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Music CD Recommendations

Spotlight on: Riot Act by Pearl Jam
Alternate: Red Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson

Cover image/photo of Riot Act by Pearl Jam

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Pearl Jam, Riot Act

Pearl Jam has always held a high place in my esteem. From the release of Ten to Vitalogy, I was right there all the way. However, No Code threw me for a bit of a loop so I didn't buy Yield when it came out (and therefore, I also don't own Binaural).

But I was paying attention to them the whole time. I was one of the big fans of "Last Kiss" (from No Boundaries: A Benefit for the Kosovar Refugees) when it came out and--although the film I Am Sam seemed to me to be Sean Penn prostituting himself for an Oscar--I also enjoyed Eddie Vedder's version of The Beatles classic "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" from the soundtrack. My favorite Pearl Jam song, however, is "Long Road," which I first heard on the Merkin Ball single put out as a companion to Neil Young's Mirror Ball (on which the band backed Young). Needless to say, I was glad that it was that song Eddie and Neil performed on the America: A Tribute to Heroes television special.

Most interestingly, though, I missed the acquisition of former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron into the fold. (Soundgarden's Superunknown is one of my favorite albums.) I always admired Cameron's work with Soundgarden and was definitely intrigued by his inclusion into Pearl Jam. I only wish I had found out sooner.

I didn't find this out until Riot Act got into my greedy little hands just before Christmas 2002. On hearing the single "I Am Mine," with its Beatlesque lyrics and R.E.M.-tinged chorus, I was very intrigued. I assumed that the song was yet another cover of an unknown classic rock song. Imagine how surprised I was to find that Eddie had written it on his own.

What have I been missing? Riot Act is the epitome of the Pearl Jam I had grown to love and admire, and that I thought I had lost out on when they began incorporating other influences into their music.

They've truly gone back to the basics on this one. From the first drum beats of "Can't Keep," I was taken back to the days of Vs. and Vitalogy. But, most of all, this is simply a straightforward rock album, with the band as good as they've ever been. Working together for all this time has really made them into a cohesive unit. Not any one personality dominates the songs. And Vedder's musicianship and lyricism has only matured.

So, I call out to all those who had left their Pearl Jam on the side of the road. They're back, friends. Come back into the fold and reembrace the band that is Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, Mike McCready, Matt Cameron, and Eddie Vedder, but in totality is simply Pearl Jam.

Alternate Recommendation: Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger

It takes so many words just to describe Red Headed Stranger, how can I give it justice in a review? I suppose to start with saying that music rarely elicits emotion from me. I tend to decide what I like merely by how something sounds on the surface, and with today's music, there isn't much else to go on. Well, on Red Headed Stranger, there is plenty of inherent emotion in every note.

The title song always pains me to hear, especially the moment that the rest of the song foreshadows so well. And when "they dance with smiles on their faces" in "Denver," I want to burst with happiness for our hero. "Hands on the Wheel" is one of the most beautiful love songs I have ever heard.

This story of betrayal, murder, and redemption through re-found love is full of nuance and little touches that are perfect. Willie Nelson uses his voice as another instrument, never taking center stage but always blending in with the minimal guitar and backing, finally letting the piano express its pure joy on "Down Yonder."

These songs, almost all of which were written by different people, come together in an amazingly cohesive package. These choices show an inherent knowledge of storytelling--with its peaks and valleys--that carries throughout the arrangement of the album.

This is one of the great concept albums, and one of the great albums in general, of all time. It belongs in any music fan's library. I am not a country music fan, but I love what has been done with this album. It is a tight, well-told story, told in an inimitable fashion.

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