Elegies To A Monument: Smashing Pumpkins, Expectations, and the Trap of Nostalgia

monumentsLate last year the musical entity that is called Smashing Pumpkins released their latest album, Monuments to An Elegy. The Pumpkins were never really more than a band in name only. During their heyday the “band” consisted of guitarist/singer/songwriter Billy Corgan, drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, and guitarist James Iha, but that was really just the public perception. Smashing Pumpkins was always a mask for Billy Corgan’s musical ambitions and it’s the worst kept secret in alternative rock that their classic albums were written and performed almost entirely by Corgan and Chamberlain. D’Arcy and Iha were trotted out for live shows, and had the odd vocal or songwriting credit that furthered the illusion that this was more than a band in name only.

But Smashing Pumpkins is Billy Corgan. Now, even Jimmy Chamberlain is gone (as is his replacement, a 20-year-old prodigy named Mike Byrne), and his presence is sorely missed. Chamberlain is one of the greatest drummers who ever held a pair of sticks. He’s the Ginger Baker of alternative rock, a jazz drummer who plays rock with an intensity that can not be believed or duplicated. Unlike other great drummers like Dave Grohl or John Bonham, Chamberlain had swing. On Monuments to an Elegy the drumming is handled by former Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee who is as far removed from swing as he is from Pluto. Lee’s a basher, whose style fit his former band but who sounds woefully inept with Corgan’s more intricate music. Where Chamberlain added texture to his rock-solid beats with intricate, rapid-fire fills, Lee thuds with hands like hams. It’s as if he spent more time rehearsing his drumstick twirls than his paradiddles.

Lee’s iron-fisted drumming is not the only problem with Monuments. Hey Billy, 1985 called…they want their synthesizer sound back. The synthesizer sound on the album is atrocious. Corgan’s always been an unabashed fan of synth-bands like Depeche Mode, but here the sound is closer to the synth pop of the 80s. I recently saw the video for ABC’s “The Look of Love” and thought, “Same sound as the new Pumpkins record”.  The song “Run2Me” sounds as if the last thirty years never happened, with one of the most obnoxious synth riffs since “The Final Countdown” polluted the airwaves. Yes, there’s an ocean of guitars on Monuments to an Elegy, but they’re an undifferentiated mass. There are no riffs that truly stand out (like, say, Mellon Collie and the infinite Sadness‘s “Zero”) and there are no solos that burn the grooves off the vinyl (like, say, Gish‘s “I Am One”). This is a shame because Corgan is one of the greatest guitarists of the past thirty years.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t some good songs on the record. The first two, “Tiberius” and “Being Beige”, and the last song, “Anti-Hero” are very good. “Drum + Fife” captures some of the old Pumpkins vibe. “One and All” is excellent, and the only song that sounds like it could have fit on Mellon Collie. The rest of the album is a goop of uninteresting synth rock. Which begs the real question: whatever happened to the Smashing Pumpkins we knew and loved? Where’s the “Cherub Rock”, “Zero”, “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “Bury Me”? Hell, where’s “Ava Adore”? What happened to Billy Corgan?

The answer is unsettling. Nothing happened to him. Corgan is now twenty years older than the snarling, rage-filled, angst-ridden songwriter who spit out lines like “Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage” over a crushing musical background that made most heavy metal acts (like, say, Tommy Lee’s old outfit) sound like the Bay City Rollers. What happened to him is that he grew up, mellowed, and hopefully got a bit wiser. The music is still heavy, but the rage is gone. Corgan sings now, he doesn’t snarl. His melodies are poppy, almost upbeat. He’s writing love songs. Maybe he’s happy. I certainly hope he is.

The problem with this is the expectations. Corgan famously broke up the Pumpkins and formed a new band called Zwan, whose sound was closer to the more recent Pumpkins. When Zwan crashed and burned, he went solo while simultaneously saying he wanted his old band back. But he didn’t want Smashing Pumpkins back. He wanted the name. D’Arcy and James Iha were not invited to the reunion and the resulting album, Zeitgeist, was a noisy, headache-inducing affair. It was as if Corgan was telling his fans, “You didn’t like my synthesizer-driven solo album? You want guitars? Here. Have a billion of them.”

The Smashing Pumpkins is a brand name, and what fans expect from that brand is very different from what they are hearing in the 21st century. That’s really unfair, but it’s a result of nostalgia. People don’t mind when a band grows organically as the Beatles or R.E.M. did, but that’s not what happened here. Corgan made a huge show of getting the band back together but he kept the sound of his later projects. Pumpkins fans who had skipped Zwan and Corgan’s solo The Future Embrace were disoriented, and Monuments to An Elegy has already slipped into some cyber discount bin.

But is that Corgan’s fault? Yes, and no. What many of the fans of his band don’t realize is that even if it were still the original four members on the latest album it would still sound the same (except for the drums, which would be a billion times better). Because Corgan is the Pumpkins. Musically, lyrically, emotionally, psychologically…Monuments is where the guy is in 2015. What fans are expecting (and I’m as guilty as anyone, and maybe more guilty than most) is not the Smashing Pumpkins. They’re expecting to feel the same way they did the first time they heard Siamese Dream. There is almost nothing Billy Corgan can do at this stage of his career to appease the people who heard “Cherub Rock” on the radio and saw “1979” on MTV and who expected more of the same in 2014. So yes, it’s Corgan’s fault because of the hype he built up surrounding his reignition of the Smashing Pumpkins brand. He created a set of expectations for his new music without any sort of acknowledgement that his new music wouldn’t be the same. It’s possible he wasn’t even aware of the change because to him it was completely organic.

But no, it’s not Corgan’s fault. The Smashing Pumpkins are now, and always have been, Billy Corgan. They were his vessel. He’s grown up and matured. His attitudes have shifted and the music has shifted accordingly. That doesn’t mean it’s good, mind you. Monuments to an Elegy is a pretty lousy album no matter who did it. But it does mean that Corgan is writing the music he’s capable of writing at this point (which doesn’t mean he won’t write better music in the future). The fact that the fans expect something different is a trap. Corgan is trapped by expectations, and the fans are trapped by nostalgia. It is easier for Corgan to escape: as long as he likes his music, that’s all that truly matters. But the trap means he’ll probably never sell millions of records or sell out stadiums again.

It appears Corgan has seen the writing on the wall. A recent article in Rolling Stone finds the singer sounding as if he knows the end is near. A new album is projected for September, but after that? Only time will tell. Corgan is right to think about hanging up the band name and striking out on his own again. The Pumpkins were a band that was extremely popular (and great) twenty years ago. Today it’s just a monument to that band. The new album by William Corgan may not generate as much publicity or hype as a new album by the Smashing Pumpkins, but it’s far more likely to be accepted for what it is: the work of an artist still plying his trade.

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The Ten Greatest Christmas Rock Songs: #3. Christmastime

Another entry from the Very Special Christmas series, this one is by alternative rock superstars Smashing Pumpkins. Billy Corgan and company perfectly evokes the wonder of Christmas morning by looking at it from the perspective of parents watching their children and thinking back to their own childhoods. “Now the word is given/It’s time to peek inside/It’s time to let the toys out/So anxious for your look of joy and delight.” It’s almost impossible to believe that a lyric this tender and charming came from the same guy who wrote “Bullet With Butterfly Wings”, “Zero”, and the suicidal ruminations of “Today” but there was always so much more to Corgan than darkness and anger. He rarely gets the credit he deserves as a great songwriter but this song, which deserves to be a Christmas standard, should prove that there was a lot more to alternative rock than rage and angst.

The Listening Post: June/July 2012

Wrapping up nearly four years of commuting four hours a day.

  • Tin Can TrustLos Lobos. It’s been a very long time but Los Lobos—one of the greatest live bands in the world—has finally delivered a worthy followup to their 2002 gem Good Morning Aztlán. The fact is that the twenty years since their 1992 masterpiece Kiko has been pretty patchy. Colossal Head and This Time were hurt by uninspired songs and kitchen sink production. The Ride, an album containing duets with a number of other artists, was only partially successful. The Town And The City was better, but lacked a lot of the excitement and vigor that Los Lobos is more than capable of dishing out. But Tin Can Trust has it all. From the opening strum of acoustic guitar before it’s accompanied by a seemingly bottomless bass in “Burn It Down” the album leaps out of the speakers. It’s one of those rare albums that you know you’ll enjoy as soon as it starts. There are a couple of misfires: the jammy instrumental “Do The Murray” and the spacey “Jupiter Or The Moon” put a dent in your listening experience. Overall, though, these are exceptionally good songs. “Tin Can Trust” is a beautifully melancholy song about trying to make it in a bad economy, “All My Bridges Burning” features a great guitar solo and stunningly evocative vocal. Their version of “West L.A. Fadeaway” is yet more evidence that the Grateful Dead were better songwriters than performers. This version simply destroys the Dead’s original. Tin Can Trust also contains two extraordinary Spanish-language mariachi songs, proving that traditional Mexican music and rock ‘n’ roll can peacefully coexist when they’re played by a band that is this good. And at their best, Los Lobos is insanely good. Tin Can Trust falls a little short of albums like Kiko, The Neighborhood, and By The Light Of The Moon, but it’s still an extraordinary piece of work.
    Grade: A
  • Little FeatLittle Feat. The first album from California’s Little Feat is often overlooked even by fans of the band. That’s a shame, because it’s great. The second album, Sailin’ Shoes, had a little more weirdness to it, and a superior version of “Willin'” which makes its début on this album, so for most people it’s the second album that really begins the band because that was where their vision really started to take hold. But that’s not to say this album is devoid of that weirdness. Band leaders Lowell George and Roy Estrada were straight out of Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, one of the weirdest bands of all time. Just check out titles like the slide guitar workout “Snakes On Everything”, “Brides Of Jesus”, “Hamburger Midnight”, and the brief, irresistible album closer “Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie.” There’s also a failed cover of Howlin’ Wolf via Captain Beefheart in the rote blues “Forty Four Blues/How Many More Years.” Still, the Wolf cover is the only false note on the album. The album is blues, but it’s been run through the ringer and emerges as something skewed. It’s a band that’s close to achieving their own sound, but they’re not quite there yet. The difference is between the version of “Willin'” that appears here and the one that appears on the next album. In either version, it’s one of George’s best compositions. But while the Little Feat version is great, the Sailin’ Shoes version is the way the song is supposed to sound. Still, the album begins with two classic Feat songs (“Snakes On Everything” and the brilliant “Strawberry Flats”) and ends with a run of three songs that are as good as anything that came out of that California/Laurel Canyon scene (“Crack In Your Door”, “I’ve Been The One”, “Takin’ My Time”) before climaxing with the jaunty fun of “Crazy Captain Gunboat Willie.” Little Feat is very close to being a lost classic.
    Grade: A
  • PezbandPezband. Who? Yeah, good question. The surprise is not that there was once a band called Pezband. The surprise is that this, their début album from 1977, is so great. This is classic power pop. Hearing it in 2012 it’s almost impossible to remember a time when music like this was being pumped out of radios everywhere. As with most power pop bands they lack some of the power of the very best practitioners of the style, but they’ve got the pop down perfectly. The best power pop outfits (Badfinger, early Who, the Jam, Brendan Benson) combined the pop hooks and choruses of the Beatles with a thicker, heavier guitar sound. In so doing they created something different. It was reminiscent of the Beatles without sounding like the Beatles. It was harder-edged like the Rolling Stones, but more melodic. Pezband plays up the melodies and hooks while putting the heavy guitars into a background role, but unlike most of the second tier of power pop bands the heavy guitar does have a place. In fact, the final song “Close Your Eyes” ends with a wall of cascading drums and a truly ripping guitar solo. This was a band that could really play. This song, as well as “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “When I’m Down” are power pop on a Badfinger level. The rest of the album isn’t quite up to that very high standard, but only “Tracer” and “Gas Grill” slide into a more generic level. The rest of the album is full of well-written, punchy, hook-filled wannabe hit singles. What’s surprising about Pezband is that they didn’t become as well-known as their fellow Chicago brethren, Cheap Trick. Certainly the songs were there.
    Grade: A-
  • ColliderThe Sam Roberts Band. Say this for Canadian troubadour Sam Roberts: He’s consistent. Unfortunately that’s what makes this album difficult to review. There’s a lot of this album that’s good: “The Last Crusade”, “Without A Map”, “No Arrows”, “Longitude”, “Twist The Knife”, “Partition Blues”, “Tractor Beam Blues” are all solid songs that sound like almost every other Sam Roberts song. Truthfully, if Collider was my first exposure to Roberts I would probably think more highly of it. Some of these songs are really very good. But this is Roberts’s fourth album, and the songs are all starting to sound alike by this point. “Without A Map” is good, catchy, well-played. But it’s hard to differentiate it from songs off We Were Born In A Flame, Chemical City, and Love At The End Of The World. It’s just another Sam Roberts mid-tempo song, high on craftsmanship, low on inspiration. To be fair, there are only two clunkers on the album. The turgid “I Feel You” and the languid “The Band Vs. The World.” However, there are also moments when the craft of songwriting meets inspiration, “Let It In”, “Graveyard Shift”, “Streets Of Heaven (Promises, Promises)” and “Sang Froid” are all Sam Roberts at his best. Collider is a Sam Roberts album. This is what he does. As with the others, it’s almost start-to-finish enjoyable. But if you’ve heard Roberts before, you’re hearing him now.
    Grade: B
  • OceaniaSmashing Pumpkins. It’s been a long time since I was looking forward to a Smashing Pumpkins record. Bill Clinton was President. After the departure of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain following Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, Billy Corgan seemed like a man who didn’t know where to go next. The band continued to release some great songs, but no great albums, until they broke up in 2000. Corgan followed the band with Zwan (whose one album is unfairly forgotten) and a solo album that was heavy on synthesizer noodling. Responding to pressure from fans, he reunited with Chamberlain and released Zeitgeist in 2007. It was a monstrously loud, riff heavy noisefest, and it wasn’t too difficult to figure out that Corgan was giving those fans who wanted him to rock out again an overdose of what they wanted. But in the last few years, again without Chamberlain, Corgan’s been releasing free downloads of a project called Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, and the songs have been excellent. When he announced the release of Oceania, it appeared that he’d made peace with the legacy of the Pumpkins, and was once again ready to put out work of a high quality.

    So close…yet so far away.

    Oceania is halfway to being a great Smashing Pumpkins album on the order of Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie. For the first five songs, it’s easy to be convinced that Corgan is back with a vengeance. The one-two punch of “Quasar” and “Panopticon” are flat-out terrific heavy rock. “The Celestials” and “Violet Rays” slow the pace, but continue the high quality. “My Love Is Winter” is one of those things Corgan does so well: melodic hard rock with psychedelic touches. After twenty minutes, Oceania is great enough to make you forget albums like Adore and Zeitgeist. Then it falls apart. Almost completely. “One Diamond, One Heart” has a great chorus but the music is straight out of 1985: washes of synthesizer over a robotic keyboard. “Pinwheels” takes two minutes of synth noodling before turning into a forgettable ballad. The title track is over nine minutes of prog-rock nothingness, culminating in a guitar solo that Corgan’s done so much better so many times. “Pale Horse” sounds like a lost Depeche Mode song that should have stayed lost, despite harrowing lyrics and a chilling final line: “Please come back, Pale Horse.”

    Fortunately, Corgan picks it up again. “The Chimera” returns to heavy guitar rocking again with a catchy chorus. Musically it probably has more in common with Zwan than with the prime Pumpkins, but that’s okay. It’s one of the best tracks on the album. It’s followed by two more excellent songs, the sliding and gliding “Glissandra” and the hard groove “Inkless”, before limping to a conclusion with “Wildflower”, a nearly-five minute tone poem that would have been a good two-minute album closer, but is rendered almost unlistenable by its length. Better luck next time, Billy.
    Grade: B

  • Even If And Especially WhenScreaming Trees. Opening with the terrific garage blast of “Transfiguration” the second full-length album from Seattle’s Screaming Trees is a continuation of the sound the band had forged, but the more overt psychedelic touches have been toned down and the guitars turned up. What comes through—sporadically, to be sure—is an early version of what would later be called grunge. “Straight Out To Any Place” could have fit nicely on the radio in the wake of the alternative rock explosion of 1992, and their first truly great song “Pathway” would not have sounded out of place on later Trees albums like Sweet Oblivion and Dust. What mars this album is that the band were still learning to write. Despite several gems, most of Even If And Especially When is standard issue garage rock. Quite good and fun to listen to, but not memorable in a way that later Trees songs would be. At this point, the Trees were still a band with great potential, but only good execution. It’s an improvement over their first album Clairvoyance, with songs like “Transfiguration”, “Straight Out To Any Place”, “Girl Behind The Mask”, “Cold Rain”, “Pathway”, and “Back Together” rising to the top. That puts half of this album solidly in the very good to great range. Of the other songs only “In The Forest” misfires. The others are simply decent album tracks that are quickly forgotten when the album ends.
    Grade: B
  • Throw It To The UniverseThe Soundtrack Of Our Lives. And so, the best musical export from Sweden comes to its end. This is the last album by TSOOL, and it’s an odd one to go out on. What’s missing here is the pulverizing hard rock of which the band is capable. This is a laid back, groove-oriented album, heavy on lyrical reminiscences and fond farewells. The title track opens the album with both an introduction and a goodbye: “We say hello to say goodbye/We are the soundtrack of your life” sings frontman Ebbot Lundberg over a musical track that starts with a strummed acoustic guitar and builds to a solid rock climax. It’s one of the few outright rockers on the album, sharing it’s slow build properties with their previous album’s opener, “Babel On.” The second song, “You Are The Beginning”, is a lush, beautiful ballad. Most of the rest of the album splits the difference between these opening songs. There’s a heavy acoustic presence on the songs, and the majority of tracks ride a mid-tempo groove. This could get boring, but the album sensibly hovers just above the 45-minute mark. With 13 songs, nothing overstays its welcome, and the musical interplay between these guys is so good it makes each song a pleasure to hear. Even on the slower tracks there’s enough going on musically to keep things interesting. The lyrics are some of the best they’ve written, with nearly every song addressing the end of the band in some way: “we’re about to dissolve into oblivion”, “need to start again”, “the turning of the final race is here…now we’re back to be gone”. “Shine on/there’s another day after tomorrow/there’s another day after the end” sings Lundberg as TSOOL concludes their final album. This isn’t their best album, but it’s a fitting end.
    Grade: B+
  • Secret TreatiesBlue Öyster Cult. Forget the admittedly funny Saturday Night Live skit with Christopher Walken recommending ever-increasing amounts of cowbell be added to BÖC’s classic rock staple “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” It was an odd skit coming about 30 years or so after the last Cult fan graduated high school. But then, BÖC was an odd band. For a period in the early to mid-Seventies, they were the bizarro cousins of Black Sabbath, relying more on science fiction than horror motifs. They were intelligent where Sabbath wasn’t, and while the Sabs relied on molten slabs of granite riffs, BÖC relied more on speed and the jack-rabbit runs of guitarist Buck Dharma (Donald Roeser). They were dubbed “heavy metal” but they were really more of a psychedelic-tinged hard rock band. Secret Treaties, released in 1974, should put the lie to the notion that BÖC was heavy metal. Sure there are plenty of hard riffs, but the songs are far more melodic than most metal, and the music relies more on interplay than on crushing guitar. Lyrically they keep an eye on the dark side without resorting to the cartoonish doom and gloom of Sabbath. The topics here include the closing days of World War II (“ME 262”), drug experimentation with horrific side effects (“Flaming Telepaths”), what appears to be a song about interplanetary conflict (“Astronomy”), and one whose lyric was inspired by former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas (“Harvester Of Eyes”). Even the loaded title “Dominance and Submission” is not about what you think: it’s about New Year’s Eve in 1963 being the dividing line between the old and new music (“In Times Square people do the polka/Dominance…Submission…Radios appear/This New Year’s Eve was the final barrier”). Most of it’s pretty nonsensical, but just go with it. The melodies are great, the words are fun even if you don’t know what they’re about, and BÖC was a band that understood intricacy in their playing. This is a very good album.
    Grade: B+

The Listening Post: March 2011

Signs of spring, lots of tunes.

  • Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, Volume II: The Solstice BareSmashing Pumpkins. The second of 11 proposed EPs by the reconstituted Pumpkins (at this point really just Billy Corgan) is yet another winner. Corgan’s released nine songs from the projected 44-song opus he’s calling Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, and every one of them has been a winner. The second EP has nothing as good as the first EP’s “Song For A Son” or “A Stitch In Time” but it’s more consistently good. Corgan has embraced the swirling psychedelia that made for so many memorable Pumpkins singles and that he abandoned on the last full-length album, Zeitgeist. The result is that Billy’s got his groove back and that this project is (so far) the best stuff he’s done since Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It even compares well against the titanic Siamese Dream. It could fall off the earth at any time, and hoping that the remaining 35 tracks will be this good is probably a fool’s hope but so far, so good. “Freak” is a hard-charging riff rocker, “Spangled” a pretty ballad about love in the moonlight, “Tom Tom” is heavy pop, and despite an awful 80s-style synthesizer riff, “The Fellowship” eventually builds into a satisfying rocker.
    Grade: A
  • Peter Green’s Fleetwood MacFleetwood Mac. Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham turned Fleetwood Mac into a California-sound hit machine in the mid-70s, but in 1968 they were rising from the ashes of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and playing a ferocious British version of Chicago blues. What makes the early Fleetwood Mac rise above most of their British blues contemporaries is the genius guitar playing of Peter Green. Green had the chops of Clapton but was capable of playing with more subtlety, and he played with more of a real feel for the blues than guys like Alvin Lee and Kim Simmonds. He also played straight blues far better than either Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page. It’s this guitar playing, sharp, empathetic, and brilliant, that makes this first Fleetwood Mac album better than most others of its type. It’s not on the level of Mayall’s album with Clapton, but it’s still excellent. Elmore James is a key figure here, and Green plays a hellbound slide guitar, particularly on “Shake Your Moneymaker.” The languid, almost underwater guitar tones of “I Loved Another Woman” and the acoustic “The World Keeps On Turning” are the other standout cuts. As a rhythm section, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie are solid, but this is Green’s show, so a song like “Looking For Somebody,” which puts Green in the back seat behind an unconvincing harmonica, drags, and some of the tracks are a little on the generic side. Overall, though, this is one of the better examples of British blues.
    Grade: B+
  • One Step BeyondThe Chocolate Watchband. For me, this is the most satisfying album by the garage rockers, even if it’s the least garage rock-oriented. The sound here is based strongly on Jefferson Airplane. Songs like “Uncle Morris” could have fit nicely on Crown Of Creation. “Flowers” starts like the Moody Blues before it turns into Love. The garage roots are not completely gone. “Sitting There Standing” is a rough and tumble guitar rocker that brazenly rips off the Yardbirds song, “The Nazz Is Blue” and “I Don’t Need No Doctor” is a Humble Pie-ish rocker. Clearly originality was not the Watchband’s strong suit, and in 1969 that may have been important. From the perspective of 2011, this is a very good collection of late 1960s psychedelic-tinged rock. There are a couple of clunkers, especially the two bonus tracks, but this is a fine album and highly recommended to fans of late 1960s rock music.
    Grade: B+
  • Wrecker!Mono Men. Seattle’s roots-oriented garage punkers deliver a decent effort with this 1992 release. It’s a very hard rocking album, with lots of punky raveups but it’s mainly a triumph of style over substance. A lot of it’s good, especially in the first half of the album. “Watch Outside,” “Your Eyes,” and “Last Straw” offer a muscular opening, but the only truly great song (“Testify”) is tucked away near the end of the album, though “See My Soul” comes close to that level. In the meantime, there are by-the-numbers rockers like “One Shot” and “Swampland,” and some strictly mediocre filler like “Tomahawk” and “Don’t Know Yet.” It’s a good album, but far from great.
    Grade: C+
  • Whatever Turns You OnWest, Bruce & Laing. One part Cream, two parts Mountain. How could it go wrong? On paper, this should work in spades. Jack Bruce is an extraordinary bassist and singer, Leslie West stands shoulder to shoulder with Eric Clapton as a guitarist, and while Corky Laing is no Ginger Baker he’s still an excellent drummer. Somewhere in the mix, it did go wrong. There are several inspired moments on this album, but that’s all it amounts to. The album opener “Backfire” is a solid rocker squarely in the Mountain tradition (and let’s give it up for Leslie West as a singer, as well as a guitarist), “Sifting Sand” is a power ballad done right, with the power surging through the entire piece, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Machine” rides a Sabbath-style rhythm with about 45 seconds of Floyd-style spaciness, and “Scotch Crotch” has a great Jack Bruce vocal over a charging piano rhythm. The problem here is that the rest of the album seems uninspired at best (“Token,” “November Song,” “Dirty Shoes”) and turgid at worst (“Slow Blues,” “Like A Plate”). West, Bruce & Laing sounds like a great idea, and every once in a while they give you a hint as to what they may have been capable of doing, but overall the album is a letdown.
    Grade: C+
  • Collapse Into NowR.E.M. Since the departure of drummer Bill Berry, R.E.M. has been a band adrift. They piled on drum machines and electronic squiggles on the weird Up, toned down the electronic elements for the lackluster Reveal, went slow with the humorless Around The Sun, and then released a brief album of punky rockers with Accelerate. All of these albums had at least a couple of moments of greatness, but great moments on albums was a serious comedown for a band that released some of the best albums of the past 30 years. Collapse Into Now is the best album they’ve done since New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Once again, R.E.M. sounds like they’re having fun. In this case, the fun comes from going through their closets and trying on the suits they once wore so well. Collapse is almost defiantly retro, but it doesn’t imitate the past so much as it insinuates the reasons that R.E.M. was such a great band. Much of it sounds like old, unreleased R.E.M. songs from the first half of the 90s, compiled on a mix tape by a fan who knew what he was doing. The overly repetitive and somewhat dragging “Oh My Heart” is a sequel to Accelerate‘s “Houston,” “Blue” deftly combines of Out of Time‘s “Belong” and “Country Feedback” with New Adventures‘s “E-Bow The Letter.” Songs like “Discoverer” and “All The Best” rock as hard as anything from Monster without that album’s reliance on distortion, while the ballads act as a glue that holds the album together. The lush “Walk It Back” may be their best ballad since Automatic For The People. Despite a title that sounds like the punch line to a naughty joke, “Mine Smell Like Honey” explodes into the best chorus these guys have come up with in 20 years. Throughout the album, bassist Mike Mills provides prominent backing vocals, which has always been R.E.M.’s secret weapon. There are also some guest stars helping out. Electronica singer Peaches fills in for Kate Pierson on the great, but inscrutable, “Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter” and Eddie Vedder provides a wordless howling backing vocal on “It Happened Today,” while Patti Smith reprises her “E-Bow” role on “Blue.” Collapse Into Now is R.E.M. playing it safe, but also playing to all of their many strengths. It isn’t on the same level of the albums from their heyday (few albums are), but it proves that R.E.M. can still deliver the goods, and do it far better than most younger bands.
    Grade: A
  • Chutes Too NarrowThe Shins. I never knew that “Indie Rock” was an actual sound until I heard The Shins. For me, “indie” was always about record label or, at least, about not conforming to any sort of mainstream conventions, but the actual bands ran a pretty wide gamut in terms of their sound. But then I heard The Shins and thought, “Oh, indie rock.” It’s a backhanded slap, or a fronthanded compliment. The Shins have a really good sound. They’re tuneful and melodic, and play a good combination of solid rock and wistful ballads. Chutes Too Narrow, their second album, is a very good collection of songs that seem to float in the ether. There’s nothing here that feels really substantial, but everything on here is thoroughly enjoyable, from the effervescent power pop of the opening “Kissing The Lipless” to the lightly plucked acoustic ballad “Those To Come” which closes the album on a bit of a down note. Along the way The Shins hit greatness with “Saint Simon” and “Turn A Square” but most often settle into a very good groove that mixes power pop, guitar jangle, and ballads. They’re the thinking man’s Rooney, with none of the annoying quirks that mar that band’s output. Very good stuff indeed.
    Grade: B+

The Listening Post: April 2010

April enters like a lamb, bringing warm weather and fresh music:

  • Diamonds In The RoughIan Person. From the guitar player of Sweden’s best band, The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, comes this solo project. It has a lot in common with Soundtrack, especially the love of classic rock songs and structures. The influences on Person are clearly evident throughout the album: “Spiders” is sunny, ’60s pop, the title track is mid-70s Stones, “Fool’s Parade” sounds like a first pass at The Who’s “Overture” while also borrowing liberally from Ravel’s “Bolero,” “Summer Song” and “Make You Mine” nick the guitar tone from Big Star’s “Watch The Sunrise,” “The Delivery” is flamenco, etc. The big touchstone seems to be Tommy-era Who. If this criticism makes it sound like Person is just rehashing better songs by better bands, the truth is the opposite. These songs borrow the tone of their classic forebears, but are not copies of earlier songs. Diamonds In The Rough is an aptly-named gem of an album that pulls off the neat trick of sounding classic and fresh at the same time. The vocals are confident and relaxed, the guitar playing is superb. Person manages to make the album sound like a band project even though he is the main musician throughout, which is also no small feat. There are too many instrumentals for my tastes (five—and while a couple of them are truly excellent and none of them are bad, this is where the album stumbles). Overall, it’s a great achievement for Person to make an album that ranks alongside the best of his more well-known band efforts. More, please. Grade: B+
  • Stink (Deluxe Edition)The Replacements. The sophomore effort from The Replacements was the 1982 EP bearing the all-time classic title Stink. It was not as much fun as their magnificent debut with the equally all-time classic title Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, mainly because the humor was more obvious. Where the humor of the first album seemed natural, the humor on the followup seems forced (although hats off to “Dope Smoking Moron”). Paul Westerberg was not, at this point, a great songwriter, but he was at least a fun songwriter with an enormous amount of potential. But with the shining exception of “Kids Don’t Follow,” the songs on Stink are even more primitive than the ones on their debut. If you don’t think it’s possible to get more primitive than “I Hate Music,” just give a listen to “God Damn Job.” True, “Go” is a break in the Stink ethos of loud, hard, and unbelievably fast, and sounds more like the type of songs Westerberg would start to write on the next full-length album, Hootenanny. But while the lyrics on Stink sound like they were written twenty minutes after the song was recorded, the music is pure adrenalin: Westerberg, the Stinson brothers, and Chris Mars simply pummel the listener into submission, but since the original EP is 8 songs and only 14 minutes long, the effect is cathartic, not overwhelming. The deluxe edition features four additional songs and every one of them is a winner. “Staples In Her Stomach” is a prime example of early Replacements, as good as anything on the first three albums, and deliriously fractured versions of “Hey Good Looking” and “Rock Around The Clock” show that there was a depth of musical knowledge underneath the party-til-you-puke image the band projected. The fourth bonus cut is a home demo of a magnificent Westerberg song called “You’re Getting Married” that slows the tempo and clearly indicates that Westerberg was already starting to move past what he would later call “noisy, fake hardcore.” While Stink sounds like a bit of a rush job copy of the debut album, it’s still a whole lot of fun, and the bonus tracks make it even better. Grade: B+
  • Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, Vol. 1: Songs For A SailorSmashing Pumpkins. I’ll leave it to the hard core geeks to determine whether this is really the “Smashing Pumpkins” or just a Billy Corgan solo project under a more famous name. True, Corgan is the sole remaining Pumpkin, but then the Pumpkins were always the Billy Corgan Show. The guy played almost all of the instruments except drums, wrote almost all the songs, and sang everything. In the history of the Smashing Pumpkins, bassist D’Arcy Wretzky and guitarist James Iha were little more than coat hangers for Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain. Corgan was the Pumpkins and if he wants to hire a bunch of people to replace Iha, D’Arcy, and Chamberlain…well, sure. What do I care? The last effort by the Pumpkins was their “reunion” album Zeitgeist which came and went without a trace, buried under a mountain of sludgy guitars. While there were some good moments on that album, the overall effect was like being beaten to death by jackhammers…loud, and unpleasant. What was missing from Zeitgeist were actual songs. The Pumpkins were always at their best mixing brutally hard rock (“Cherub Rock,” “I Am One”) with psychedelic dream pop (“Disarm,” “1979”). Pumpkins or not, this is what Corgan has returned to on this EP, the first of 11 projected EPs to be released under the catch-all title of Teargarden By Kaleidyscope. These four songs represent the best stuff Corgan has turned out since Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness, and seem to indicate that Billy’s had his iPod set to a Led Zeppelin playlist. “A Song For A Son” revels in its Zeppelin IV-isms, and features scorching guitar work from Corgan, while “Widow Wake My Mind” combines a 1970s summertime breeze pop with Houses Of The Holy crunch. “A Stitch In Time” has a breezy acoustic/psychedelic feel. The final song, “Astral Planes” is the weak link. Musically it’s not at all bad but there’s only about five words in the song, repeated endlessly. If you’re going to write lyrics, make an effort. Otherwise, just leave it as an instrumental. Just for the record, I don’t really miss Iha or D’Arcy, but while the new drummer is excellent, replacing Jimmy Chamberlain is all but impossible. All songs are available as free downloads from Smashingpumpkins.com, and the actual EP will be released at the end of May. Grade: A.
  • The White StripesThe White Stripes. This blast of blues from Jack and Meg White is so primeval that if you listen closely you can actually hear the sound of red, white, and black dinosaurs off in the distance. Call it “Peppermintsaurus.” From the opening drum kick that starts “Jimmy The Exploder” to the squall that is “I Fought Piranhas” the debut album contains all the elements that would make the White Stripes one of the most exciting acts to come along since “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blew out of radio speakers. But just because all the elements are there, doesn’t mean they’re all in place. The White Stripes is defiantly primitive and the bluesiest of all their albums, and at times it reaches greatness: the covers of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup Of Coffee,” and the traditional “St. James Infirmary Blues,” are standouts. They are also all cover versions. The only original that rises to their level is the brooding “Do,” though several others are nearly as good, especially the furious “Screwdriver” and the molten metal Detroit blues, “The Big Three Killed My Baby.” But like the product put out by the Big Three, there are also clunkers: “When I Hear My Name,” “Little People,” “Slicker Dips” “Wasting My Time” and “Cannon” are riffs in search of a song (though “Cannon” has a welcome shout out to Son House by incorporating a couple of verses from “John the Revelator”). But this album also marks the first, welcome appearance of “Suzy Lee” (who would show up later on “We Are Going To Be Friends” from White Blood Cells), the excellent acoustic blues of “Sugar Never Tasted So Good,” and the twisted dance of “Astro,” which features a closing guitar solo that hits you like a taser. Jack and Meg would do better, but this is a fine album. Grade: B