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Without a Care in This Whole World
The Smashing Pumpkins: Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
I hate Pearl Jam, and I abhor the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I refuse to buy any more Frank Black records, and I've given up on Beautiful South b-sides. I'm not touching anything by They Might Be Giants until they bring the drum machines back, and I've totally written off Iron Maiden and Anthrax since they got new singers. Hootie and the Blowfish make me cross. White Zombie makes me do uncharitable impersonations. All these have nothing directly to do with this new Smashing Pumpkins album, it's just that I need to remind myself that I still have limits. It's important. If I lose the ability for arbitrary antipathy, if I can no longer muster scorn and disinterest for at least some isolated patches of rock, then I will disappear under piles of incoming CDs, and that's the last anybody will see of me. My mental survival depends, in a much more literal way than you would probably credit, on being able to keep my ability to listen to new music outpacing, if only barely, my acquisition rate.
This year finds me teetering on the brink of losing this race. That it's been an amazing year for bands I like is forbidding enough; what's made the situation truly alarming is the number of artists I previously avoided whose albums I've found myself helplessly carrying to the cash register, and then, with a horrible sinking feeling, liking. A year ago, I found Matthew Sweet, Teenage Fanclub and the Goo Goo Dolls irritating, and wasn't interested in hearing what Velvet Crush sounded like. A year ago Radiohead was annoying to me, I didn't own anything by the Who or the Police, my Bowie collection consisted only of a single of "Time Will Crawl", and the thought of a $30 Roxette rarities collection would have made me cough once, derisively.
And the slightest hint of Billy Corgan's miserable whine on the radio would have sent my hand snapping to the preset buttons in search of anything else, even moribund CCR retrospectives or sugary Amy Grant crossover pop. So it's with a real sense of defeat that I report that I have purchased Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and with even more reluctance that I admit that I really, really, really, sadly, like it.
The worst thing is that the Smashing Pumpkins are such an eminently loatheable band. Corgan gives every indication of being an insufferable obstinate jerk, wears some of the worst clothes in all of rock, and insists in saddling the band's music with his painfully nasal singing and murky production that frequently obscures much of its detail. The other three members seem to tag along with something of the hungry dependency of abuse victims. They've outlived Nirvana without managing to represent, culturally, much of anything other than Chicago's lamentable ongoing weakness for glam. Why are people drawn to them? Don't you realize that they don't give a shit about you?
But, damn it, I admired the aplomb and confidence necessary to put out a double album (and a real one, not this two-part GNR crap). And the drum bombardment on "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" was blustery and cool, and I liked the title. And I was charmed by the perky, mechanical groove on "1979". And the radio station I listen to played a bunch of other songs from the album while I was driving to the record store the day it came out, and it was on sale, and I was having a bad week, and people looked scared of it, and I liked the fonts on the cover, and, oh, my dear invisible readers, I'm so weak, so terribly weak. I bought it.
There are some things you will have to get used to right up front, if you wish to join me in my ignoble capitulation to the Smashing Pumpkins. First, they really don't care about you, at all. There's nothing remotely warm or inviting about this album. Corgan sings like he's not interested in you following his drift, and the production is such that it often seems a matter of indifference to the band whether you can even hear exactly what they're playing. The album is over two hours long, not because there's any grand concept or epic sense, but just because that's how many songs they felt like putting on it, and if you can't take them for that long, that's your problem. They are lyrically disdainful and musically perverse, selfish and juvenile, and make no apparent attempt to identify with their audience. This album has something to annoy everybody; for everything beautiful there is something grating, for every baroque spiral something brutish and stunted, for every elegant diffidence some coarse affront. Much of the music harkens obliquely to elements of the past, and not necessarily the healthy bits, either.
But the more times you listen to this, if you can manage repetitions, the more I think you'll come to see (if not feel) how many of these things can be seen from their flip sides, as well. The self-absorption can be seen as self-confidence, and in the current climate of millionaire humility that produces gushing articles about how out of place Garth Brooks feels in five-star hotels, it's refreshing to get a little animating scorn. Corgan's voice is abrasive, but abrasion was always one of the things rock and roll was best at, and the dry production treatment given it makes no apology for its timbre. If the production is overdense and the style-shifts self-satisfied and taunting, at least the band is rarely predictable, and it's a testament to their range that this album's twenty-eight songs never bore me. Even the album's length is cool in its own way; it's good to know there's still at least one band in the world who aren't afraid to make an album whose length is a factor of their desires, not the capacity of a distribution format. And there's even a nostalgic side-one/side-two-ness to the two-disc arrangement.
And over the course of these two hours, Corgan, D'Arcy, Iha and Chamberlin make some intense, inspired, intricate and involving music. There's a stately piano-and-strings instrumental (the title track, which acts as intro), grandiose string-laden pomp ("Tonight, Tonight"), surging noise ("Jellybelly", "Bodies"), throbbing metal rumble ("Zero", "Fuck You (An Ode to No One)"), Radiohead-like anthemic melancholy ("Here Is No Why", "Galapogos" (sic, if they meant Galapagos, à la Darwin), "In the Arms of Sleep", "Farewell and Goodnight"), rock-star strut ("Bullet with Butterfly Wings" and "Muzzle"), subdued stasis ("To Forgive", "Take Me Down" and "By Starlight"), sound experiments ("Love" and "Tales of a Scorched Earth"), goofy eclecticism ("Cupid De Locke", "Thirty-Three", "Stumbleine", "We Only Come Out at Night", "Beautiful" and "Lily (My One and Only)"), sprawling epics ("Porcelina of the Vast Oceans" and "Thru the Eyes of Ruby"), vague menace ("Where Boys Fear to Tread" and "X.Y.U.") and warped pop ("1979"). They handle all this with equanimity, seemingly as at home with guitar catharsis as with convoluted keyboard flourishes and mock-country plunking. And in the end I don't see how this album could be any other way. To fit it onto a single disc you'd need to do away with about 45 minutes, and I don't see where it has one spare minute, never mind that many.
I give up. The world is a vampire, sent to drain. I feel its fangs. My blood is time, my sanity is perspective, and my reluctant retreat is silence. My strength is confidence, my shield is aversion, and my addiction is in me like a symbiont now. There's just too much great music. I probably never stood a chance.
For Love Not Lisa: Information Superdriveway
But no time for rapture. I don't even have the luxury of basking in a single great album for an entire week. They're lined up, piles a foot high cascading over the tops of my stereo components, records I must tell you about. And there's only so much time left in the year.
The next thing, then, is Information Superdriveway, the second major-label release by For Love Not Lisa (and third overall, as best I can determine). I've been looking forward to this one, as I was very taken with their last album, the battering Merge, whose song "Slip Slide Melting" you might also know from the soundtrack to The Crow. I said at the time that For Love Not Lisa reminded me of Nirvana without the slow parts, but not because they didn't understand the slow parts. An album on, For Love Not Lisa have been inextricably linked in my mind to Everclear, the other band onto which I've transferred my love for Nirvana since Kurt's suicide made it impossible for me to listen to them any more.
For Love Not Lisa's connection to Nirvana will probably not be as clear to anybody but me as Everclear's. FLNL is a four-piece, and tends to more complicated arrangements and compositional structures than either of the trios do or did. Indeed, as of Information Superdriveway a better musical equation might be to combine Fugazi's angular punk with Rage Against the Machine's withering rap metal and vocals that choose a throaty shouting as a midpoint between croaking and rap. Or imagine a less-restrained Helmet, or a more musical Rollins Band. Insistent, churning power-chord guitar-and-lock-step-bass riffs drive these songs, with busy, dry drums hammering in the background. At some points there's actual singing, with melodies and everything, and at others it sounds like a drill-sergeant-turned-serial-killer is trying to get through your front door through sheer power of voice.
And in that second thing is, I think, where Nirvana and Everclear and For Love Not Lisa all come together for me. It's a hard thing to translate true total emotional release into musical form. If you literally flail conventional musical instruments with unfettered rage, the intensity doesn't really translate into music correctly. Conversely, it's possible to overcompensate and attempt to convey too much of the emotion with speed, which gets you bands like Slayer (who sound like they're coming to kill you, admittedly, but who still sound like this is under their conscious control), or guttural noise, which gets you bands like Death (who sound like somebody has already killed them, which has the unfortunate side effect of draining a little of their vitality). Metal usually requires too much control to do total abandon right, and punk often doesn't involve enough musical skill, or too clearly betrays its origins in pop-song subversion. Only a few bands ever capture for me the feeling of the full force of a desperate soul confronting the universe with its pain and anger. Nirvana did it, most stunningly on the crazed "Oh, the Guilt" (from the 1993 single they split with the Jesus Lizard). Everclear hits it most squarely when Art screams "Just another overdose!" in "Heroin Girl". And FLNL finds it on seemingly every other song here.
I haven't decided yet how exactly I think Information Superdriveway compares to Merge. There's a good balance here between the manic ("Had a Lover", "Set Apart", "Snowball Fight" and "Fathers and Sons", the last of these regrettably not a Cat Stevens cover), the merely fast ("Coming into Focus", "Seasick", "Daydream", "Kill Whitey" and "Some Afternoon Glitch"), some slow, but still menacing songs ("Good Intentions", "Play" and "Triple A") and the jerky "New Few", but there's nothing here as distended and ambitious as "Merge" itself. Too, I'd probably appreciate this album a little better with a lyric sheet. The words to Merge were frequently very interesting, and unexpectedly sophisticated, and I'm guessing that the ones to this album are, as well, but the vocal delivery doesn't particularly lend itself to transcription, and though my experimental attempt to make sense of "Some Afternoon Glitch" convinced me that slow progress was probably possible, I just don't have the time for it.
So I just turn it up and scream along as best I can.
Eve's Plum: Cherry Alive
After twenty-eight songs of Smashing Pumpkins contempt and another thirteen of FLNL primal therapy, you could probably use something a little more cheerful. Eve's Plum provides this without actually changing the musical mood too much. Those of you who've been committing this column to memory since its inception (or have been studying the back issues on the web intently) might realize that I discovered Eve's Plum through their song "Eye", on the Higher Learning soundtrack, which was the first thing I reviewed in the very first issue I wrote. I wonder what they win.
At any rate, Cherry Alive seems to be Eve's Plum's second album, following 1993's Envy and a brilliant cover of "I Will Survive" that appeared on another compilation somewhere. In overall feel I'm inclined to ally them with the Curve-Rose Chronicles-Love Club axis of surging dream-pop, but it's possible that Magnapop, or a hybrid of Curve and either Velocity Girl or Letters to Cleo, or maybe a slicker (and more American) Sleeper, might be a better reference point. Think of charging guitars with thick, but smooth, distortion, heavy bass and pounding drums, combined with airy female vocals and bouncy pop melodies. There's some atmospheric processing and some snappy dance-ish rhythms, but not as much of either as Curve used to employ, and Colleen Fitzpatrick's cheery vocals remind me of the Go-Go's at times. The composite of these urges is something that feels a bit like Shampoo taken seriously, if you can conceive of that.
It's a strategy that I am assuming wasn't specifically concocted to appeal to me, but it might as well have been. The combination of instrumental energy and vocal impishness hooks directly to some receptor sites in my aural cortex (I think I just invented that term, which for medical terms probably isn't a good idea, but it flowed more naturally than "the part of my brain in which signals from my auditory nerves are processed", or at least it did before I interrupted the sentence with this explanation), with the result that I enjoy it instantly, without any intervening contemplation or analysis.
Mind you, this album holds up under the analysis, too, once I get around to it. "Jesus Loves You (Not As Much As I Do)", the opening track, is an electrifying sprint whose lyrics suggest an interesting relationship tension between religion and passion. "Wishing the Day Away" lopes along calmly, with Colleen's percussive exhalations punctuating the dreamy chorus-to-verse transitions. "Want You Bad" speeds up again, with the shouted choruses reminding me momentarily of Swank. The sinister opening of "Loved by You" gives way to a lilting love song. Guitars repeatedly slam into the reverie of "Fairy Princess" like the real world violently intruding into the narrator's fantasies. With an octave shifter on the vocal and the Jesus-Jones-ish samples removed, the overblown guitars and jingling tambourines of "Cherry Alive" might almost be an embryonic Roxette song. "Lipstick" could be the Go-Go's warming up for a metal phase. "Sticky and Greasy" is caterwauling and raw, a bit like Throwing Muses. "Beautiful"'s languid vocal coasts serenely over its steady pulse. "Serious Stuff" is quick, but prone to abrupt tempo changes. Contrasting guitar treatments animate "Dog in my Heart". And the measured "Only Anger", which swings from just voice and a spare guitar part to a noisy full-band tempest, ends the album. I'd have said more about the lyrics, but though they're technically included in the liner, they're printed in overlapping and often cropped spirals that give me a headache when I try to read them.
Fortunately, the music cures the headache.
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