Category Archives: Music Albums Reviews

Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness

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After the magnificent Siamese Dream made them superstars, the Smashing Pumpkins came back a mere two years later with this sprawling double album. Though decried by critics as being too “pretentious” and containing too much filler, I don’t find the band guilty on either count. First of all, the band simply sport grand ambitions and are one of the few bands around today that actually dares to be great; if that makes them pretentious then so be it. Secondly, I only see one weak song (“Tales Of A Scorched Earth”) among the 28 here (almost all of which were written by lead Pumpkin Billy Corgan), making this not only easily the best album of 1995 but a decade defining monument that’s one of my favorite albums of all-time.

Much more of a band effort than its infamously Corgan dominated predecessor, this is a rawer, more spontaneous effort that shows off all of the Pumpkins’ many sides, as they expand their sonic palette and rely less on the soft-to-loud dynamics that had previously been their trademark. Though the angsty (detractors would say “whiny”) lyrics are at times embarrassing, they’re also often memorable, and besides, it is the band’s spectacular sound that most matters, though Corgan’s unique voice, presented here in a less processed form, is still to many an acquired taste. Dreamy, angelic synth/piano pieces (“Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness,” “Cupid de Locke”) stand beside sparse pretties (“Take Me Down,” “Stumbleine,” “Farewell and Goodnight”) and soaring ballads with sweeping orchestrations (“Tonight Tonight,” “Galapogos”), while fabulous prog rock epics (“Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans,” “Thru The Eyes Of Ruby”) fit snugly alongside explosive/soaring hard rock (“Jellybelly,” “Here Is No Why,” “Love,” “Muzzle,” “Bodies”), raging heavy metal (“Zero,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Ode To No One,” “X.Y.U.”), breezy pop perfection (“1979”), moody, emotional balladry (“Thirty-Three,” “In The Arms Of Sleep,” “By Starlight”), and lightly catchy sing alongs (“We Only Come Out At Night,” “Beautiful”).

The amazing end result encompasses everything that was great about alternative rock in the mid ’90s, as this well-balanced collection of songs can be both inconceivably beautiful and fragile, and deliberately ugly and abrasive, sometimes within the same song! Mellon Collie contains the bands prettiest ballads as well as their heaviest rockers (really, what more could a fan want?), with too many great moments to mention, and this smartly paced, all over the place masterpiece has been in heavy rotation on my stereo ever since its release. A Physical Graffiti for the ‘90s, this magical album was a brilliant band triumph that sold like hotcakes and briefly made the Smashing Pumpkins the biggest band in the world.


Wasting Light

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When did the Foo Fighters become this classic band? I’m not exactly sure, but they’re as much if not more of a radio presence, both on current and “classic” stations, as hipper bands such as Nirvana. I still think they’re a great singles band who make merely good to very good albums, but this album definitely falls in the “very good” category, and there’s no denying the number of first class individual songs the band has released over the years.

If you’re not a fan, I suggest you check out the excellent Back and Forth documentary that was released in conjunction with the promotion for this album. It documents the recording sessions for the album but also presents a thorough career overview, warts and all, but I know that I gained a further appreciation for the Foo Fighters as a band and the band as individuals after watching it. Anyway, back to this album, which was recorded by old friend Butch Vig (who remember had produced Nirvana’s Nevermind) in Grohl’s garage using analog equipment, as the band wanted to keep it real and capture the raw, unprocessed sound of a band playing live. The strategy worked very well, because the sound is definitely a throwback to their earliest (best) records, and the album is also aided by several guest appearances, including singer-guitarist Bob Mould, bassist Krist Novoselic (ex-Nirvana), singer Fee Waybill (The Tubes), and keyboardist Rami Jaffee (The Wallflowers), plus Pat Smear is back with the band as a permanent member (having already rejoined their touring ranks since 2006).

As per usual, this album will likely be best remembered by its often-played anthemic singles, and “Rope,” “These Days,” and “Walk” are all very good efforts if not among their absolute best. What distinguishes this album from their prior album is how consistently strong it is from top to bottom, as “Bride Burning” is a hard-hitting opener with a lighter catchy chorus, and “Dear Rosemary” is moodier but still rocking, with Mould adding his trademark intensity and memorably weird vocals. Elsewhere, “Arlandria” is a grower track with another big chorus, “Back & Forth” manages to have a raw sound and still be poppy, with yet another easily singable chorus, and “I Should Have Known” is an emotional ballad (mostly) whose last minute-plus (where Novoselic really shines) is among their most intense ever.

Even the lesser songs (typically the less hooky ones such as “Miss The Misery”) usually have some cool parts that make them worth listening to, as this veteran band shows that they’re still capable of surprises after all


Down on the Upside

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This was released when grunge was losing its popularity, but this “commercial disappointment” still went platinum several times over. Although this album is cleaner and less heavy on the whole than previous efforts, lyrics such as “only happy when you hurt” (from the standout album track “Rhinosaur”) show that the band hasn’t softened up too much. In fact, songs such as the lead single “Pretty Noose,” with it’s swirling guitar lines and monster drum fills, are as intense as anything the band has ever done.

Elsewhere, Zeppelin-esque highlights both minor (“Zero Chance,” “Dusty”) and major (“Burden In My Hand,” the album’s signature song and arguably the band’s best song ever) are heavily reliant on Eastern tinged atmospherics, while “Blow Up The Outside World” starts with a mellow, trippy Beatles-esque melody before exploding into the splendor of its huge chorus. Actually, the first half of the album is mostly excellent, presenting a more accessible Soundgarden that still rocked plenty hard. On the whole, the album doesn’t quite have the diversity of Superunknown, however, and it has much more filler, as the second half gets bogged down by too many unmemorable tracks. I wouldn’t miss “Never Named,” “No Attention,” or “An Unkind,” the albums punkiest songs along with the first side’s far superior “Ty Cobb,”, and though the playing on “Never The Machine Forever” is impressive, the songwriting is only so-so, while “Applebite” is a simple yet strangely alluring (mostly) instrumental that probably could’ve been cut in half. Better is more melodic fare such as “Switch Opens” and “Boot Camp,” while successful multi-sectioned epics such as “Tighter & Tighter” and “Overfloater” also attest to the band’s undiminished ambition and ability. On the downside, this mellower, less edgy album under utilizes their greatest asset by not unleashing Cornell more, but there’s still enough first rate stuff here that had the band left the lesser songs on the cutting room floor, they could’ve had another classic on their hands. As it is, this turned out to be merely a very good goodbye, as Soundgarden broke up soon after this albums release.

Having emerged from the first wave of grunge to stand tall amid other great Seattle heavyweights such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice In Chains, I am lucky to say that I’ve seen Soundgarden live twice  (Lollapalozza 2010 and Vegas 2011), and hope to see them more when the release their long awaited 7th studio album in Oct. 2012.


Siamese Dream

 

Gish got people buzzing about the band, and an excellent contribution to the essential Singles soundtrack (“Drown”) furthered an alleged connection to the grunge scene and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

Next came a severe case of writer’s block for Billy Corgan before he penned the brilliantly uplifting anthem “Today,” a significant hit that put the Pumpkins on their way to stardom. The grungy power chords of “Cherub Rock” starts the album off with a classic rocker that’s an angry putdown of the indie community who had shunned them for not having “paid their dues.” Sorry, but greatness couldn’t wait, and with this big (in every way) second release the band blew away their competition (See ya, Pavement).

Layers upon layers of guitars seamlessly intermesh to form the backbone of louder tracks like the rumbling “Quiet” and brilliantly epic arena rockers such as “Hummer” and “Rocket.” The band also proves adept at switching gear, as their dreamy melodies often erupt into blasts of power chords and shards of feedback. The band’s reliance on these soft-to-loud dynamics (the changes in volume of which can be quite jarring) can seem inevitable at times, but the end result still thrills on songs such as “Today,” “Soma,” and “Mayonnaise” (my favorite song here which also has an absolutely gorgeous guitar intro going for it). Elsewhere, “Disarm” (a major hit), “Luna” (which ends the album on a beautifully optimistic “I’m in love with you” high), and “Spaceboy” (about Corgan’s disabled half brother Jesse) are all highly impressive, lushly orchestrated ballads.

If the album has a flaw it’s in a little too much doodling down time (after all, progressive rock is a primary influence), but though the willful experimentation on songs such as “Silverfuck” seemingly overstays its welcome, the band becomes well worth indulging when the screeching guitars search for transcendence. Apparently the album caused much friction among the band members, as it was later revealed that band leader Billy Corgan insisted on playing the majority of the guitar parts himself, untrusting that his cohorts could capture the many textured splendor of the sounds roaming inside his head.

So call Corgan an arrogant control freak if you must (he thankfully let Jimmy Chamberlin put in an incredible drumming performance, which has to be heard to be believed; check out the dynamic “Geek U.S.A” for starters), but don’t deny that with Siamese Dream he crafted a landmark early ‘90s masterpiece.


Black Gives Way to Blue

Initially when I heard about this album my thoughts were negative, as I felt that the Alice In Chains moniker should’ve died with Layne. Let’s face it, if Cantrell’s solo career had taken off this reunion likely would’ve never happened, but then I got to thinking that Alice In Chains were primarily his band (essential though Layne was to their overall sound), and it’s not their fault that Layne died on them. What’s shocking to me is how good this album is; though it doesn’t scale the mindbogglingly great heights of Dirt or Jar Of Flies (both of which this album recalls at times), this is another really good album that’s comparable to the rest of their back catalog.

Somewhat controversially, rather than continue as a three piece the band replaced Staley with one William DuVall, who shares lead vocals with Jerry and who also plays guitar and happens to be black, thereby increasing the surprise factor (but not in a bad way). And while he’s no Layne Staley (one of the best vocalists ever), he’s plenty good enough and their harmonies are still uniquely haunting (in fact when DuVall sings harmony at times he does sound eerily like Layne), while the band’s overall sound is still wonderfully atmospheric and heavy as hell. Although Layne is not around anymore, his ghost haunts this entire record; whereas earlier albums were the narrative to Layne’s drug-fueled self-destruction, this album can be seen as what happens after that self-destruction takes his life and how it affects those around him. In a way it’s both an epilogue and a fresh new beginning, albeit one that was 14 years in the making. This is made clear on the leadoff track, “All Secrets Known,” a fitting album opener with great creeping riffs, those harmonies which still rule, and lyrics about this being a new beginning because “there’s no going back.” After that comes the smash single “Check Your Brain,” whose mind melting, disorienting riff is an absolute killer, plus its dual harmomized vocals and catchy chorus also mark it as classic AIC. “Last Of My Kind” deals with the band’s current state as the only grunge band from their era, besides Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, to still be standing.

Maybe it’s a bit generic and overly reminiscent of “Damn That River,” but more good twisting riffs and a deliciously dark aura more than compensates. The next song, “Your Decision,” is the emotional centerpiece of the album. Musically recalling “Nutshell,” lyrically this song is obviously about Layne’s drug addiction and death. Filled with sadness, pain, regret, and even a sense of betrayal, the song also features more affecting harmonies and some soulful, searing guitar work from Cantrell, whose playing is in fine form throughout. Rather than get into a track-by-track analysis, I’ll note the rest of the songs that I consider highlights. “When The Sun Rose” is more acoustic and somewhat exotic due to its creative percussive flourishes, with more nice guitar work, while “Lesson Learned” flat out rocks and has a good chorus. “Private Hell” is mellower and has more haunting harmonies, but it also has massively powerful surges at times and is lyrically affecting, while the title track ballad, featuring Elton John on piano, again directly addresses Layne’s death, but this time it’s a soothing and kind remembrance, which fittingly ends the album on a hopeful note.

As for the rest of the songs, “A Looking In View,” “Acid Bubble,” and “Take Her Out” aren’t bad either, they’re just less impressive than the rest and bring the album down a bit on the whole, as it seems a bit samey sounding at times over its hour plus duration. Then again, releasing a shorter album would’ve seemed cheap after such a long absence, and the album holds up well as an entire entity and gets better with repeated plays. They may have spawned a lot of inferior imitators, but with or without Layne few can replicate the emotional resonance and impact that this band achieves when they’re on their A game, which happens far more often than I expected.

Indeed, with this album Alice somehow managed to make a heavy rock album that appeals to rock radio without selling out, that’s true to their past without being a retread, and which pays the proper respects to Layne while proving that there’s a future for this band after all. In a way it’s their Temple Of The Dog tribute to Layne and it finally closes that last chapter in satisfying fashion. Whether future albums by this new incarnation of the band will measure up remains to be seen, but if not that won’t take away from the fact that this album has earned its place in the band’s legacy, and unlike the lead up to this album I won’t be negative about the next Alice In Chains album. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.


Underneath the Colours

You know what a “spontaneous hook” is? A totally subjective, but nevertheless relevant thing worth mentioning – well, okay, I’ve only just decided to call it that way but I do need to have a special term for that kind of thing, especially when I’m dealing with INXS albums all the time. A spontaneous hook is a hook which is only active while you’re actually hearing it, but has no staying power or memorability whatsoever. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to extreme cases when a conscious effort is being made to memorize the song – I mean, heck, after a couple hundred listens even Mariah Carey records will become memorable).

Underneath The Colours is easily the best LP to demonstrate the power of spontaneous hooks I’ve heard so far. Every song on here becomes interesting on second or third listen, and you have no right whatsoever to doubt the compositional talents or the intelligence of the composing team. But nothing actually agrees to stick in your head, not even a tiny bit, and I know I’m not alone on that issue, either, so there just must be something strange about the record. There must be something weird. Maybe it’s the lack of emotion; in fact, now that I’ve said it, I’m pretty sure this is the basic problem of the INXS, just as it used to be the basic problem of XTC in the Seventies. Underneath The Colours is a lot of fun while it’s on – it’s jumpy, bouncy, and modernistic without being too annoying in a bad Eighties way or too dependent on their influences, especially now that they have toned down the ska thing. But it’s also a cold, cold, unmoving record, an exercise in soulless formalism. Or maybe it’s just a kind of soul that I don’t ‘get’. Whatever.

With this, there’s just no emotional substance to the hooks, and since you don’t have a really colourful pattern to accompany the chords, there’s no hope to really memorize them. That’s how it looks to this particular reviewer, anyway. That said, while the album is on, it’s still a gas. You just have to get past the opener, ‘Stay Young’, which tries to get by on the force of the atmosphere alone – a ridiculous attempt, with all those breathy whispered vocals in the background and thin wimpy isolated synthesizer bleeps instead of full sonic landscapes. Even so, there’s a great guitar line almost lost in amidst all the mediocrity, which just goes to show that the INXS didn’t suck at having interesting ideas, they sucked at applying them and putting them into context.

In a certain sense, one could just argue that at this particular point Hutchence’s sense of romance vastly differed from the commonplace one. ‘Horizons’ is lyrically a love ballad, but musically just a minimalistically arranged New Wave “popper”. Maybe there are even people in this world that can be moved by the way Hutchence croaks out ‘I see the horizons of your love’, but I wouldn’t know about that anomaly. Gimme some Al Green instead, please. Or, at least, if we’re talking INXS here, something bouncier and snappier like ‘Big Go Go’. Now that’s a good song while it’s on. Raunchy, energetic, aggressive – ‘watch the world GO GO, it’ll spin ’til it stops… people gonna FLY OFF… when they turn it off’. But nothing remains once it’s over.

Probably the best hookline on the album is the chorus to ‘Fair Weather Ahead’, although the song itself is rather senseless, more like a blind lyrical imitation of Jim Morrison than anything else. Who are the ‘strange new creatures’, are wonder, and what’s their connection to fair weather? And is that hookline really good, or is it just because they repeat the chorus for so many times?

The dumbest thing of all is how everything on here sounds the same even if the songs are essentially different. There’s slow moody atmospheric stuff like ‘Horizons’ and ‘Just To Learn Again’. Or poppy upbeat stuff like ‘Big Go Go’. Or even a couple of really fast rockers like ‘Night Of Rebellion’. But the production sucks big time, with the same minimalistic grooves over and over again. Very few ska beats, like I said, mostly Police- and XTC-inspired New Wave pop rhythms, with a steady drumbeat and, say, a three- or four-note ringing guitar riff. And synthesizers, of course. All very tasteful, subtle even – but none of the musicians are virtuosos, and none of them can add any soul to the performances. And all of this is in major dire contrast to the nature of Hutchence’s lyrics, which – with a few disrespectful exceptions like ‘Fair Weather Ahead’ – are surprisingly mature and evocative.


Gish

With screaming guitars cutting through the famously propulsive Pumpkins chug, “I am One” and “Siva” start the album off with the band at their most hard edged, “Gish” presented a readymade and highly original hard rock force.  However, “Rhinoceros” presents a softer side to the Pumpkins that is also apparent on most of the other songs here, most of which inevitably erupt as well.

As for the rest of the songs, “Bury Me” brings the rock big time, again with screaming guitars aplenty, the lush “Crush” is a beautifully low-key ballad, the trippily atmospheric, Eastern-tinged “Suffer” would later be brilliantly sampled by Tricky, the soaring “Snail” is the album’s most impressively epic arena rocker (along with “Rhinoceros”), “Tristessa” is stylistically similar to “Bury Me” but isn’t as good, “Window Paine” has its ups and downs but its ups are genuinely exciting, and the charming finale “Daydream” is a lightly dreamy change of pace sung girlishly by bassist D’Arcy in her only lead vocal with the band. In retrospect, Gish was the blueprint for even better things to come, but the album should still thrill the majority of the band’s legions of followers. Led by Billy Corgan, this was a band born for big things that knew exactly what they wanted right from the start (according to Corgan, he wanted to “combine the atmosphere of goth-rock with heavy metal”), aspiring towards everything that all of their indie “peers” despised by refusing to check either ego or ambition at the door.

Granted, Corgan’s geeky, grating vocal whine takes some getting used to, but producer Butch Vig manages to smooth over its rough edges just enough, and his voice certainly is uniquely his own. Though it pales in comparison to its subsequent big brothers, on which Corgan’s songwriting would grow by leaps and bounds, Gish was the necessary first step that made those brilliant albums possible, and it remains an exciting and estimable first effort in its own right.