Under the Influence – The Smashing Pumpkins, reunions, and growing old gracefully

First off, let me apologize for the late column. I have been on vacation these last two weeks and I haven’t really done much of anything productive. Secondly, I would like to shift gears today and discuss something a little different than the norm. I was working on a column about trip-hop but then two, somewhat related, news items occurred that got me thinking about music and growing old. Heavy stuff, I know, but I thought good fodder for a column.

The first news item is a couple of weeks old and took place over the weekend and that is the reunion of Pink Floyd (minus Syd Barrett, of course) to take the stage of Live 8. Roger Waters decision to team up with David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright (who have been touring and releasing albums as Pink Floyd since Momentary Lapse of Reason). On one hand, I understand and appreciate the historic moment it is, on another I don’t see what all of the fuss is about. Their set will most likely only contain “the hits” while also foregoing any post-Waters material that I have been told by Floyd fans had some strong moments. I have always been skeptical of reunions in general. I don’t fault any band for trying to make money (especially, in Gang of Four‘s case, where their imitators made more money off their sound they did), but it doesn’t seem to be to progress art at all.

About eight months ago, I wrote a review of a Pixies show I saw with a group of friends.
The question I posed was if there was anything relevant going on. Perhaps I am the height of music snobbery, but I just can’t get excited about artists who aren’t doing something now to advance the art form. In that review, the line that got me the most e-mail (mostly angry) was referring to Frank Black, Kim Deal, Joey Santiago, and David Lovering as “a Pixies cover band featuring all four original members.” Though the review closed with me admitting that perhaps I should just enjoy the moment for what it was, needless to say it was the most controversial I ever wrote.

And then, it happened. The second news item that made me question my pretensious assumptions about music and relevancy. Billy Corgan had placed a full page ad in the Chicago Tribune essentially stating that he plans on reforming The Smashing Pumpkins. A couple of days later, drummer Jimmy Chamberlain had announced that he is on board as well. All of a sudden, all of the criticisms and opinions I had about reunions and fans that get needlessly excited about it had become internalized. I couldn’t contain my excitement.

I haven’t really enjoyed much of the post-Pumpkins work of any of the members (excluding James Iha’s solo album, but that was released while he was still a pumpkin and doesn’t really count). Billy Corgan has been the most active, assembling one of the first supergroups of the decade with Zwan, featuring David Pajo (Slint, Papa M) and Matt Sweeney. Corgan’s announcement of a Pumpkins reunion comes suspiciously timed with the release of his first solo album, TheFutureEmbrace, which have received lukewarm reviews. Because of the impact The Smashing Pumpkins had on the nineties, anytime a member is connected with a project, it will draw some interest.

I have seen the Pumpkins several times, but I have never been fortunate to see the original band. I have seen Matt Walker behind the kit in place of an ousted Jimmy. When Jimmy returned, I saw them, but this time Melissa Auf Der Maur was on bass duties for the departed D’Arcy. Thinking back on those concerts, I enjoyed them immensely but I keep getting the feeling that I didn’t see “the whole band.” That is why I appreciate the Pink Floyd reunion, though

The Smashing Pumpkins announcement got me thinking about myself. It has been reported in cultural studies that the lifestyles you connect to yourself (clothing, music, trends) leading up to and including your 24th birthday are those you will likely associate with for the rest of your life. I am 25.I have lived through the era when MTV stopped currying to my favor (A big reason why people stop searching for new music after a certain age, I feel.) I have already lived through the formation of “supergroups” made up of discarded remnants of the previous decade’s mega-acts (Velvet Revolver, Audioslave). I find myself listening to only college radio and NPR. I am getting older, and this is just another moment connected with music that is a passing landmark of my ever-increasing age.

And there is more to come. Artists that I respect immensely will trade in their credibility for commercial success, make a boatload of cash, and then fall off the face of the earth, only to return years later reminding people of the “good ‘ole days.” Bands will go on tour, charging ridiculous sums of money for crappy seats, wherein they will act like they are 22 again when their receding hairline (or lack of hair) will give them away. They will only play safe material to guarantee they will sell out the next time out. Worst than all of that, us as fans and consumers will accept it wholeheartedly, shelling out the cash and live a two hour trip down memory lane. Now that I think about it, those events appear to be occurring sooner rather than later.

What’s Going Around
Well, we are halfway through the year, so I decided to forgo the regular segment and instead list what I think are the best albums to have come out this first half. It has been a great year for debuts, as many heavily hyped bands have come through with more than promising results. What is exciting to know is that we still have (expected) releases from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, Xiu Xiu, Sufjan Stevens, TV on the Radio, and Radiohead down the road this year. And who knows if there will be an Arcade Fire ascension from some artist(s) that will catch the music world on fire, though some people have their theories. There are a couple of albums I haven’t listened to enough of yet (I’m thinking the new Coldplay and Angels of Light) to accurately gauge an opinion, so they are not included. So, in no particular order, one man’s humble opinions on the best albums of the first half of the year.

Antony and The JonsonsI am a Bird Now
-Some of the most emotional, delicate, music you are going to hear all year. Antony’s vocals are reminiscent of Aaron Neville in all of their wavering glory. I won’t argue that it is an acquired taste, but anyone who takes a chance on this will not be dissapointed.

Clap Your Hands Say YeahClap Your Hands Say Yeah
-In just a short time, this band has been getting the Internet in a buzz with their danceable indie-pop masterstrokes. This album is only going to get hotter once they sign to a label and gets some proper promotion.

Bloc PartySilent Alarm
-This stunning debut from these UK lads finds them opening up the tight, Gang of Four-style post-punk sound that categorized their early singles into a stadium-sized mammoth album with a couple of ballads thrown in for good measure.

System of a DownMesmerize
-This has been a somewhat controversial album. While some writers feel it is their best album yet,some vocal critics (some of which are on this site) feel it is a big step back. I am in neither camp, feeling that although it isn’t as gratifying or groundbreaking as Toxicity, it is a great effort and better than what 99% of what passes for music is.

Art BrutBang, Bang, Rock and Roll
-Art Brut are doing something that is always talked about, but rarely done; crafting wholly original, unironic tunes within the standard rock format, breathing new life in it in the process. My worry for them is how they will be promoted in the states, if they get a deal at all. “Emily Kane” has great potential to be a big hit, but in a one-hit-wonder, novelty sort of way. Definitely not deserving of a really good band.

Magnolia Electric CompanyWhat Comes After The Blues
– The former Songs: Ohia, a.k.a. Jason Molina, gives a name change in the process supplies the rock to his morose poems of longing and heartache. More distortion and less empty space make for a compelling listen. Though some of his fans may not like the transition, What Comes the Blues is a fitting title to an artist who is evolving his trademark sound.

-This album is a perfect example of band delivering that tired cliché, “taking it to the next level.” The problem with that phrase is that it is abstract, but anyone who has been listening to the Decemberists since Castaways and Cutouts know exactly what I mean. This has so far been the best album this year.

British Sea PowerOpen Season
– Though not as gripping as their debut, Open Season finds the Brighton quintet applying their open sound formula (think Echo and the Bunnymen meets The Pixies) to another albums length of material. Perhaps my expectations were high as my initial disappointment has settled into a very enjoyable experience.

-The underground success of this album is proof that indie scenesters are as much a sucker for a good hook as anyone who just “listens to the radio” for their music fix. Every song could be a single, which is the mark of what a great pop album should be.

Shout Out LoudsHowl Howl Gaff Gaff
– Yet another example of a great band from Sweden reinterpreting rock into something exciting. For me, Sweden (The Hives, The Raveonettes, Jens Lekman, Radio Dept.) is on the sacred list of locations, along with Iceland (Bjork, Sigur Ros, Mum, Minus) and Montreal (The Unicorns, The Dears, The Arcade Fire) that I will check out a band if I find out they are from there.

I hope you enjoyed this belated column. Next week, I will come through with that promised column on Trip-hop. I will see you then.

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