ALBUMS : POP MUSIC : Smashing Pumpkins Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness Hut HUT-DMC 30
'It's Corgan's claim on greatness, the expression of an ego at extreme odds with its nerdy physical presence'
From the Metallica-fashion dirge-metal of "Zero" to the Wire-esque fuzz trudge of "Love" and the New Order-style shudder of "1979", Corgan reflects his influences spectacularly - it's just a shame that, like every other American rocker of his age, those influences include all manner of painted- faced and poodle-haired heavy-metal bands as well as the more interesting and disciplined punk and alternative outfits. It's the gnarled tradition of pomp-metal, prizing the Grand Statement and the double-album, that most informs Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness: this is the Pumpkins' Physical Graffiti, a weighty double slab of inflated emotion and dramatic gesture, saddled with an Elton John off-cut title.
As all double-albums must, it opens with an instrumental overture, a plaintive piano and mellotron affair tailor-made for cranking up the anticipation level before a live show. It's a red herring, of course: all too soon, the Pumpkins are into a gruelling round of punk thrash and fuzz-metal epic, tempered with an occasional lighter pop moment. At every turn, the portentous progressions leave you in no doubt that this is really heavy stuff, man, even the relatively graceful twinkling harp of "Cupid de Locke" and the almost weightless acoustic lilt of "Galapagos".
Parts of it are, admittedly, brilliant - the gentle textures, curlicues of pedal steel and falsetto chorus of "Take Me Down" are reminiscent of mid- to late-period Beach Boys, and "To Forgive" has the emotional sweep of great over-reaching pop - but his all-encompassing ambition has led Corgan up a few blind alleys. In particular, the nine-minutes-plus "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans" is as redundant and pretentious as its title is reminiscent of a Yes song, crawling from shimmery-cymbal intro to the kind of grotesque, cosmically cumbersome epic that was all but consigned to the dumper in 1977. It's alternative rock, Jim, but not as we know it.
Bright, smart and chipper, Cast's debut album is saturated with all the classic Scouse-beat virtues: guitars janglesome in the extreme, harmonies buffed to a lustrous sheen, songs hewn from classic raw materials. As leader/ singer/ songwriter John Power was once a member of Liverpool's late, lamented La's - arguably the band most directly accountable for the current Brit-pop explosion - this is perhaps only to be expected. On its own terms, All Change is a Power-pop masterpiece - which isn't to say it's perfect, just mindful of its own ambitions and limitations.
For one thing, Power seems to have no interest at all in original musical moves, being content simply to refine a pre-existent style, in the Oasis manner. As a result, the album has a bright, superficial appeal that doesn't bear too deep scrutiny: you might hum some of these tunes, but you're unlikely to recall any of the lyrics in much detail, they being mainly cobbled together from cliches. The other possible weak point is the apparent lack of black musical input: the original Scouse beatsters fed on early Motown and suchlike, but there's scant evidence here of R&B influence - All Change is unashamedly white-boyish in rhythm and style, a decision reflected in the brittle, toppy sound.
Though not exactly Godfather of the Brit-pop boom, Suggs from Madness has, thanks largely to Damon Albarn's testimony, become one of the genre's more influential reference points. Having launched his solo career with a canny application of the UB40 strategy of covering an old pop classic as a sprightly reggae number, this debut album tries to build on the Brit- pop association but sells itself short as a result: the references to Terry and Julie in "4am", for instance, merely remind one of a much greater work.
Likewise, while the slice of NW1 life on "Camden Town" is more sincere than most London hymns, it seems too self-consciously jaunty, with little of the nutty appeal Suggs and co-author Mike Barson have so clearly striven for. The Lone Ranger is, for the most part, mercifully free of rhyming slang and whelk-speak, though only just in some cases, especially "Off on Holiday", which is limp cockernee-pop of Blurry proportions, Suggs claiming a preference for south-east coast resorts and "a pot of tea in a rotten little beach hut by the sea" over your fancy foreign parts.
Much of the album is perky but undistinguished, with Sly & Robbie on their most perfunctory form and the only significant change of mood coming at the end with the string-sodden "She's Gone", which is more regretful than roisterous.
The inelegantly named W C comes out of the South-Central crack culture that spawned his gangsta chums Ice Cube and Coolio - the latter a former member of W C's Maad Circle - and he kicks it with impressive style on the best West Coast rap offering since Coolio's album.
The style starts with W C's beard, a three-pronged facial tonsure like Neptune's trident poking from his chin, and continues with the cover photo, in which the Maad laads, hands concealing gats in shirts and paper bags, lean menacingly into your car window - a crack-sale scenario poised to explode into something more bloody. The same goes for the album, which offers peeks into other peoples' misery but never lets you relax completely into voyeuristic mode. Lyrically, it's pretty much the same old ghetto sabre-rattling and sex-boasts, rolling along on low-riding P-Funk grooves like so many other rap releases, but W C brings an angry swagger to his lines that keeps them closer to the core of disaffection than the hedonism of most recent G-Funk rap.
Reunited for the first time since Crowded House's hugely successful Woodface, the brothers Finn go for an eccentric immediacy on their first release as a duo. These songs were written quickly and recorded quickly, with Tim (drums) and Neil (bass) doubling as rhythm section as well as fronting the material with their usual guitars.
As such, there's a possibility of the arrangements appearing rudimentary and slapdash, a danger co-producer Tchad Blake averts with an array of unusual effects and textures, from the scraping noises on "Niwhai" to the use of a Chamberlain (a sort of psychedelic antique keyboard akin to a mellotron) on "Eyes of the World". The writing location - a Polynesian island - also exerts its influence, with delicate droplets of Hawaiian guitar scattered through "Mood Swinging Man".
Overall, the album combines the scrappy shamateurism of Tim Finn's recent ALT release with the musical diversity of the last Crowded House album. It's not exceptional, but at its best, on "Only Talking Sense", it achieves a rough-hewn kind of graceful pop magic.
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