Unquiet Riot

Pearl Jam: “Riot Act” (Alternative Tentacles Records)

Kari Petrie

With a dumkopf in the White House and a dubious war on the minds of most politicians, it’s an opportune time for a band to put out a protest album. Enter Pearl Jam. With their seventh album, “Riot Act,” the band attacks war, corporate greed and the George W. Bush administration with dark and sometimes incoherent lyrics.

As sole survivors of the heinously termed “grunge” rock sound, Pearl Jam continues to shun the heavy guitars and booming vocals that made them famous, as they have since the 1994 “Vitalogy.” None of the tracks on “Riot Act” are as thunderous or aggressive as past hits “Jeremy” and “Do the Evolution,” and most of the album sounds similar to their last two releases. This time around, though, the band has a more focused statement to make, rather than merely screaming out anger and frustration.

On “Bushleaguer,” front man Eddie Vedder waxes poetic, speaking with a coarse, gravelly voice over smooth, thrumming guitars and Jeff Ament’s deep bass lines. In the song, Vedder calls Bush “not a leader/he’s a Texas leaguer.” With lyrics like “The haves have not a clue/the immenseness of suffering,” the song summarizes the band’s feelings about the state of the union.

Vedder takes on corporate scandals with “Green Disease.” Over Matt Cameron’s quick drumming, Vedder sings, “And like weeds with big leaves/stealing light from what’s beneath/where they have more/still they take more.”

Unfortunately, not all the songs are this politically minded. “Arc” is just weird. The song features Vedder performing American Indianesque vocals. It seems to be a Pearl Jam tradition to have one song that sticks out from the rest of the album, but this type of vocalization has already been played out on other rock albums, such as the latest from Creed and Bruce Springsteen. Vedder’s attempt just sounds hokey.

The first single, “I Am Mine,” confirms the band’s talents as songwriters and is the best Pearl Jam song in years. The chorus, dare I say it, is catchy. After listening once, you’re guaranteed to be singing it the rest of the day. The hopeful lyrics roll along, telling the listener, “There’s no need to hide.”

“Riot Act” does leave room for reflection, though. This is the first album since the disastrous 2000 Roskilde Festival, where nine fans died when the crowd surged toward the stage in Denmark. The songs “Thumbing My Way” and “Love Boat Captain” reflect on the tragedy. In “Love Boat Captain,” Vedder sings “Lost nine friends we’ll never know two years ago today/and if our lives became too long, would it add to our regret?”

“Riot Act” exhibits an aging band that has come into the comfort of its own sound, yet still has something important to say. Judging by their last two albums, Pearl Jam’s sound might not be much of an innovation, but its social commentary maintains the band’s relevance. And, in a time of social and political unrest, that’s worth more.

Kari Petrie welcomes comments at [email protected]