Sharps & Flats: Pearl Jam

Published December 2, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

From a certain distance, it's unsettling. Think for a moment of Pearl Jam's rise, of their reign and of the subsequent, continuing canonization of the band as one of the world's great classic-rock acts. What's to complain about? you ask. What's wrong with Pearl Jam? Well, that's it right there: Like pretty much everything else that's gotten huge and made a lot of money this past decade, Pearl Jam has always been just exactly as good as they had to be -- and not a bit more or less.

Although there was never a point before where you could see the pattern in all its stark singularity, with "On Two Legs" carrying as it does the usual plusses and minuses of the Big Rock live album (a varied track listing, an armistice on production excesses; slightly wonky performances, overpolite sound quality), there's no escaping it anymore: Pearl Jam have traced a very thin line. They've been just good enough, all along, that you couldn't ever really feel right about ranking on them ('cause who knew what worse manner of beast might come shambling forth on their traces); but never so good that they had to worry about what the teenage Babbittry out in East Cornfield, Neb., might think. This is a mark of their genius. Their forays into punk (witness "Do the Evolution"), lyrical pugnacity (revisit "Corduroy") and anti-rock-starism never spooked the natives, and always tossed just enough of a sop to the cognoscenti that Vedder et al. never got swatted hard by anyone on principle, but only when they didn't, or wouldn't, deliver enough of the goods they were purveying.

"On Two Legs" is perhaps the consummate Pearl Jam album -- for better and for worse. It's very good, but never disconcertingly so. It rocks, but not uncontrollably. The few flowerings of true genius that the band shows onstage -- like, say, the non sequiturs that erupt from Vedder when he gets whopped by a flying shoe -- are stricken from the record. No shoes fly here. But every period gets the rock bands it deserves, and this is what we've wrought upon ourselves: Good, distilled and bottled as an essence -- rather than secreted like sweat, or shed like blood. Just like Eddie, we can enjoy it well and fine; but our passions must be elsewhere.

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Sandra Bernhard

-->BY EMILY ZUZIK | Take an acerbic wit, add a dash of personal memoir and song, and what you get is the kind of pop-culture roller coaster ride that only Sandra Bernhard could produce. A live recording of her critically lauded one-woman show currently playing New York City's Booth Theater, this 20-track album begins with a blow to all the fabulous ones who mourned the loss of Princess Diana and Gianni Versace. Bernhard goes on to skewer the worlds of fashion, rock 'n' roll, celebrity and religion, but during the second half of the show she redirects her manic energy into a more lucid take on the world. Targets range from the Lilith Fair "waifs," whom she pits against "big titty" rock goddesses like Ann and Nancy Wilson, to her Mexican house painter Hermino.

Surprisingly, the real gem of this album is the full, brassy voice with which she delivers several satirical songs (and even some touching ones). Unbeknownst to many, Bernhard can belt out tunes as well as any of the divas she denigrates; just listen to the sure-hit club number "On the Runway" or the soulful "Midnight Train to Georgia." It's this music, mixed with Bernhard's hilarious character skits, that make "I'm Still Here ... Damn It!" a gutsy vaudeville performance.

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The Silos

BY MEREDITH OCHS | Singer-songwriter Walter Salas-Humara sets the stage for the Silos' latest offering on the opening track: "I wanna do some traveling, where I've never been/I hope I'm not reminded of who I am." Given the consistency of Salas-Humara's work, it's unlikely he's looking to forget who he is, but considering where the Silos have been, it's not surprising the band stakes out some new territory here. In the late 1980s, their soulful folk-pop led them to a brief major label stint, which ended in the departure of founding member Bob Rupe. Ten years later, the Silos have found a home on Chicago indie Checkered Past, and while Salas-Humara's plaintive voice remains unpretentious and he still has a knack for the clever turn of phrase, the grooves here -- complete with tape loops and driving drum beats -- are deeper than ever. Salas-Humara's lovely, artful pop is elusive but not inaccessible. He paints spacious portraits in muted tones that reveal different shades upon each listen, whether he's describing a broad expanse of sky or a truck stop; a relentless beat turns into Stones-y swagger, which gives way to Townes Van Zandt mournfulness. "Heater" sounds as fresh and exciting as the Silos did back in the '80s -- and there aren't too many bands who've been around as long who can make the same claim.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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