THE CRITICS ROCK: The not so smashing Pumpkins

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When the Smashing Pumpkins' last album came out, they were lumbered with the unenviable epithet of "prog-rock band". It served them right. They had lumbered their album with the name Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Hut), and the 28 songs therein were called things like "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans", "Bullet With Butterfly Wings" and "Cupid de Locke". By the end of the two-hour record, anyone would yearn for the short, sharp, adrenalin spurts of Yes and Pink Floyd. Name and length aside, though, there is nothing very prog about Mellon Collie. It's more like reg rock: no goblins or aliens, just grunge alienation, as epic as a book of limericks. And all of it smeared with Billy Corgan's petulant squall, a voice that makes him sound as if he's permanently mid-strangulation.

In concert at the Birmingham NEC Arena on Tuesday, the Pumpkins' egos were smaller than their album would suggest, but everything else was bigger. Planning to bombard us into submission, they turned their amps up to 12, and subjected us to an earbleeding, nosebleeding, double-drumkitted onslaught. They could be tuneful when they wanted to, but they didn't want to very often.

Even geeky Corgan, who, despite selling five million copies of Mellon Collie, doesn't seem able to afford any clothes apart from the silver trousers and the "zero" sweatshirt that he wore on the album sleeve, has shaved his head, mastered his guitar-hero slouch, and toughened up both his body and his voice. For once, he was as scary as he imagines himself to be.

On a screen behind the band, there flashed a kaleidoscopic film of over- exposed, negative images. Then there were the strobes, just on the off- chance that the music wasn't giving us quite enough of a headache.

Through it all, the Pumpkins seemed like remarkably chirpy people. Corgan made the obligatory BSE jokes that pass for humour in US rock stars ("In America we have silly chicken disease") and when he and fellow guitarist James Iha snapped at each other they sounded stunningly like Beavis and Butthead. Has anyone seen MTV's cartoon cretins in the same room as the Smashing Pumpkins? I think not. This would explain Corgan's veneration of Judas Priest, whom, he said, he once saw in concert. "They had a motorcycle," he said, Beavis in all but name. "We don't have a motorcycle. Sorry."

Next tour, they should. It would be in character for a band who rounded off their second encore with a dark, psychedelic jam that lasted longer than any piece of rock music since the Isle of Wight Festival ... and then came back on-stage to play some more. This is, believe it or not, a positive review. There aren't many multi-million-selling bands who take sensory assault to the limit, and then take it a few miles beyond. The Pumpkins do so with aplomb. Who says size isn't important?

The mailroom staff at Atlantic Records will soon have to sort through an avalanche of videotapes, because Darius Rucker, the throaty, goateed lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, asked the audience at the Shepherd's Bush Empire to post him copies of the EastEnders Omnibus. When guitarist Mark Bryan expressed a preference for the silicone soap Melrose Place, Rucker wasn't having any of it: "Melrose can't touch the EastEnders, man. The EastEnders, that shit is real."

This attitude explains why HATB are blowfish out of water on this side of the pond. Realness? Straightforward, honest-to-God authenticity rather than glamour and irony? We can just about take that kind of talk from Paul Weller, but from a gang of Dukes of Hazzard walk-ons? Never. Still, it also explains why Rucker could afford to fly the EastEnders cast to South Carolina, to act out each episode on his front porch. Saleswise, HATB are currently making U2 seem like a shower of indie no-hopers.

They have achieved success beyond their wildest American dreams by playing the music of the trailer park, the quarter-pounder and the Budweiser. It's rootsy country-rock, redolent of mandolin-era REM, with Joe Cocker on vocals. Cynics might remark that their audience is the oldest, most plaid-shirt-heavy crowd you'll ever see, but this column has no truck with age or material-pattern-related prejudice. You've got to take your baseball cap off to HATB. What they do may be unoriginal and unchallenging, but they do it well. They are hooky, sunny and very nearly gutsy, and it's easy to see why Bobby Jr might have their new album, Fairweather Johnson, alongside his REM CDs, while Bobby Sr has it next to his Byrds, Eagles and Nanci Griffith LPs.

That said, HATB are too darn real to put on a show. They just get on with the job. So, in America they fill stadia. Here, they're still touring theatres. Ideally, they'd be rocking away in the corner of your local bar.

The new album by the Cocteau Twins, Milk and Kisses (Fontana), was born out of trauma. Their press release tells how they were recovering from co-dependency, drug addiction, bulimia and repressed-memory syndrome at the time of recording. You wouldn't know it. The album is all soft-focus and watercolours and cotton wool, more ice-cream than primal scream. As for the live show, no one at the Albert Hall on Wednesday was going to mistake Liz Fraser for Courtney Love. Bjork, maybe, as she stood huddled in her cardigan, floor-length skirt and trainers. The only difference is that you can understand what Bjork's singing about.

But with a voice like that, who cares if Fraser chants in a made-up language? Forget your Whitney Houstons and your Celine Dions. If it's sheer, ethereal beauty you're after, Fraser's unforced operatic soprano will melt your heart. If only it had more to work with. The recent single, "Tishbite", has some structure, but too many of the songs are wispy and lacking in direction, any solidity washed away by the plangent, sustained guitars of Robin Guthrie and Mitsuo Tate. The purple lighting was subdued, the band were sheepish, and as the audience's attention drifted, you started to feel you were in the presence of the indie Mike Oldfield. If this is as gripping as the Twins get after all their troubles, what on earth would they sound like if life were sweet?

Smashing Pumpkins: Belfast Ulster Hall (01232 323900), tonight; Wembley Arena (0181 900 1234), Tues; Brixton Academy, SW9 (0171 924 9999), Wed.