Wednesday, May 18, 2011

There and Back Again…

Awhile back I did a post on final albums, and I have a few more of those in the works. But this batch focuses on albums after an extended hiatus, when for all practical purposes the world could have assumed that these guys had delivered their last batch of new material, but were pleasantly surprised (or not) to have them get back together for a time with either one last nostalgic hurrah or as a second (or third) latter stage of their career.

Go-Betweens

16 Lovers Lane (1988) - With 16 Lovers Lane the Go-Betweens successfully completed the transition from the angular post punk posturing of 1982’s Send Me a Lullaby to a polished and sophisticated brand of pop that, while radio ready, was as intelligent and intuitive as any of the accessibly expressive albums that had come in between. The subjects of love, life and art continue to dominate these ten songs, with the standard 50-50 split between singer/songwriter/guitarists Robert Forster and Grant McLennan. The sheen is most apparent, and effective, on McLennan’s more straightforward offerings, from opener Love Goes On, to perennial favorite Streets of Your Town, to the bitter angst of Was There Anything I Could Do. His voice sets the stage for songs that are warm yet aloof, letting you peer inside but never enter for the full picture. Still, Forster manages to all but steal the show with his plaintive croon, never quite shedding the bookish, arty and often morose edge of their early days, with the pensive Love is a Sign, the wispy Clouds and Dive for Your Memory, a closer that is as poignant and moving as you’d expect from a band as consistently conscious and introspective as the Go-Betweens.

And then 12 years later…

The Friends of Rachel Worth (2000) – After more than a decade apart, Forster/McLennan pick up (sadly sans drummer Lindy Morrison) not so much where they left off as where they would have logically been had they continued working together as an active unit throughout the 90s. The old magic is still quite potent and the mesh in no way frayed as Australia’s greatest songwriting team delivers ten more superb tracks of alt-pop that only they could. The gloss of 16 Lovers Lane is completely gone and the bare, rustic approach hearkens back to the early days of Before Hollywood or the more angular moments of Spring Hill Fair, but with a more maturely cultivated pop sense than the youthfulness of those albums allow. McLennan is as confessional and melodically moving as ever, while Forster remains frank and open in his interpretation of the world around him. Whereas with the first stage of their career each writer’s songs were distinctly their own, The Friends of Rachel Worth finds them melding together with a raw, almost harder edged sound that is unique unto itself and yet clearly the Go-Betweens. With all members of Sleater-Kinney on board to not only flesh out the band but give credence to the Go-B’s legacy and influence, it was a triumphal comeback in every possible way.

But is this really it? – Yes, even though they released two more wonderful albums of adult-alterno-pop, with the untimely death of Grant McLennan in 2006, the Go-Betweens are no more and will never release another album of new/original material.

New Order

Republic (1993) – I’ve commented several times before (though maybe not here) that New Order was a great singles band more than anything, as often their albums, while containing some good songs, often feel half-baked and unfocused in comparison. This is especially true with Low Life and Brotherhood, though by Technique it seemed like they were finally taking the concept of a long play seriously and, with one glaring misstep (Fine Time, I hate your guts), it’s a pretty solid album, even if it waffles back and forth between acid dance and more standard “pop rock.” With Republic, all of that finally came together. From the opening guitar of Regret to the somber drums of Avalanche, Republic is a dark, melodic tour de force of hard-edged dance tunes that (like Power, Corruption & Lies and a dozen singles along the way) again resets the shape and boundaries of pop music. Bernard sounds better than ever before and the band is cohesive and fluid, as each song flows one into the other and everything feels just right. It’s the first, and only, album where they seem to embrace where they are, by acknowledging where they began (as the murky doom of Joy Division) and how they got there (as dance pop pioneers) and meshing the two together in an effort that equally points backwards, forwards and also speaks for the moment. And then they stopped. But it was a good place to do so, ‘cos this is their magnum opus.

And then eight years later…

Get Ready (2001) – I was truly excited about this album, especially after hearing the lead single, Crystal. It was formulaic, but the concoction is always tasty when NO does it right, which they do track after track on Get Ready. My first, and continued, impression is that it reminded me a lot of Low Life and Brotherhood, more “rock” oriented than dance pop (though that signature sound is certainly present), but also far more “together” than either of those albums. Even rather banal outings like Rock the Shack and Slow Jam maintain an endearing quality that finds my head bobbing and my lips singing along, even if the lyrics are sorta, you know, there. Still, there are plenty of obviously worthwhile songs like the moody Vicious Streak, dance-tastic Someone Like You, pensively positive Run Wild and the absolutely gorgeous Turn My Way, a duet with then guest member Billy Corgan that is equally balls out and heartbreaking. Overall this album sees NO seeming to feel good about making music again, nothing forced, everything natural, and so the results are going to be enjoyable, even if they aren’t rewriting the blueprint for pop music. I mean they already have about a dozen times.

But is this really it? – It appears so. With 2005’s pleasant but forgettable Waiting for the Siren’s Call, it seems that Hooky had (again) had enough and quit the band to pursue other interests, leaving the rest of the guys (with Gillian officially gone, it was all guys at this point) to form Bad Lieutenant, who put out an album in 2009 that I never heard. (Sorry, Bernie!)

Smashing Pumpkins

*Machina/The Machines of God (2000) – The best things about this album are the worst things about this album, namely Billy Corgan’s ambition (and ego) and a loose storyline based on caricature versions of the band and a statement about the record industry in general. The first four songs are excellent, with Stand Inside Your Love being one of the greatest songs ever written. Ever. But from there everything gets lost in a sludge of excess and over production, with the songs and everything about them lost in a tidal wave of f/x and layer upon layer of guitar. While this worked on previous efforts, here it sounds muddled and chaotic. Listened to on their own, almost every tune is great, but from front to back Machina is well over an hour of music that is a cerebral challenge at best and a downright mess at worst. In a way this was a fitting end to the Pumpkins, a concerted effort at (another) magnum opus that succeeds just long enough to topple over on itself.

*I realize that there is a Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music that was a released as a free download after Machina, but since it wasn’t commercially available, had no released singles, etc, I’m not going to officially count it…though I do like it quite a bit more than Machina I. So, there you have that.

And then seven years later…

Zeitgeist (2007) – Even without James and D’Arcy, Zeitgeist is a worthy comeback. Easily the most consistently heavy album from the Pumpkins to date, it’s also one of the catchiest and melodic. It’s full of hooks and riffs that stick in your head and make themselves welcome. One thing I love is how much Billy is doing with his voice, layering harmonies and counter melodies in ways he’d never done before, or at least as frequently, and the results are a ferocious kind of pop that to me means that the Pumpkins were not only back, but in full force. Yes, there are moments to yawn at, as the indulgence of United States is just an attempt to recreate the 20-something angst of Silver F*ck (which in and of itself can get a bit tedious), and trading in his signature self/world-loathing for a bunch of politically outraged commentaries isn’t really my thing, but skip buttons are easy to push and overall the album carries on with as much worth and power as any of the best moments from Mellon Collie on, with Bring the Light being one of Corgan’s best songs (and solos) since Siamese Dream.

But is this really it? – No, not by a long shot it seems. Billy and Co began releasing free downloads of songs that would/will eventually become Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, while also fitting out replacements for Jimmy C on drums and Ginger Pooley on bass. I’m not really sure of the status on all of those songs and the completed album (maybe Wiki knows…), but everything I’ve heard has been pretty swell, plus they allegedly have another new album called Oceania in the wings for 2011 to boot. RAWK!!

1 comment:

benjijones said...

There are some good tracks on Machina, but I haven't been able to listen to it in years.

The 2nd track "Rain" is, to me, one of the worst songs ever written. Listening to Corgan's repetitive whine about the weather reaches an inexcusable level of epic craptitude. I hate it so much I would literally leave the room in anger if my roommate had that song on. Even more distressing was that Corgan was convinced this song was more than an out-take.

Thus, on top of making me want to punch a wall, the song symbolized the decline of the amazing band that I loved was crazy about through Siamese Dream, M&tIS, and Adore.