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Pearl Jam keep the faith on "Yield."

By Matt Ashare

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  Pearl Jam may be the first commercially thriving band in the history of rock ever to have engaged in a prolonged concerted effort to become less popular. Plenty of artists have unwittingly achieved the same effect with stunning ease -- the Gin Blossoms, Spin Doctors, and Seven Mary Three are some recent examples. Others, like Neil Young and Lou Reed, may enjoy taking calculated risks by putting out challenging albums with a limited appeal from time to time. But for Pearl Jam, a band whose enormously popular first album was a crucial landmark in the triumph of alternative rock, bucking success has been a monumental and near-continuous five-year struggle -- a struggle that has at times taken on Sisyphean dimensions for the group's surfer-turned-singer, Eddie Vedder.

Vedder sailed into the limelight with remarkable ease back in '92, and he's been struggling ever since to push his band back onto some hard-to-reach ridge overlooking the mythical American mainstream. Till now it's been an uphill battle. As hard as they've tried to hold back -- by refusing to make videos, touring irregularly at best, avoiding interviews, and keeping the production on their CDs rough and raw -- Pearl Jam just can't help writing anthemic songs that bridge the lucrative gap between classic and alternative rock.

But with the new Yield, their fifth Epic album (in stores this Tuesday), Vedder and his crew may be settling into the first comfortable space, both commercially and artistically, they've occupied since "Jeremy" entered the MTV Buzz Bin. Not that Yield will immediately strike most fans as much of a departure from what the band have been doing since they eschewed the reverb-drenched grandeur of Ten on '93's Vs. (Epic). The formula is still aggressive chug-and-churn riff rock with the occasional unplugged acoustic respite, topped off with Vedder's earnest, deep-chested, soul-baring croon, and carefully produced (by Brendan O'Brien) to approximate the austere, rough-around-the-edges feel of a bunch of buddies bashing around a few tunes in an acoustically sound garage.

If this was retro five years ago, then it's a full-on anachronism in 1998. But that's what Pearl Jam have come to stand for: celebrating vinyl LPs (Vitalogy's "Spin the Black Circle"), reviving the brash rock operatics of the '70s Who, burning incense and candles on stage, and remembering the glory days of rock before video, digital sampling, and $100 concert tickets. As Vedder intones on the proud chorus of "Faithful," "We're faithful/We all believe in . . . a place that hasn't been stepped on is rare." More than ever, Vedder shares Bono's faith in activist rock -- "Soon the whole world will be different," he intones on the cryptic "Brain of J.," and against the dirty wah-wah-choked guitars of "No Way" he chants "I stopped trying to make a difference" in a voice that suggests he'll never actually stop trying. But it's the ability of bassist Jeff Ament and guitarists Mike McCready and Stone Gossard to avoid contemporary active-rock clichés (i.e., the turgid Stone Temple Pilotisms of Days of the New) in favor of deep, elasticky grooves that lends weight to Vedder's ruminations and gives the singer the psychic space he needs to bare his soul in songs like the power ballad "In Hiding."

So there really hasn't been much change in what Pearl Jam do, but Yield seems to reflect a difference in the band's -- or at least in Vedder's -- attitude about doing it. Back when Ten exploded, there was much written and said about Pearl Jam's lack of authenticity, about riding Nirvana's coattails, about Seattle hype. And some of those words must have stung. Vedder, in particular, abandoned the openness of Ten tunes like "Black" and "Alive," turning inward and even a bit surly on the discs that followed, tightening his voice into a defensively flexed muscle, making music that felt more like a hair shirt than second-hand flannel. Yield has its share of the kind of punk-inspired discord that's never suited Pearl Jam terribly well, but less of it than on the last three discs. Vedder and the rest of the band are reaching out again, letting more melody creep in around the jagged guitars, not straining quite so hard to be difficult or challenging in ways that never seemed natural for Pearl Jam, because Pearl Jam aren't Fugazi or Sonic Youth or Nirvana.

Yield couldn't have come a better time. Last year the pop of Hanson, the Spice Girls, Celine, and Mariah, along with Puff Daddy's hip-hop and the cosmopolitan country of Garth, Shania, and LeAnn, just about froze alternative guitar rock out of the Top 10 positions on Billboard's album sales charts. Labels are thinking twice before signing new alternative-rock acts. No, Pearl Jam are never going to be the kind of "underground" band Vedder may idolize. But having challenged the monolithic Ticketmaster and lost, the band are closer than ever before to being the next best thing -- underdogs. Suddenly a new Pearl Jam CD doesn't seem like such a sure thing. And that could be the best thing that's ever happened to the band.

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