For
Outpost Recordings

Most of the songs on Hayden's debut CD were written and recorded late at night in his bedroom on a four-track mini-studio. Though he's not the first to embrace lo-fi as a means of self-expression, Hayden's music -- perhaps more than that of any other home-taping homebody -- is completely the product of where it was created. A fairly normal fellow from Toronto, Hayden is pure folk poet; a troubadour of the suburbs; a kitchen-raiding, late-night-cable-TV-watching, oversleeping product of middle-class North America. To record him any other way would be like taking the bacteria out of a petri dish.

Over an acoustic guitar that skronks with the awkward resonance of someone strumming a bit too hard, Hayden sings of everyday minutiae in a deep and raspy monotone of perpetual ennui. On the beautifully lumbering "Bad as They Seem," the singer pines for a neighborhood girl and her mother as someone "to share with me my midnight snack," only to conclude, "I got to get out some more." The storytelling is even more cleverly focused on "We Don't Mind," where a couple plays hooky from work. ("We find a phone booth with room for two / I call your boss, and I don't speak the truth.")

But Hayden knows that even the most mundane scenes can have tragic undersides. Hence, in a story ripped from recent headlines, a child in "When This Is Over" wonders about cleaning his room and brushing his teeth while he and his baby brother are drowned in a car by their mother. The music, which mixes in electric guitars, pianos and other random noises, is more coarse than most singer/songwriter fare, but often more penetrating as well. (***) -- Roni Sarig

Robert Earl Keen
No. 2 Live Dinner
Sugar Hill

Live shows -- such as the Austin gig caught on this disc -- are as much a Keen strength as his songwriting. Sharpstown's favorite son is a master at the tradition of introducing songs with riotous stories. There's a powerful contrast, for instance, between the hilarious telling of his decision to move to Bandera instead of committing suicide in Nashville and the tune that follows. That song, "Marino," offers the most compassionate lyrical commentary on the illegal-alien issue since Woody Guthrie's "Deportees." As a songwriter and storyteller, Keen has few peers. As a vocalist, he has a distressing tendency to mumble through key lyrics -- but it's a shortcoming that is more than offset by the mind-boggling runs of Keen's childhood friend Brian Duckworth, who is, quite simply, the second-best fiddle player to ever work in a Texas band. (*** 1/2)

-- Jim Sherman

CDs are rated on a one to five star scale.

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Hobart Rowland
Roni Sarig
Jim Sherman