Smashing Pumpkins

Like Don Quixote and his windmill, the leading lights of alternative rock defined themselves by what they were fighting. To varying degrees and with distinct stylistic differences, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Trent Reznor, and Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan battled the jocks who beat them up in high school (and who grew up to populate their mosh pits). But while Cobain, Vedder, and Reznor also more or less opposed the music business-as-usual, Corgan enthusiastically embraced it. He always wanted to be a Rock Star -- bigger than Tom Scholz! Rick Nielsen! Robert Smith, even! -- and he's never been more successful in this desire than on Adore.

Our boy Bill has always been a notorious egotist and perfectionist; there are certain drummers who might also add "son of a bitch." (Joey Waronker quit Beck's band to join the Pumpkins at triple his salary, then bailed after two weeks. Kenny Aronoff, formerly with John Mellencamp, now has the gig.) Sure, you had to give him props in the studio for crafting amazingly ornate walls of sound, but anyone with half a brain also had to be disappointed with what he did with 'em. On Gish, Siamese Dream, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, those mighty musical constructions -- better than Journey! Styx! Queen, even! -- were employed by the man to vent his raging angst and revel in his terminal miserableness. You know, that whole sorry rat-in-a-cage trip.

Either the music on Adore is strong enough to overcome the lyrics (sample: "You remind me of that leak in my soul") and typically whiny singing, or those lyrics and that singing have gotten better. Probably a little of both, plus the fact that for all his talk about the ambition of previous efforts, Corgan's never really put it on the line like he does here.

How so? For starters, he succeeds where David Bowie, U2, and Madonna have failed, merging rock and techno for the pop/rock mainstream the way Blondie blended rock and disco on "Heart of Glass." Songs like "Ava Adore," "Daphne Descends," and "Tear" incorporate electronic dance grooves and washes of ambient synthesizer without sacrificing rock's essential visceral kick, and they do it without a hint of grunge. Corgan and James Iha have dramatically expanded their six-string palettes, delivering some of the coolest tubular-buzz E-bow leads since "Heroes" (the Bowie/Eno/Fripp version, not the damn Wallflowers').

That's half the album. In typically schizophrenic style, Corgan devotes the other half to tender acoustic ballads that elaborate on his earlier cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide." There are some genuinely beautiful moments in "To Sheila," "The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete," and "Annie-Dog." The last of these is particularly effective: The lilting, piano-driven melody contrasts with lyrics that seem to be talking about Corgan's pal and former lover, that whirling dervish Courtney Love ("Amphetamine Annie-Dog has a leash and a face .../ She is Venus, she is Mars/ She's electric").

Then there's "Behold! The Nightmare," which somehow combines both of the album's divergent approaches and a better imitation Pet Sounds vocal break than any of those indie-rockers like the High Llamas can muster. Best of all is "For Martha," a moving tribute to Corgan's recently deceased mom. He really does Mom proud on this one, coming up with a minisymphony that almost tops Genesis on Selling England by the Pound. "I will follow you and see you on the other side," he croons, then builds to a thunderous climax with an elegiac, way over-the-top guitar solo. Oh, mamma! Even if you're a cynical, pierced, and tattooed alternateen, you won't have a dry eye.

Is any of this really as revolutionary, oh boy!, brand-spanking-new as the wave of Pumpkins adoration says it is? Hell no, but it's certainly the best music these goobers have produced. And now that alternative rock is officially dead and buried -- one could trace this to the ascendance of Bush, but the history books will no doubt mark it by this year's dismantling of Lollapalooza -- it leaves Corgan as the last American Rock Star of his generation. That oughta count for something, no?

-- Jim DeRogatis

Add N to X
On the Wires of Our Nerves

For all of its grounding in German techno-pop traditions -- Kraftwerk groove here, Can bass thrub there, Euro pretension everywhere -- the biggest musical influence of the British trio known as Add N to X is the rummage sale. They exhume instruments from the graveyard of discontinued electronics: early synthesizers, vocoders, and sequencers that the age of computer sampling has turned into so much analog junk. They're so in love with the stuff that the group equates it with humanity itself. The cover of On the Wires of Our Nerves depicts Ann Shenton lying on a hospital stretcher while Barry Smith and Steve Claydon introduce you to the next generation: They're yanking a Moog synthesizer out of her bleeding stomach, as if she were giving birth to it.

The willful equation of man and machine makes for some pretty cold listening. But the minimalist approach to Add N to X's knob-twiddling is pop-minded enough to give Nerves an occasional pulse. When their recombinant skills are at best, the songs and the sounds are edgy and intriguing, like the spaced-out, droning electro-funk of "Orgy of Bubastus." Better still is "King Wasp," a witty absurdist blues deconstruction. With its vocal (inspired by Slim Harpo's "I'm a King Bee") vocodered beyond recognition, its blurred stomp beats, combined with the assorted squeals and whistles, make it nearly as swampy and chilling as the genuine article. And that's the point: Add N to X claim no "roots" of their own, just a willingness to tweak sound until questions of authenticity become moot.

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