Pearl Jam - Live On Two Legs

YOU MIGHT EXPLAIN IT TO A hermit as being the sound of a man gargling treacle while gale-force winds tear through three decades of sound. But to make him understand why it was good would be a more trying task.

You could start with the seasoned, elemental howl that Eddie Vedder calls a voice; how it sounds so saturated with maleness and emotion. You could reflect on how that earthy simplicity infuses every note of Pearl Jam's music. Talk about how that music is as tough as old boots, but grained as intricately as mahogany. But ultimately, it would be easier just to lug a micro-CD system up to his hovel and slap on this record, because it makes all explanations superfluous.

'Live On Two Legs' is the sound of one of the biggest bands in the world going to work. It's that straightforward - almost to the point of torpor: a live compendium of Pearl Jam tracks from the last four albums (plus a token 'Even Flow') with added cheering, soloing and messy outro flourishes. No alarms, no surprises: it's even got the requisite Neil Young cover version (in this case, 'Fuckin' Up') bringing up the rear.

But why is such a predictable record such a good thing? For a start, it's this very straightforwardness that lets Pearl Jam get away with making a 16-track double live album in 1998. For, almost uniquely in the pantheon of late-'90s major league alt rock, Pearl Jam play unfussy, heartland guitar music at once engagingly simple to the ears and intriguingly complex to the heart. It's utterly devoid of the electronic fripperies of their peers - The Smashing Pumpkins and Garbage chief among them. So if any band can wring as much truth from their music live, it's Pearl Jam.

In keeping with their contrariness (their fame allergy, their refusal to toe various industry lines) the 'LOTL' track selection is low on hit singles. But it's high on pure seismology: all the molten viscera of rock is here. So we get the anthemic likes of 'Given To Fly': sky-sized guitar crescendos arching over ecstatic fandom, Led Zeppelin and Neil Young reinvented in every churn'n'drang (U2 as well, if we're being honest).

Alongside the squalls of 'Go' and 'Red Mosquito', though, it's the exception rather than the rule: grunge touchstones like 'Alive' are conspicuous by their absence. But Pearl Jam's centre of gravity - and the bulk of 'Live On Two Legs' - lies in the gruff balladry that sees them nudging up to REM. 'Better Man' provokes a singalong; while 'Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town' sways with restrained feeling.

So even if nothing unexpected transpires during the 70-odd minutes of its duration, this album is far from uneventful. It charts the evolution of a band from a bunch of grunge laughing stocks to pillars of the alt rock community. It's the sound of a band at ease with themselves. But most of all there are a bunch of great rock songs on it.

That much, surely, anyone can understand. 7/10

Kitty Empire