Album of the Week 26-2012: Pearl Jam – Riot Act

Seeing Pearl Jam live – and it was fantastic – last week was a great excuse to revisit their entire back catalog, which makes me want to break a lance for what is probably the most criminally underrated album of the Seattle band. To these ears, ‘Riot Act’ finally picks up where ‘Vitalogy’ left off. Not that ‘No Code’, ‘Yield’ and ‘Binaural’ were bad albums – especially the latter spots a few fantastic tracks – but the band seemed drifting and insecure. ‘Riot Act’ displays something of a reborn Pearl Jam. The album sounds confident and mature.

Much of the album’s power lies within the fact that the band doesn’t restrict itself to one approach. In a fashion almost reminiscent of Led Zeppelin, ‘Riot Act’ is in turns reflective and powerful, straightforward and experimental, folky and rocking. All in a way that it makes sense; nowhere does it sound like you’re listening to more than one album. Part of that is the dry, almost rootsy sound that Adam Kasper and Brendan O’Brien gave the album. Very raw and in your face, but polished nonetheless.

Though the album went by largely unnoticed by mainstream Rock audiences at the time, the album still spawned a few classics among Pearl Jam’s fan base. ‘Love Boat Captain’ – which can be seen as the beginning of the collaboration with longtime Hammond and keyboard player Boom Gaspar – is a beautiful, moody Rock song in which the victims of the drama during the band’s 2000 Roskilde performance are commemorated, ‘I Am Mine’ is a subdued track in which Eddie Vedder’s spine chilling baritone is used to maximum effect and the acoustic guitar driven ‘Thumbing My Way’ is one of the band’s best ballads. The somewhat bluesy ‘1/2 Full’ became somewhat of a live classic as well.

But that’s not all there is. This is actually one of the most consistent albums Pearl Jam released. Matt Cameron proves his value to the band by not only being one of the planet’s best Rock drummers, but also by contributing three tracks, all of which are amazing Rock songs and one of which – the slightly psychedelic ‘You Are’, which also features Cameron on rhythm guitar – is one of the best songs the band ever recorded. The hard driving ‘Save You’ displays a full-band dynamic and energetic Rock ‘n’ Roll attitude that was missing from albums like ‘No Code’ and ‘Ghost’ also rocks along nicely. Closing track ‘All Or None’ is a moody and moving ballad. In fact, there’s not one bad song in the bunch. Only ‘Bu$hleager’ is skipworthy. There’s a few good riffs in the song, but ultimately, it’s a better protest than it is a song.

While ‘Riot Act’ isn’t Pearl Jam’s best album – the timeless classic ‘Ten’ is, of course – it is the only rightful follow-up to ‘Vitalogy’. And though ‘Riot Act’ may not be as crazily experimental as that album was – Vedder’s goosebumps guaranteed multi-layered vocal solo track ‘Arc’ isn’t exactly ‘Bugs’, ‘Satan’s Bed’ or ‘Stupid Mop’ – it is the ultimate proof of Pearl Jam finding their mojo back and maturing along the way. Those who ignored the album when it came out would do themselves a favor giving it another chance.

Recommended tracks: ‘You Are’, ‘Save You’, ‘Love Boat Captain’, ‘Thumbing My Way’, ‘Ghost’, ‘Get Right’

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