You're Reliving All Over Me
New Albums From Dinosaur Jr., Smashing Pumpkins, And Shellac Are Actually Pretty Good--If Anybody's Still Listening
Don't call it a comeback, a reunion, a reckoning, or even a band. Or, if you like, you can call it any or all of them. But it's time to stop pretending that a band's life is limited, finite, or logical, even when it comes to 1990s-era alternative and indie powerhouses whose ethics supposedly jibed with punk's progressive values. Exiting bandmates have never, ever spelled a group's demise, even when the character of the music changes as a result. But we've entered an era when actually calling it quits means nothing unless a key member buys the farm. And sometimes not even then--just ask Alice in Chains or the Doors.
Otherwise, the most acrimonious breakup can be healed with cash guarantees or when nobody's got anything more exciting to do with their time or when the principals show up just for the sake of the limelight--just ask Dinosaur Jr. and Smashing Pumpkins. Reclusive humanoid sloth J. Mascis kept Dinosaur Jr. idling long after his initial collaborators had flown the feedback-drenched coop, most notably first bassist Lou Barlow to sulk as Sentridoh, co-found the equally passive-aggressive Sebadoh, and then go folky/electronic as half of the Folk Implosion. Discomfort and jealously between Mascis and Barlow provided an irresistible extra-musical dimension to the Dinosaur Jr. narrative; with the tension resolved, the major-label contract signed, and Mascis eventually handling most of the core duties, the band lost its very (discordant) reason for being--a fact that became apparent to even Mascis, who closed shop in the late '90s.
On the brand-new Beyond (Fat Possum), the original three (Mascis, Barlow, and drummer Murph) improbably reunite, ably kicking out invigorating rock jams that suggest Mascis knowingly kept his best interim tunes off his own lame 2000s solo albums. What's funny is though these guys look strikingly different today--Macsis could double for a wicked witch, Barlow rocks the skeevy record-store clerk thing, Murph's a bargain-basement Kurt Angle--this record would fit nicely alongside Dinosaur Jr.'s early work, again evoking dudes tunefully thrashing out their neurosis in a sweaty basement adorned with Neil Young and Black Flag posters. Beyond feels familiar, vital, sincere. Mascis' breathtakingly unstoppable guitar leads ignite "Almost Ready" and squeeze "Been There All the Time" like a python gripping its mammal prey, his cracking, slacker cries oozing regret and uncertainty. Barlow chips in the blazing, midtempo family ode "Back to Your Heart," arguably his finest emo anthem since Sebadoh's Bakesale.
The most egregious aspect of Smashing Pumpkins' "reunion" album Zeitgeist (Martha's Music/Reprise) isn't the negligible absence of useless original members D'arcy Wretzky and James Iha. It's the album's homogenous, pulverizing bombast. You get the impression that in the years since the Pumpkins' dissolution--when frontman Billy Corgan wasn't publishing an embarrassing poetry book, threatening to write a novel, producing various bands, co-writing songs for Courtney Love, fronting Zoloft-flavored supergroup Zwan, slagging ex-bandmates on his web site, or releasing a solid-but-ignored solo record--Corgan was quietly fuming over all the message-board bile regarding the Pumpkins' post-1995 output, when he seemed to lose interest in angry, multitracked guitar thunder.
So Zeitgeist's searing, slamming first half can be translated as a profitable "How you like me now?" Or "Please pay attention to me because I'm dying without your adoration." Or "I don't feel that our nation's youth are adequately patronizing their local Guitar Centers." It's an auspicious reintroduction--stunning, arrogant, and a bit annoying all at once, like an unrelenting half-hour of 1995's biting "Zero" without sticky hooks or that distinctively soft-and-loud melodic DNA that once made any given Pumpkins single instantly recognizable within five seconds. "Tarantula," the yowling first single, comes the closest to that old shock and awe, and it's down to Corgan's wild and crazy Yngwie Malmsteen shredding, returning drummer Jimmy Chamberlin's unstated directive to puncture eardrums, and the gossamer acoustic time-out snuck in near the end.
By the time Corgan and Chamberlin move into less cosmos-annihilating areas--the Sea and Cake-ish "Neverlost," the synth-poppy "Bring the Light"--you're almost too exhausted to care. The Great Pumpkin's whiny, wishy-washy lyrical preoccupations are now more political/cultural than personal/religious--call him Che Corgan, or get him a MySpace account--which, to be honest, is the most significant advance this album represents, even if the overall impression of self-concerned aggro persists. Zeitgeist's tinnitus-inducing heaviosity is nonetheless an impressive mainstream feat in an age of rampant pop and kiddie-rap, and if these two alt-rawk survivors can help (re)inspire an apathetic nation to spring for cheap axes, then these dusted delusions of repeated grandeur were worth their (and our) trouble.
For other bands, prolonged inaction doubles as conjectural splitsville, a means of keeping the group's options open for a triumphant return nobody really expects, while still never having to concede defeat. Chicago trio Shellac operates outside of the continuum of hungry artists because the band represents a hobby for its members, who earn their living producing albums (guitarist/singer Steve Albini and bassist/singer Bob Weston) and managing a shipping company (drummer Todd Trainer). Touring? Releasing records? Whenever. No hurry. This is why Excellent Italian Greyhound (Touch & Go) is only Shellac's fourth record since 1994, and is what lends the band's albums an air of undeserved excitement--even though none of the band's subsequent efforts has rivaled debut At Action Park, fans remain perpetually rabid for whatever's next.
Greyhound represents both the longest wait between Shellac releases and the biggest stylistic leap from the group's mangy, Wire-inspired sound, though certain ongoing traditions are observed. There must be arresting cover art that catches the eye or wrinkles the lip, this time of dogs and produce. There must be über-macho posturing that is probably mocking in nature--see the snarling, concussive "Be Prepared." There must be an opening track that aims to be unsettling. On Greyhound it's the brusquely battering "The End of Radio," where Albini tersely assumes the role of the world's last DJ, addressing a void in near-hysterics: "That snare drum, that drum roll, means we've got a winner/ If you're the fifth caller, or any caller at all . . . / I'd like to thank our sponsor/ We haven't got a sponsor."
This is all par for the band's knotted course, at least until "Genuine Lulabelle" and "Spoke" arrive. The former is a decentered plain of near-silence wherein Albini croons a scene that's alternately romantic and pornographic--a premise that takes a what-the-fuck turn when famed movie-trailer announcer Ken Nordine begins to parrot these sentiments, inflating an awkward joke into the sort of earth-shattering event men often like to pretend sex is. The latter, on the other hand, is like a compositional version of a Russian doll: a hardcore punk spasm within a Stereolab chordal wrangle within a '60s pop song. Bewildering and meaningless, "Spoke" showcases these three DIY lifers doing what they want to do because they can. Does it signal a direction change? Maybe, maybe not. But by the time Shellac re-emerges, it won't much matter. Do you even enjoy the song, or the entire album? If you didn't, that's not the band's problem, and they won't lose a wink of sleep. Artistic indifference is bliss.
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