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Pearl Jam: Backspacer (Monkeywrench) 

With Pearl Jam experiencing a renaissance of late—aided by 2006's eponymous return to form and a well-deserved live reputation—the group is moving forward with its loosest album to date; at 36 minutes, Backspacer is certainly the group's shortest effort. A renewed working relationship with producer Brendan O'Brien (back for the first time since 1998's Yield) and the album's status as the group's first independent release (on their own Monkeywrench Records) add to Backspacer's rugged charm.

The album blazes through its opening trio, establishing a tone: "Gonna See My Friend" is the skuzzy bastard child of the Ramones and early Who; "Got Some" thrills with squeaky guitars and commanding drum flourishes; and "The Fixer" is quintessential Pearl Jam, soaring on Eddie Vedder's visceral growl and wide guitar hooks.

Occasionally, O'Brien's additions are bothersome. "Just Breathe" is a lovely tune with faint organ hums and gently plucked guitars, but its sweeping strings feel a bit overdone. Similarly, the slight closer "The End" also overreaches with its atmospheric embellishments to near-maudlin effect. Luckily, Vedder's lyrics still masterfully elicit human emotion.

As always, it's about the anthem with Pearl Jam. To that end, we have the exhilarating "Unthought Known." Starting with muted guitar strums and Vedder's tremulous singing, the song then incorporates plinking piano before bursting forth on a musical crescendo led by Vedder's guttural yelps.

Backspacer is most impressive for not making concessions: As it's been for nearly 20 years, it's a Pearl Jam album.

More by Michael Petitti

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