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Smashing Pumpkins

The massive success of Smashing Pumpkins is positively uncanny -- MTV Video Awards, Grammy Awards, plaudits from Rolling Stone and Spin -- but in a decade with so few true rock stars, the band fills a void. The band's frontman and overweening artistic visionary, Billy Corgan, has no real charisma, but he makes up for it with his megalomania and contrived costume changes (from indie rocker to glitter bug to bald guy). His bandmates, James Iha (guitar) and D'Arcy Wretzky (bass), don't offer much personality, preferring instead to keep quiet and create a "mystique."

As for Smashing Pumpkins' music, it's never been innovative or even terribly interesting, but it's always been timely. The band's debut, Gish (1991), fit in nicely with the swirling bliss-rock prevalent at the time. The sophisticated production of Siamese Dream, which made the band a household name in 1993, seemed like a valid reaction to the raw sound of grunge. By 1995, when the double-disc concept album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness appeared, Pearl Jam had made bloated rock 'n' roll fashionable again. Smashing Pumpkins may not be a great band, but they pretend to be -- and that's good enough for most people.

Adore, the band's fourth studio album, comes at the tail end of a decade in which neither rock musicians nor rock fans are very excited about anything. For better or worse, the album captures that general feeling, or lack of it. The songs are predominantly slow and morose, with nary a rocker in the bunch. Despite working out his rage, Corgan is still just a rat in a cage: Lyrically he's covering a maze of familiar territory. "To Sheila," which opens the album, delves immediately into nonsensical poesy ("Twilight fades through blistered avalon/The sky's cruel torch on aching autobahn"). "Ava Adore" features some reheated Reznorisms, such as "In you I feel so pretty/In you I taste God." There are a couple of decent pop numbers here (the chug-along songs "Perfect" and "Appels + Oranjes"), along with two very nice ballads ("Annie-Dog" and "The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete"). But mostly, Corgan creates epic soundtracks for his limited insights into love ("You were never meant to belong to me," from "Crestfallen") and death ("Heaven is to blame/For taking you away," from "Tear").

The best this album has to offer is its production, by none other than Billy Corgan (with occasional help from Brad Wood, who's worked with Veruca Salt and Liz Phair). There are some very nice touches here: Euro-disco rhythms, '80s keyboards, fuzzed-out bass, guitars that cry like sea gulls, odd techno-noises. It almost makes up for Corgan's mundane songs, but not quite. Adore is the kind of downbeat, not-so-great stuff that dominated the '70s, another decade in which nobody could muster much enthusiasm for rock 'n' roll. But it's just this kind of atmosphere in which Corgan functions so well.

-- Rafer Guzman

(Bugeater Records)

The Australian singer-songwriter Scott Rees -- call him by his last name only, please -- exported himself to South Florida in 1996. He enlisted the area's hottest session musicians for his debut disc, Circumstances, and the result is a fruitful marriage of Australian pop and soulful American rock.

The five-song EP opens with "Tall Trees," which begins with an alluring drum beat and a chorus of charming "woe-woes." Then comes Rees' guttural, commanding voice -- and it doesn't let up until the last words on this disc are sung. Actually, Rees doesn't so much sing as boom, even when it comes to his most poetic lines (such as "And wake, walk to the forest and taste the honey rain/In the air that surrounds you," from "Jenna's Lullaby").

Of the local stars who shine on this CD, guitarist Randy Bernsen is the brightest, displaying his famously crisp fretwork with a precision-driven, graceful lead on "Capsize Me." Brian Franklin, another South Florida standout, makes his presence known on "Fly," strumming an acoustic guitar and subtly blowing a harmonica.

Some of Rees' lyrics seem trite at times ("My wings are stronger than ever before/ I'm ready to fly"), but his resounding voice saves him from hokiness. If this offering is any indication of things to come (Rees' first full-length album is due out next year), the Aussie singer may well grow strong roots here in American soil.

-- Brian Hyman

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Rafer Guzman
Brian Hyman

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