Roll credits for Basic Teen Romance, plot Number Four. The camera tracks across a suburban landscape toward Little Ms. Rockfan. She’s being courted by two characters, each working his own kind of sensitive-guy behavior.
Out in the parking lot is Prospect Number One, a scruffy, leather-jacketed misfit, shy but stubborn, with a tendency to brood over everything from romance to the World Trade Organization. He mumbles and hangs out with his buddies, embarrassed when he gets too much attention on his own, and he looks a lot like Eddie Vedder.
Prospect Number Two, striding through the cafeteria, could be a clean-cut student-council candidate on the stump: overachieving, glad-handing, eager to please. He’s surprisingly savvy about other people’s feelings, and he can usually mouth the right words. But a touch of smarmy self-interest always seems to lurk just under the surface. He’s a dead ringer for Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty. The movie’s pressing question: Who will take Ms. Rockfan to the prom? . . .
Back in the 1990s, Pearl Jam and Matchbox Twenty both won mass audiences with the aura of earnestness they share. They arrived from decidedly different angles. Pearl Jam had pulled together survivors from Seattle underground bands, and they reached the Top Ten almost grudgingly, always worrying about their integrity. Meanwhile, their music spawned so many imitations that it became hard to hear the heartfelt, wayward intensity of the original.
Matchbox Twenty, by contrast, were late-breaking, avidly commercial followers of 1990s folk-rock bands like Counting Crows and Hootie and the Blowfish. Formed in Orlando around longtime band mates Thomas, bassist Brian Yale and drummer Paul Doucette, the group had been together for a matter of months when it made its 1996 debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, which has now sold more than 10 million copies. Between Matchbox albums, Thomas co-wrote and sang Santana’s blockbuster radio comeback, “Smooth,” and collected a Song of the Year Grammy.
For all their disparities, Pearl Jam and Matchbox Twenty have ended up behind the same pop curve. Sincere-sounding guys leading guitar-driven bands have been upstaged by other testosteronic life-forms: the ultramacho boors of rap metal and gangsta rap, and the simpering, animatronic pinups of boy bands. They’ve reacted to the new circumstances in diametrically opposed ways.
Pearl Jam sound relieved to be on the sidelines. On Binaural, the band hunkers down in the sonic basement with producer Tchad Blake. A Latin Playboys member who has produced Soul Coughing and Bonnie Raitt, Blake is a proponent of binaural recording, which places two microphones where your ears would be; he’d rather have spontaneity than polish. By contrast, Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty sits up and begs for a chance to grapple with songs, advertisements and engine noise on a Top Forty radio playlist.
Binaural makes no attempt to ingratiate itself. It comes across as part of an extended conversation among the five band members — all of whom participate in songwriting, including new drummer Matt Cameron from Soundgarden — and fans loyal enough to check in for Pearl Jam’s latest musings on love, death and social responsibility. Binaural is a warts-and-all album; it has grabbers, songs that sink in slowly and a few absolute duds (e.g., “Light Years”). Apparently as tired of grunge as everyone except Creed fans, Pearl Jam delve elsewhere: jumpy post-punk and somber meditations, tightly wound folk rock and turbulent, neopsychedelic rockers that sound like they boiled out of jam sessions. The album reflects both Pearl Jam’s longstanding curse of self-importance and a renewed willingness to be experimental or just plain odd. Vedder sings “Soon Forget,” a bouncy parable about materialism, backed by nothing but a ukulele.
Pearl Jam still worry about the meaning of life. “Time to take heed and change direction,” Vedder insists in “Evacuation,” going on to shout the title amid meter shifts composed by Cameron. He howls his disgust with the World Trade Organization in “Grievance” over riffs that keep changing, and he worries about war amid the twining guitar lines of “Insignificance.” Vedder isn’t afraid to sound scratchy, quavery, sleepless, desperate; his voice is plunged into the band, not accompanied by it.
Binaural doesn’t try to be a big statement or any kind of last word, just the latest batch of obsessions from a band that’s still restless. Whether or not Ms. Rockfan hops on for the ride, Pearl Jam are going their own way.
Matchbox Twenty come on stronger. On their first album, they were nobodies with a gift for folk-rock hooks and songs that veered uncomfortably close to darker impulses, like the not-for-wife-beaters hit “Push.” Now, with a position to protect, the band goes over the top. Every song on Mad Season is a production mini-epic. Thomas sings about loneliness and painful breakups, but amid string orchestras, horn sections, layered guitars, electronic effects and backup vocal chorales, he’s never alone.
Under the haywire production are crafty songs. Thomas has the pop gift for recombinant larceny: alternating Heart’s “Magic Man” guitar with a Santana undercurrent in “Bent,” grafting late Beatles to Hootie in “Mad Season.” But when the crescendos surge and the keyboards chime, he starts to sound as unctuous as 1970s cheeseballs from Lobo to Jim Croce to the Guess Who’s Burton Cummings. Songs that probably seemed vulnerable as demos have turned greedily narcissistic. Ms. Rockfan might have second thoughts when Thomas belts, “I need you now/Do you think you can cope?”
. . . As prom time approaches, Ms. Rockfan can’t decide between Matchbox Twenty’s relentless entreaties and Pearl Jam’s intriguing diffidence. So she goes with Sisqo, who promises a straightforward good time and no angst. For one thing, he knows how to dance.