Like most everybody else who first surfaced on a SubPop 7-inch, the Smashing Pumpkins came on heavy with the Black Sabbath routines. But the Gourds o' Grunge could get psychedelic on your ass, too. Singer-guitarist Billy Corgan's tunesmithery was as erratic as it was ambitious, but the best and brightest moments on Gish and Siamese Dream were skyscraping pieces of guitarchitecture indeed. Shaving his head – and letting his '70s prog-rock and '80s synth-pop roots show on a double-CD “concept album” titled Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness that sold 4.5 million copies (!) – Corgan paraded around concert stages in a T-shirt emblazoned “ZERO” for too long before his rehab-prone drummer got the boot when the tour keyboardist OD'd on the road.
After four albums of pomp and circumstance, Corgan and crew (guitarist James Iha and bassist D'Arcy) decided to . . . make a multilayered, mostly keyboard-driven album of love songs, tricked up with enough industrial loops, samples, drum patterns, etc., to let you know it is 1998, after all. As always, it's the Billy Corgan Experience, which means it's time to recalibrate your Pretenti-O-Meters. Yes, he knows more than three chords. Yes, there're all those elaborately structured arrangements. And yes, some of these songs were written to be played in stadiums. Yes, there're more girls' names in these tunes' titles than on a Little Richard greatest-hits collection. Yes, Billy sings most everything in that peculiar, pinched voice that's not always as expressive as he'd like to think it is. And yes, the epic production values overshadow the not always memorable melodies and not always sharp hooks.
“Perfect,” however, is just that (actually, it's a commercial-minded follow-up to the band's “1979” hit) – space-age bohemian love-shack Muzak. Meanwhile, “Shame” walks down lonely streets with a meaty, stuttering hook. “Ava Adore” melds psychedelic Beatles moves to that ridiculous shock-value line “You'll always be my whore.” “Daphne Descends” is more '70s pomp, “Tear” is more psychedelic Beatles, and “Appels + Oranjes” is more industrious than industrial. Although “Pug” and “For Martha” have their moments, “Crestfallen” is a prom ballad a la the Cars' “Drive,” and “Annie-Dog” is odd but affecting. “To Sheila,” “The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete,” “Blank Page,” “17” (a 17-second sound snippet, doncha just know) and “Behold! The Night Mare” are all various shades of dull. (Don Waller)
Moment of Truth
With Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal (a.k.a. Guru) holding tight to the mic, and one of progressive music's supreme producers, DJ Premier, working the console, Gang Starr activates hip-hop once again. There's never been a time when this duo gave less than their all, and Moment of Truth, GS' fifth full-length (coming four years after their last), states a strong case that they're rap's premier team. That's not to say it's all good, but with about 15 gems out of these 20, Gang Starr can rightfully claim to be masters.
“Robbin Hood Theory,” “Above the Clouds,” “Moment of Truth,” “What I'm Here 4” and “My Advice 2 You” set down the record's general theme, loosely spreading the illuminating message of the torchbearer who arrives through triple darkness to uplift. Guru's poetics offer fragments of different teachings that don't always complement each other – including those of the Five Percent Nation, Koranic-based principles and Right Knowledge – so some may figure he's confused, but his energy encourages growth, both for his community and himself.
DJ Premier has taken his production approach to a more complex level, favoring piano keys strolling in loops, in tune with strong bass progressions, string arrangements, vocal/scratch inserts and the bounce-stutter of sampled percussion. A touch of redundancy makes a few of the songs tired, especially with Guru's “king of monotone” flows – “Work,” “The Mall” and “The Militia” should be skipped on the quick-fast.
Gang Starr is joined on the album most noticeably by Scarface, Inspectah Deck and K-Ci & JoJo, whose contributions make the “ghetto style proverbs” found within the grooves of this beautifully sequenced album all the more intriguing. “Brain waves swell, turning the desert to a well” . . . Moment of Truth radiates “with a force that can't be compared – it's mind power, shared.” Check it! (Carlos Nino)
The beats have become more sophisticated, the lyrics more nuanced, the textures richer, but this Finnish ensemble's most arresting quality remains its giddiness. Even when they're doing drum 'n' bass – credibly, and well – they can't help bounding through their own sound paintings, trailing guitar riffs or joyful vocal yowls like tots in the midst of a 10-year snowball fight.
Since starting to sing primarily in English on 1987's The Kings of Hongkong, 22-Pistepirkko (the name translates as 22-Ladybug) have hurtled through infatuations with garage punk, swampy blues, new-wave pop and, most recently, electronica, and somehow managed to sound like no one but themselves. Eleven comes steeped in contemporary beats and seductive aural backdrops, but instead of merely using samples, this band does a lot with echoes, their music a jumble of recontextualized rock history. As always, the lyrics vacillate between awkward English and playful poetics, relying on the eccentric vocals' surprising emotional range for impact. Thus, lines such as “Got the divorce and married again/I love honeymoons” achieve a creepy obsessiveness beyond the words, and the marriage proposal embedded in the sweetly languorous “Beautiful Morning” rings with loneliness.
In song after song, 22-P establishes a groove, then erupts into an irresistible chorus that sometimes barely fits with what came before. So many new pop ensembles tend to emulate, pay homage to or appropriate from the music they grew up on, but 22-Pistepirkko's unabashed and unironic love for it makes their genre-smashing experiments that
much more exhilarating. (To order, e-mail 22-P through their fan club and label, Bare Bone Business, at 22-Pistepirkko @bbb.inet.fi) (Glen Hirshberg)
Joi Cardwell (Eightball)
Joi Cardwell is an R&B singer who, when the mood strikes to go up-tempo, goes house. As a songwriter (she writes or co-writes all her material), her natural interests are the vagaries of love and a soft spot for the underdog – the cornerstones of both R&B and house. Club heads who got hooked on her 1995 hit “You Got To Pray” will likely be put off by the ballads and midtempo tracks on her self-titled sophomore effort, which is too bad, because that's where she does some of her loveliest, most heartfelt singing (“Crying Eyes,” the libidinous churn of “Wet” and especially “Stop & Think”).
But there's more than enough to reel the dance contingent back in: the airy but thumping groove of “Found Love”; the hard beats and frantic energy of “Power,” a counterattack on a worthless lover that doubles as a tirade against the powers that be (imagine Aretha taking the political subtext of “Respect” and tacking it onto the song's end in big, bold letters); “Turn Back Time”; and a bonus anthemic mix of “You Got To Pray.” There's nothing groundbreaking here, but if you listen to it as a solid R&B effort instead of a mixed-bag dance affair, it stands head and shoulders above most of what's out there. (Ernest Hardy)