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The Major Lift

by David King on August 9, 2012

“Remember the ’90s?” It was the commercial I knew would kill me when I eventually heard it. Just the idea that the music of my teen years would be reduced to a greatest-hits collection to be hawked on some infomercial made me ill. I heard that infomercial sooner than I thought I would, sometime in the early 2000s when I was still in college. It doesn’t help that the supreme musical idol of the mid-’90s was Billy Corgan—a man less committed to a musical ideal or message than to his immense ego, insane awkwardness and need for public approval. The Smashing Pumpkins’ feedback-laced soloing and epic rock was so big and Corgan’s ugly-teen spite so close to home that it was undeniable to me.

The Pumpkins’ visit to the Times Union center was the formative rock concert of my life: over three hours of arena-rock bombast and soloing that ended with me in tears. It was the concert that taught me the power of rock & roll. Someone else could have gotten there first with the right kind of concert, but, whatever you think of Corgan, you have to realize that no one plays shows that long, that big, that sweat-drenched and intense anymore.

Corgan knew the crowd was there to worship him and he wasn’t leaving that stage till he soaked up every bit of it. So here we are in 2012, at what seems to be the tail end of the ’90s-nostalgia wave. Dinosaur Jr. are back together and making great albums, the Pixies are touring, Soundgarden reunited, and the Smashing Pumpkins (Billy Corgan and a supporting cast) have put together a new album, Oceania, that is passable as a band creation but, in most cases, only passable. The riffs are here; the production, however, does not allow for feedback, only solos that feel thrown-together, not spur-of-the-moment or on the razor’s edge. What’s worse is that Corgan’s voice is worse than it’s ever been—and that is saying something. Not only is that damn nasal rasp weak and wavering but his knack for phrasing, which allowed him to get away with his voice, is mostly gone—lost in a struggle to write poppy verses he just can’t deliver. Corgan may have found his guitar pedals that make the fuzz but it seems he is begrudgingly delivering what Pumpkins fans have been demanding for years—return to sincere, epic, riffage. Where Oceania fails, the impressive reissue of the Pumpkins’ Pisces Iscariot succeeds. The album that represented the best of the Pumpkins’ studio scraps at the time are a mix of dream pop and progressive grunge explosions that made the band great. James Iha even gets to sing on a track. How generous that Corgan didn’t Spielberg Iha out of the new version.

If you are hungry for a truly worthwhile trip back in time, Blur has reissued their catalogue as a box set and individually remastered albums that come with a full complement of live tracks and B-sides. Listening to Parklife on a CD, crisp and remastered, has been a summer treat that makes me long for some more material from Damon Albarn and co., but Albarn has waffled back and forth on whether a Blur reunion is occurring for anything more than the Olympics—even though a track was released last year from their recording sessions, which was absolutlely joyful. Better just to think about what could have been than to have Albarn pull a Corgan.

So let’s forget about the’90s for a bit, shall we?

French metalists Gojira’s L’Enfant Sauvage seems crafted solely to make up for the sins of their last release, The Way of All Flesh, that saw the band trying to widen its sound with keyboards, more mosh-friendly breakdowns and melody. L’Enfant Sauvage is conservative in that it is bleak, unrelenting and relies on a mixture of metal riffing with atmospheric guitar work that, at times, feels so stark that it could be the combination of Slayer, Neurosis and Joy Division. What gets lost in the album are the joyful musical outbursts of the band’s breakthrough album From Mars to Sirius. The message seems to be “we are a serious band, we don’t rely on gimmicks,” and if you make it through the album in one listen, it’s a message you will never forget—you might fall asleep before you get there.

If Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros are sending any message with Here, it is this: “Yes, the undeniable song writing on our last disc was mostly a fluke.” While “Man on Fire” starts the disc out with a workmanlike nod to Johnny Cash, the album careens off the rails on just the second song, “That’s Whats Up,” a gospel-inspired nod to one of the White Stripes’ poppier ditties. The band’s Christ-cult routine gets stale really quick when they can’t deliver the kind of soulful swagger they delivered in heaping helpings on their debut. So don’t worry, the odds are that this is not a band that will ever make it to a greatest hits. Their hit “Home” will likely be featured on a future compilation of one-hit-wonders of the 2010s.