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Two Grunge Giants Release New Records

In this era of 30-second careers, what does it mean to persevere in rock? Back after an extended absence is Alice in Chains, with an attempt at reinvention called Black Gives Way to Blue. Meanwhile, there's also Backspacer, the first record in three years from Pearl Jam, which is trying to maintain the modern-rock dominance it has enjoyed for nearly two decades.

Few bands have been as steady as Pearl Jam. Every year or two, the Seattle quintet brings out new music — this is its 12th studio album. And, like the others, it's built to strict specifications. It's got heavy, heaving rhythms and guitars that churn up a mighty storm behind the semi-tortured vocalist Eddie Vedder.

What it doesn't have is much new inspiration. Backspacer is full of backward glances — at times Vedder comes across as obsessed with long-gone innocence, and the band seems eager to rekindle the righteous fury that defined its earlier works. The effort is audible. It's as though the years of grinding it out on the rock treadmill have brought on a deep fatigue, and the best these guys can do is emulate what they once did.

Liberated

Then there's Alice in Chains. Nobody expected to ever hear from those guys again, after the 2002 drug-overdose death of lead singer Layne Staley. Guitarist, singer and songwriter Jerry Cantrell continued to write, and with help from new vocalist William DuVall, has created an unexpectedly vibrant update of the band's sound.

The sludgy, pile-driving backbeats and other Alice in Chains basics remain in place. But from the first song, there are clues that the band recognizes it can't lean entirely on what worked before. The first song contains the line, "There's no going back to the place we started from."

Cantrell and his cohorts practically had to experiment, under the circumstances. Check out the title track, which finds Cantrell paying homage to Staley, backed by none other than Sir Elton John on piano.

Usually, when a successful band returns after a long break, it worries about expectations. That's what's striking about these albums. Pearl Jam is the one that sounds desperate to give fans exactly what they've come to expect, while Alice in Chains sounds considerably more liberated. It's exploring and stretching in ways that might not have been possible had its members followed Pearl Jam's career path.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Two bands at the center of the Seattle grunge scene in the early 1990s are out with new CDs: Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam. Our reviewer Tom Moon says that almost two decades later, the bands are in very different creative places.

TOM MOON: Here are two takes on how to persevere in contemporary rock. Alice in Chains is back after an extended absence with a comeback attempt called "Black Gives Way to Blue." There's also "Backspacer" from Pearl Jam, which is trying to maintain the modern-rock dominance it has enjoyed for nearly two decades.

(Soundbite of music)

PEARL JAM: (Singing) When something's (unintelligible), let me shed a little light on it. When something's ...

MOON: Not too many rock bands have been as steady as Pearl Jam. Every few years, the Seattle five-piece brings out new music. This is its ninth studio album and like the others, it's built to strict specifications. It's got heavy and heaving rhythms behind semi-tortured vocalist Eddie Vedder.

(Soundbite of music)

PEARL JAM: (Singing) Oh, put a little sign on it. When something's gone, I want to fight to get it back again. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Fight to get it back again, yeah, yeah...

MOON: What it doesn't have, apart from that super-charged first single, is much in the way of new inspiration. "Backspacer" is full of backward glances. The lyrics dwell on long-gone innocence, while the music finds Pearl Jam attempting to rekindle the righteous fury that defined its early works.

The effort is audible. It's as though the years of grinding it out on the rock treadmill have brought on a deep fatigue, and the best these guys can do is approximate what they once did well.

(Soundbite of music)

PEARL JAM: (Singing) Do you wanna hurt something inside? We are all victims of desire...

MOON: Then there's Alice in Chains. After the 2002 drug overdose of lead singer Layne Staley, nobody expected to ever hear from these guys again. But the guitarist, singer and songwriter Jerry Cantrell continued to write, and with help from new vocalist William DuVall, has created an unexpectedly vibrant expansion of the band's sound.

(Soundbite of music)

ALICE IN CHAINS: (Singing) Oh, a new beginning.

MOON: The sludgy, pile-driving backbeats and other Alice in Chains basics are still in place, but there are clues that the band recognizes it can't lean entirely on what worked before. The first song contains the line: There's no going back to the place we started from.

(Soundbite of music)

ALICE IN CHAINS: (Singing) There's no going back to the place we started from.

MOON: The new record features lush strings, exotic Eastern textures, and bracingly lovely vocal harmonies. There's a tribute to the late Layne Staley with piano from none other than Sir Elton John.

(Soundbite of music)

ALICE IN CHAINS: (Singing) Curtains drawn now, it's done. Silencing all tomorrows, forcing a goodbye...

MOON: Usually, when a once-successful band returns after a long break, it's worried about expectations. That's what's striking about these albums. Pearl Jam is the one that sounds desperate to give fans exactly what they've come to expect, and Alice in Chains sounds positively liberated. They're exploring and stretching in ways that might not have been possible without that long hiatus.

BLOCK: Our critic is Tom Moon. He reviewed the CDs "Backspacer" from Pearl Jam, and "Black Gives Way to Blue" from Alice in Chains.

(Soundbite of music)

ALICE IN CHAINS: (Singing) Time to change has come and gone... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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