Steel cage match of grunge greats

Two of the most important acts of 1990s music released albums within a week's time in late September. Grunge survivor Pearl Jam put out "Backspacer" on Sept. 22 (or Sept. 20, if you count the iTunes release). Fellow Seattle scene pioneers Alice In Chains followed with "Black Gives Way to Blue" on Sept. 29. The confluence of events is too perfect to ignore; I feel obligated to pit the albums against one another in the octagonal cage that is my own headspace.

I've been a Pearl Jam fan since their debut album. "Ten" became a part of my life when I turned 16 on a snowy December night in 1993. My parents had pulled off the ever-tricky surprise birthday party by sending me to the city to pick out a rental movie of my choice. (When your birthday is two days before Christmas, you learn to have low expectations.) I got home to find nine of my friends scattered through the kitchen and living room. Standard surprise party so far.

Later, though, the proceedings became less forgettable. I grew up in rural northeast Kansas. The roads surrounding my parents' house are of the gravel-covered variety and, as such, are susceptible to variations in weather, especially the variations associated with winter. As my friends and I did whatever it is we were doing to celebrate my birthday, Mother Nature was changing the evening's plans with a coating of ice aimed at the roads of Jefferson County. My father decided that no one would leave his house. Result: five sophomore boys, five sophomore girls, and one coed slumber party.

It should be noted that my parents were not, and are not, the sorts of people to encourage teenaged debauchery. They are the sorts of people to discourage teenaged vehicular death. A trait they regretted sharing at 3 a.m. as they listened to us play "Never Have I Ever" in the basement.

It is a testament to my youthful innocence and ineptitude that my most vivid memory from a legendary 16th birthday party is my receipt of Pearl Jam's first album as a gift from my best friend. At the encouragement of the girl I'd spent middle school lusting for, I tore it open and skipped directly to "Black."

(And yes, the album had already been out two-plus years when I got it. I think we've established this: I was not cool.)

My relationship with Alice in Chains was slower to develop. When I was in high school, Layne Staley's wailings seemed too dark and frightening. It was when I got to college that I realized that his problems and mine were the same. Or so I thought. I understand now that I was being melodramatic. In retrospect, it's obvious that his problems were significantly more serious than my struggles with class, basketball and Midwestern girls.

Eventually, I developed a strong affection for Alice in Chains. I maintain that "Would?" is one of the best rock songs any of us will ever hear, and few bands -- rock, grunge or otherwise -- have the range to pull off a masterpiece like the seven-song "Jar Of Flies."

Thus, it was with some excitement that I waited for the end of this September. Admittedly, most of my enthusiasm was reserved for the Pearl Jam record -- I assumed that an Alice In Chains without its lead singer would be a neutered Alice In Chains. (For the uninitiated, Staley overdosed and died in 2002.) But I was intrigued to hear what neutered Alice in Chains would sound like.

And now, after multiple listens to the latest efforts from both bands, and after much mental hand-wringing, I'm ready to deliver my verdict. There won't be any "Round 1 goes to Pearl Jam, Round 2 to AIC." Nor will there be a pros and cons column. Nor will there be any other of the sports-related metaphors you might expect from a sports Web site.

Instead, I'm simply going to state my opinion, explain why it is such, and then wait for the angry e-mail from the guy who stopped reading as soon as he read something different from his perspective.

"Backspacer" is a tolerable album that should be something of a disappointment to longtime Pearl Jam fans. It consists of four or five very good songs surrounded by several clunkers. On the other hand, "Black Gives Way to Blue" is shockingly good and, while it misses on one or two ballads (notably the title track), it feels more cohesive and, I think, works more effectively as a continuous listen.

The winner: Alice in Chains.

It might be tempting to think that I am taking the contrarian opinion just for the sake of doing so. (Most critics give the edge to Pearl Jam.) But I have long championed Pearl Jam, even as others deserted them. I thought the band pushed itself to new, experimental heights with 2002's "Riot Act," and will always defend 1998's "Yield" to anyone who will listen. (In addition to loving just about everything else Eddie Vedder and Co. have done.)

But I would contend that the band missed on this try. That's not to say they missed with everything -- some of the darts they threw hit the intended target. The now-ubiquitous single, "The Fixer," is a fantastically joyous song that had me even more excited about the album's release than I already was. Other tracks, including "Just Breathe" and "Unknown Thought," make me think there's still hope for Pearl Jam.

Many of the other songs, however, don't work for me. As for why this is, well, I have a few thoughts. (Obviously.)

In 1991, Metallica released their "Black Album." I loved it. They've released other records since, and I haven't liked any of them. I've decided that this is the case because sometime after 1991 James Hetfield decided that he was a singer. As a result, Metallica forgot they were a guitar-driven rock band. Perhaps Hetfield's ego exploded, or maybe the band ran out of ideas. Whatever the reason, Metallica the band couldn't remember that songs such as "Enter Sandman" and "Sad But True" were built slowly and that they were built mostly around the musicality of the band, not around the vocal stylings of the lead singer.

The difference between 1991 Pearl Jam and 2009 Pearl Jam parallels the difference in the two Metallicas. In the song "Black" from "Ten," 31 seconds elapse before Eddie Vedder starts singing. "Jeremy" is given 22 seconds to mature before Vedder crashes the party. For "Why Go," it's 30 seconds. In the epic "Once," 57 seconds go by before Vedder is given the reins.

On "Backspacer," the longest intro is 19 seconds on "Force of Nature."

It should be noted, of course, that several songs on "Ten" have short introductions: 15 seconds for "Garden" and the intro-less "Oceans" and "Porch." And, it is important to consider that "Backspacer" is Pearl Jam's shortest album. Shorter songs might indicate brief build ups.

In addition, there is nothing written that great rock songs are required to have lengthy guitar intros or buildups. Great bands have written great songs without either.

However, it seems to me that Pearl Jam has collectively forgotten what made them great.

Conversely, Alice in Chains appears to be doing everything right. Choosing neither to imitate nor to abandon its former self, the band has struck the right balance between its past and its future. The sound on "Black Gives Way to Blue" reminds me of everything I always liked about the old Alice in Chains, while adding dimensions that make me hope that I'll hear more from the new.

As I've considered the two albums, the following stays with me: It has felt like work to listen to "Backspacer," while I've had to prevent myself from listening to "Black Gives Way" because I didn't want to ruin the album by overplaying it. One song in particular has stood out. Called "Private Hell," it's the 10th song on the Alice in Chains record. I think it's beautiful. Even if you're not an Alice in Chains fan, even if you're not a rock 'n' roll fan, even if you're not a music fan, give it a listen.

(The lala.com link is here.)

Alice In Chains won this version of the Seattle showdown. But I'm certainly not ready to give up on Pearl Jam. "Backspacer" may not be perfect for me, but many people will like it. I won't argue too vehemently with those people about the album's merits; Pearl Jam and I have been through a lot since that icy December night. My only hope is that both bands will be around to give us another coincidental release month. It certainly made my job easy.

And another thing …

While in New York dodging beautiful girls and homeless men who needed help with their wheelchairs, I found time to watch the Japanese band MONO at the Bowery Ballroom. I was turned on to MONO by old friends Sunn O))) and, after reading more about the group, had high expectations. I was not disappointed. Like Mogwai or Sigur Ros, MONO uses electric guitars (and other assorted instruments) to create bombastic soundscapes that reach a complexity usually reserved for classical music.

The concert experience was one of the best I've had this year.

I assumed that my excitement for the band would end there. Usually, acts like MONO struggle to reproduce their respective sounds in recorded form. But on their most recent album, at least, MONO has pulled it off.

Thus, MONO, in live and recorded form, gets an enthusiastic PSSOP. (Paul Shirley Stamp Of aPproval.)

Find their site here. If they're coming to your city, go watch them. If they aren't, buy "Hymn to the Immortal Wind," get a class of wine, close your eyes, and enjoy.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.