PASS THE JAM

Pearl Jam
Vs.
(Epic)

They're back for round two, folks. Vs., the second album from Pearl Jam, finds the Seattle grunge men cranking it out in top form. Though Eddie Vedder's voice has always been the band's main feature--the vibrating, gut-driven growls of one white boy's angst--the guitars of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready push Vs. as much as anything.

The band's 1991 debut, Ten, helped make grunge more than just a group household word, and with its second release, Pearl Jam moves away from the now-tired format.

Yes, these are flat-out rock n' roll songs, and damned good ones, at that. With the groove of Aerosmith (check out the opening guitar riff on "animal"), a tip of the wah-wah to "Theme From Shaft" on "blood" and the Mot”rhead pulse of "go," Pearl Jam proves it's more than just a charismatic, wailing front man. But the 12 songs are not all blisters and rage; Vedder has his sensitive side. "elderly woman behind the counter in a small town" is a poetic, waltz-time ballad that smacks of one of those below the Mason-Dixon Line bands (okay, R.E.M.), and it gives Vedder a chance to rest his larynx. He may not be the most stylistically original vocalist ever, but the singer knows how to work the depth, power and emotion of his bluesy voice to flesh out the soft-harsh range of Pearl Jam's material.

Vedder uses his lyrics as a showcase for social criticism, utilizing themes from police brutality and child abuse to drug addiction and incest. And there's some humor on this album, too. "glorified g" waxes sarcastic against those who tote: "Got a gun/Fact I got two/That's okay man, cause I love God." The song also contains the best guitar hook of the album, repeated under the chorus' ironic words reducing a deadly weapon to a "glorified version of a pellet gun." (If you close your eyes and turn the stereo way up, this tune almost sounds like Creedence. Really.) It's not easy to attempt this kind of MTV-ready pontificating and still come off as genuine, yet Pearl Jam pulls it off. With Vs., the quintet has scored again with a mix of tight, 70s-based (Bad Company, Bad Company and Bad Company) music and verbal sincerity bordering on naivet‚. Not all bands that go multiplatinum sound as if their hearts are in it, but Pearl Jam is an exception. Which is, of course, the point.--Peter Gilstrap

Pearl Jam will perform on Saturday, November 6, and Sunday, November 7, at Mesa Amphitheatre. Both shows are sold out.

Dave Alvin
Museum of Heart
(Hightone)

If you write enough great songs, eventually, good things will happen. At least that's what Dave Alvin is hoping. The co-founder of those dearly departed paragons of the L.A. roots scene, the Blasters, Alvin has penned some of the most pungent, country-inflected roots tunes of the past decade. Lyrically, Alvin is the West Coast Springsteen, skilled at hard-luck tales of working-class heroes, wounded lovers and regret. He's particularly adept at exploring the dark recesses of his own rock n' roll psyche. The classic example of this, "Haley's Comet," from his last album, Blue Boulevard, is both a tribute to Bill Haley and a scary portent of what Alvin's own future may hold. It's this kind of emotional risk-taking that gives his music its power. Alvin's approach has hardened into a roots-rock/pop mix that by turns can boogie hard (Six Nights a Week"), go boppin' (Burning in Water Drowning in Flame") or get slow and sad (Don't Talk About Her") and enter an emotional territory in which many of his best songs live. Whichever style he's working in, the tunes always open plenty of space for his ace guitar work and a ragged but real voice.

There are two schools of thought on Alvin's voice. To one group of listeners, its hoarse limitations provide an emotionally direct quality that suits the material. To others, the voice drags down quality songs. I side with the latter viewpoint. Although Alvin's monotone moan has gained some finesse since his 1987 solo debut, Romeo's Escape, it remains an Achilles' heel. Like Bob Dylan, Alvin the vocalist can't do his own originals justice. They're better when someone else sings them. The problems with his voice don't overshadow Alvin's first-rate songwriting and guitar-slinging. But with another, better voice, he'd be California's answer to the Boss.--Robert Baird

Dave Alvin will perform on Sunday, November 7, at the Rockin' Horse in Scottsdale. Showtime is 8 p.m.

The Juliana Hatfield Three
Become What You Are
(Atlantic/Mammoth)

The name of the album is Become What You Are, and what Juliana Hatfield is becoming is the Ana‹s Nin of rock n' roll. Like the late confidante of Henry Miller, Hatfield is innocent and knowing at the same time. She sings songs of anger, pining, confusion and frustration in a "Kumbaya"-around-the-campfire voice that manages to keep it all sounding wide-eyed.

She's got herself a permanent band, Juliana Hatfield Three, having shed the studio hands that worked her first effort, last year's Hey Babe. And the Three have done it, not only giving Hatfield's tunes a harder edge, but creating a strong album. Which is not to say it's perfect, but then, neither is the songwriter. She's "got no idols," she "doesn't like to be touched" and she's bummed about her inability to bring a dead bird back to life. You find out all of this and more from the lyrics on Become What You Are, and despite the occasional vague and drippy moments, the writing is generally heartfelt and clever.

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