After taking on Ticketmaster, surviving the suicide of fellow Seattle musician Kurt Cobain and losing drummer Dave Abbruzzese, Pearl Jam went in a new direction - to vinyl.

In late November, the band, including Abbruzzese, released "Vitalogy" on vinyl - you know, the old black platters. A single, "Spin the Black Circle," was also released, as the band's tribute to the grooved wafer. The CD version of the album was subsequently released Dec. 6.The vinyl release wasn't merely a publicity stunt - it was another public declaration of independence.

Ever since Pearl Jam and vocalist Eddie Vedder hit the scene in 1991, the band has repeatedly gone against the norms of the business, with no real singles or videos to promote "Vs." and no press interviews.

Often, as a result, no one really knows what the band is up to. "Ten" created a broad fan base and "Vs." maintained the momentum by keeping the alternative fans happy. "Vitalogy" will undoubtedly keep both audiences smiling, though the album is edgy and focuses more on social issues.

Abortion, music business bureaucracy and marital boredom are a few of the topics the band slaps around. The album is packed in an old-fashioned biology booklet filled with texts about death, dreams and disease that quickly catch a dreary theme.

"Last Exit" and "Spin the Black Circle" are full of scratchy guitars and screaming feedback. "Better Man," a story of a woman who settles for a loser husband rather than what she wants, sits on an intricate arrangement of acoustic and electric guitars.

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"Bugs" talks about Pearl Jam's discontent with music business gurus, while the closing piece, "Stupid Mop," is nothing but amoeba-like feedback backing a boy's voice telling his therapist how much more meaningful a spanking is compared to a hug. As the song goes on, the boy eventually speaks of suicide.

While some may feel "Stupid Mop" borders on exploitation, it's an effective scare tactic bashing child abuse.

This album is totally Pearl Jam - the way it's supposed to be. Too bad tensions within the band led to Abbruzzese's sayonara.

RATINGS: four stars (* * * * ), excellent; three stars (* * * ), good; two stars (* * ), fair; one star (* ), poor, with 1/2 representing a higher, intermediate grade.

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