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.

Which would be fine — daring, even — if the band made it work more often. But the bulk of Nerves mostly keeps busy gurgling up wandering art-school beats and noises that never cohere. Simply drifting up scales and down again while the odd breakbeats splatter across, songs like “Hit Me,” “Sound of Accelerating Concrete,” and the title track are little more than claustrophobic sketches. Real drums help, particularly on the raucous closer “King Ape,” but not nearly enough to redeem the music as rock, or even put it in a league with the band's Teutonic forebears. “We Are N to X,” as the pixellated voice says at the start of the album. “Welcome to our world.” It's a maddeningly small one, built for cyborgs and those who aspire to become them.

— Mark Athitakis

Remember to Breathe

Last fall on her cover of Ani DiFranco's “32 Flavors,” Alana Davis sang, “I am a poster girl with no poster.” At the time, she was right. There were very few black artists who used folk-rock traditions actively supported by major labels. But this season there are a lot of recordings by artists routinely classified as “urban” that owe as much — if not more — to the poetic introspection of Joni Mitchell's Blue, the urbane savvy of her The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and the wry sophistication of Joan Armatrading's Show Some Emotion as they are indebted to the more traditionally oriented powerhouse R&B stylings of Aretha Franklin's Young, Gifted and Black or the urgent hip-hop soul longing of Mary J. Blige's What's the 411? Last month the quirky young singer Smooth released Reality; although she pays lip service to R&B conventions on the first single, “Strawberries,” she devotes the rest of the album to insightful commentary and acoustic guitar-driven backing. Next month, three artists on that same tip — Rachid, Angel Grant, and Ricky Jones — will release new recordings. So far, the best of the crew crowding that poster is Rebekah, a 25-year-old Cleveland native who has released the strikingly diverse and thoughtful Remember to Breathe.

Rebekah's music is direct and fastidious. She doesn't waste time refuting the usual archetypes of black femininity — Sapphire, Jemima, et al. Those characters simply don't exist in her world. Rather than worrying about who she isn't, she spends her time defining who she is. She delves into relationships on “Hey Genius,” where she says she's tired of vain men, and on “Be Your Own,” where she advises her guy “to stop trying to be my man and instead be your own.” She sings these songs with a small shiny voice that coils inwardly and leaps out with a variety of effects. On “Keep It a Secret” and “I Wish I Could Believe Me,” she embodies a rocker's insolence; on the title track and “Pining,” she maintains a jazz singer's precision; and on “Be Your Own” and “Cardboard Boxes,” she has a soul diva's sauciness. All of her songs possess a sophisticated sense of dynamics. Where Rebekah fails is in the mawkishness of “Little Black Girl,” and in general she's so meticulous that the album seems a shade too precious. She covers a lot of ground, but stops short of claiming it as her own.

Still, unlike those who went before her, equally eclectic Tasmin Archer for instance, Rebekah will likely have time to develop. This new wing of R&B is one of several manifestations of urban music's current success. According to Soundscan, in 1997, hip hop and R&B combined for 31 percent of all record sales, which is a significant increase from 1994's 22 percent. This growing popularity has enabled hip hop to sprout two left wings, the DJ movement and the cosmic thinkers like Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott. In R&B it has led to a school of proud romantics like Erykah Badu and Maxwell, and it may be nurturing the growth of a unique bunch who embrace a broad spectrum of musical backgrounds. After all, the best soul music is about the search for truth, and in Janet Jackson's “Got Till It's Gone,” Q-Tip reminded everyone, “Joni Mitchell never lies.”

— Martin Johnson

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