Pearl Jam

The amount of ink spilled over Yield by our friends at daily newspapers across the country suggests that mainstream pop scribes view it as the most awaited disc of the season, but I see little evidence of that. A lot of people with whom I've spoken about the CD don't give shit one about Pearl Jam anymore, and many others harbor a level of interest that can't exactly be characterized as intense. It's not difficult to figure out why. The band's various campaigns--against commercialism and Ticketmaster service charges, to cite only two--have resulted in no videos, little touring and a sense that the players are more dedicated to establishing their seriousness than to making good music. Yield isn't a complete rejection of this approach; Eddie Vedder and company still seem afraid that they'll go down in music history as (to paraphrase the late Kurt Cobain) the Nineties version of Bad Company. But depending upon which Pearl Jam, if any, you dug in the first place, you'll probably find something to like here. Folks who view change with wariness will gravitate toward the down-tempo stuff such as "Wishlist" and "In Hiding," in which Vedder does his Alan-Alda-in-flannel routine, and "Given to Fly," a single that's every bit as musically innovative as Dan Akyroyd's work in Blues Brothers 2000. (Much has been made about how "Fly" rips off Led Zeppelin, but the tune lifts from U2 and Neil Young as well.) As for me, I found most tolerable those cuts on which the group actually loosens up a bit. Especially of note are the three penned in whole or in part by guitarist Stone Gossard: "No Way," whose lyric ("Stop trying to make a difference...") actually dabbles in irony; "Do the Evolution," a sloppy rocker with words by Vedder that come within spitting distance of humor ("I am ahead/I am advanced/I am the first mammal to wear pants"); and "All Those Yesterdays," featuring a melody built around one decent pop hook after another. In the end, of course, Yield doesn't add up to much; of the untold thousands of rock albums released over the decades, this is simply another one. But since Pearl Jam was never that groundbreaking of a group in the first place, that's appropriate. These musicians may want to save the world, but first they'd better focus on saving their careers.

--Michael Roberts

Various Artists
Amazing Grace 2: A Country Salute to Gospel

The first Amazing Grace was obviously successful enough to inspire a second one, but the middling quality of this latest offering suggests that the spirit of soulful music has forsaken today's C&W superstars. It's difficult to goof up "The Old Rugged Cross," "Jesus Loves Me" and the other gospel standards in this aural hymnal, but artists such as Billy Ray Cyrus, Ricky Van Shelton and Gary Chapman manage to do so by singing as if they're thinking more about a football game they're missing than the sermon at hand. Slightly better is "Just a Little Talk With Jesus," which Charlie Daniels rocks up to a dance-floor tempo, but in the end, the driving beat and his trademark drawl do little more than waste time. Lari White, on the other hand, uses a talented back-up choir to lift "There Is Power in the Blood" to passable status, and her voice even manages to break out of the tight reins of a slick production approach for a few moments toward the track's end. But Bela Fleck has made what is arguably the dullest "Amazing Grace" in history. Such tunes don't need banjo tricks to make them worthwhile. Witness the version of "Grace" by Tammy Rogers and Don Heffington on a quieter, more satisfying salute to country-gospel music, 1995's In the Red, on Dead Reckoning Records; on it, a fiddle bow scrapes the melody ever so delicately across the strings. The song's power lies in its simplicity, which is something the Nashville superstars here seem to have misunderstood.

--Jack Jackson

Billy MacKenzie
Beyond the Sun

Scotland's Billy MacKenzie was one of the most exceptional vocalists in contemporary pop music, with a deep, inspirational range that made him sound like an opera-influenced balladeer one minute, a new-wave oddity the next. However, this acclaimed figure from the new romantic movement never truly received his due. His record sales peaked with 1981's Sulk, a long-player put out by his former band, the Associates, and although he was championed by members of today's electronica elite (Barry Adamson and Apollo 440 both used the singer on their latest releases, and San Francisco DJs Jondi & Splesh mixed his cover of Donna Summer's "Love Hangover" into their most recent CD), he remained disappointed that he had not achieved wider success. His despondency may explain in part why this male diva with golden pipes killed himself a year ago at age 39--but at least he left something behind. Beyond the Sun, mostly produced by Simon Raymonde (Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil), is a poignant artifact: It resonates with the pathos of a brilliant singer confined within the boundaries of a failed career. The swan song's opening track, "Give Me Time," is a bass-line-heavy spy-guitar number that squeezes MacKenzie's soaring vocal between overdubs that are both scratchy and complementary. Later, on "Winter Academy," "And This She Knows" and "Nocturne VII," Raymonde juxtaposes MacKenzie's radiant voice with echoing acoustic piano and guitar. By contrast, "14 Mirrors" is a Doors-like rock shuffle that leads nicely into the masterpiece of the set, "At the Edge of the World." Produced by Alan Rankine, MacKenzie's estranged Associates bandmate, the latter features dub-heavy bass and treated xylophones that conjure up a submarine twilight, while MacKenzie's lyrics ponder what lies beyond life--a theme to which he returns frequently on the CD. Unfortunately, MacKenzie stumbles on two electronic efforts--"Sour Jewel," which lives up (or down) to its name, and "3 Gypsies in a Restaurant," a decent song that suffers from a terrible Euro-beat mix--and keyboardist/co-writer Steve Aungle's contributions won't make you forget past MacKenzie collaborators, such as the Orb's Thomas Fehlman and Yello's Boris Blank. But in the end, Beyond the Sun emerges as a fitting sendoff for a great talent--one of the few singers who understood the vocal arts in an age when anyone with a good producer can make the grade.

--Kelly Lemieux


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