Pearl Jam

This isn't all that hot, but at least these guys are trying. The problem, as usual, are the songs, which are not exactly dripping with originality. "Spin the Black Circle," for instance, could pass for an early X track if only Exene Cervenka had added a few harmonies; later, an interminable mope called "Immortality" strains for meaning even as it lays another bouquet at Jim Morrison's grave (yawn). And then there are the lyrics, which are as filled with mea culpas and whining as any speech by George Bush. Yep, Eddie Vedder spends most of his time here either wailing about how success is stripping his soul bare or weighing the pros and cons of taking his life--overworked topics that at this point generate all the suspense of an episode of Family Matters. Still, this isn't a washout: "Whipping" is an effective, straightforward rant, "Pry, To" is a surprising sonic fragment, and "Bugs," dominated by a creaky accordion, suggests that Eddie's been listening to his Tom Waits albums. Weirder is "Stupid Mop": It's a nod to the Beatles' "Revolution No. 9" that's abstract enough to prevent Vedder from posing as the Hamlet of the Pacific Northwest again. Presumably, its inaccessibility is meant to prove that the members of Pearl Jam have artistic integrity, and maybe they do. But they also have muscle--the kind of power that's forced Epic to include with their latest a more-than-thirty-page booklet as elaborate as anything that's hit record stores since the insert for Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player. This package doesn't make Vitalogy any better, but it gives you something to thumb through before taking it to the used CD store.--Michael Roberts

Bheki Mseleku

The second Verve release by this South African multi-instrumentalist veers off the path cut by last year's Timelessness, which featured such glorious sidemen as Elvin Jones, Pharoah Sanders and Joe Henderson. Instead, Meditations finds Mseleku performing a pair of orignal tunes at the 1992 edition of England's Bath International Festival. On the 32-minute "Meditation Suite," he creates a vibrant and inspirational piece built on nothing more than his voice and his piano. The shorter (fourteen-minute) "Meera-ma (Divine Mother)" adds his tenor saxophone playing to the mix. The work as a whole fails to duplicate the freshness of Mseleku's debut, but it proves that he is one of the few performers who can hold an audience with extended solo work. He's not as far out as Cecil Taylor nor as self-indulgent as Keith Jarrett; rather, he relies on the humble beauty of his music to carry listeners through his compositions. Mseleku does not read music, but he speaks its language with the tongue of an eloquent angel.--Linda Gruno

Yvonne Jackson
I'm Trouble
(Blues Beacon/Enja)

Because this first offering from Jackson, a virtually unknown blues vocalist, was recorded over four years ago, it's hard to know whether she's made any recent changes in her delivery and stylistic choices. One hopes so. Not that her work is bad: Her singing is clever and tight. But her voice doesn't have much weight to it--a shortcoming that's especially noticeable given the presence on I'm Trouble of some of the finest sidemen in the world, including Hammond B-3 wizard Lucky Peterson and the JB Horns (Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis). Even so, it's hard not to appreciate a woman smart enough to cover a tune called "Common Ordinary Housewife Gone Bad."--Gruno

The Skatalites
Hi-Bop Ska

It would have been a simple matter for Shanachie to round up some old tracks and issue a lackadaisical thirtieth-anniversary disc by this early ska group (which appears December 9 at the Ogden Theatre); there are enough rude boys and girls with spare change to have justified the investment. Instead, company heads took a shocking tack and released a creative, original and deeply satisfying recording filled with mainly new material. The impressive lineup of guest stars on this release includes reggae figures such as Toots and the Maytals and Prince Buster, but the most surprising and memorable cameos are by seminal jazz artists David Murray and Lester Bowie. The presence of the latter pair might seem incongruous at first, but only until you listen to their contributions. Murray's early composition "Flowers for Albert" (a tribute to Albert Ayler) is transformed into a rollicking, spontaneous reggae party, while the Bowie tune "Ska Reggae Hi-Bop," jammed with solos by the Art Ensemble of Chicago mainstay and Skatalites tenor saxophonist Tommy McCook, makes plain the influence of New Orleans R&B on the development of ska rhythms. While a few of the songs here are charming but minor (e.g., "Everlasting Sound"), the majority of Hi-Bop Ska suggests that the Skatalites' contributions to reggae may have been larger than most historians believe. And even if they weren't, their resurgent sound is a hell of a lot of fun.--Roberts


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