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4 minute read
Christopher John Farley

ROCK PERFORMERS USED TO THINK big. In the ’70s and ’80s, groups like Led Zeppelin and Genesis turned songs into epics stretching for seven, eight, nine minutes. But for the past several years–in part influenced by Nirvana, whose visceral songs got much of their power from their brutal succinctness–many rockers have opted for brevity. Hot bands like Green Day and Foo Fighters turn out short, single-minded songs whose melodies, like newly announced presidential candidates, strive for instant likability. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: blasting Weezer on your Walkman after a hard 9-to-5 or the Cranberries on your home stereo after a romantic breakup may be just what you need.

But the Smashing Pumpkins have always had grander ambitions. The Chicago-based alternative band is quite capable of turning out three-minute, radio-ready songs (Today, Disarm). It also excels in creating longer, art-pop compositions that wander about for seven minutes or more, exploring a variety of musical textures, melodies and emotions. The band’s first CD, Gish (1991), featured assertive rock that was at once primal and cerebral; its second, Siamese Dream (1993), was a buzzing, humming, intricately constructed maze of sounds.

Now comes its third album, the whimsically titled Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It’s the group’s most ambitious and accomplished work yet, a double-CD set containing more than two hours of music. “We were trying to get everything the band could do onto one release,” says lead singer Billy Corgan. “A lot of times things get left off because bands are trying to do a focused kind of rock album. A double CD widened the parameters of what we could do.”

Mellon Collie is a sprawling album of many moods. The opening track (also the title song) is a quietly moving piano-based instrumental; by contrast, the next song, Tonight, Tonight, is an expansive rock anthem, complete with soaring guitars and a 30-piece string section. “Believe, believe in me,” Corgan sings, as if pleading for listeners to trust in his band’s huge undertaking. Many of the songs here–such as Jellybelly, Here Is No Why and Muzzle–have an appealing, loose, raw edge. Others, like the nine-minute-long Porcelina of the Vast Oceans, flow gracefully and naturally along. One gets the feeling that the band–composed of leader Corgan, guitarist James Iha, bassist D’Arcy and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin–charged ahead on gut instincts; the sheer scope of the album (28 songs) didn’t allow for second-guessing or contrivance.

The Pumpkins’ music often deals with disconnection. “There’s nothing left to do,” Corgan complains on Jellybelly. “There’s nothing left to feel.” While the lyrics suggest pessimism, the music offers surges of optimism, swelling up and sweeping the listener along, proving there is much left to feel. Alienation and confusion for this band are reasons for reflection, not surrender. As Corgan sings on Muzzle: “The world so hard to understand/ is the world you can’t live without.”

Corgan, 28, who grew up listening to bands like (surprise!) Led Zeppelin, is blunt in his criticism of some current trends in pop music. Punk rock, for instance, is “not what it was in 1977,” he asserts, “and anybody who is old enough to remember knows the difference. It’s being heralded as a new movement, and we all know it’s bogus.” On rock stars who moan about the high cost of fame: “They’re total hypocrites. No one’s putting a gun to your head to do videos, to do tours, to do interviews.”

Corgan ridicules the recent and heavily hyped Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum all-star concert: “This is what sickened me. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, those people have earned their place in rock history, and I want to hear them anytime. But where was the representation of rock right now? Bon Jovi does not represent rock right now, O.K.?” And he expresses scorn for rockers he sees as imitations: “Let’s face it, Alanis Morissette is like a tame Courtney Love [a former girlfriend of Corgan’s who now heads the punk band Hole]. What is Alanis Morissette being held up as? This feministic step forward. The fact is, it’s people like Courtney and Kat Bjelland [of Babes in Toyland] who carved out that road. We should be rewarding the real artists.”

The Smashing Pumpkins too are clearing out a new rock-‘n’-roll road. It’s a difficult pathway, leading from disaffection and despair to emotional consummation. But for listeners looking to take a journey, not just a joyride, it’s a trip that shouldn’t be missed.

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