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Album review: Smashing Pumpkins shakes, shortens it up

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Billy Corgan, the frontman of the ‘90s rock band the Smashing Pumpkins, has a reputation for arrogance and for being difficult to work with. He is the only remaining member of the band’s original lineup. The band has had two drummers and four bassists— one of whom is known as one of the best rock drummers in the business: Jimmy Chamberlin, who was also kicked out of the band at one point in the 90s for his dangerous drug and heroin habits.

Their albums this decade, especially the ones released after the band’s 2000 initial dispersal (“Zeitgeist” and the ongoing “Teargarden by Kaleidyscope” project), have received mixed praise from fans and critics alike and have not sold as well as the mega-hits of “Siamese Dream” and “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.” While the band’s 2012 effort, “Oceania,” was more warmly received, not all of the Pumpkins’ core audience loved it and it still didn’t sell as well as Corgan or his record company might have liked it to.

So for the group’s newest effort, “Monuments to an Elegy,” the ever-changing and ever-present Corgan changed the formula again. The Pumpkins’ rhythm section of the last three years was not involved and Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee was brought aboard. Only lead guitarist Jeff Schroeder stayed on with Corgan. Even as a mega-fan of the Pumpkins, I was skeptical and I had good reason to be. 

Actually listening to “Monuments” helped wash the skepticism away. 

Corgan altered the group’s slightly progressive rock, slightly grunge and slightly spacey sound to have a bigger, poppier and more new-wave tone. And it works. 

It’s their shortest album, clocking in at 33 minutes, but it’s full of unusual, tight and almost uniformly catchy pop-rock songs. Corgan and co. accomplish what other veteran acts like U2 and the Foo Fighters also were successfully able to do in their albums this year — reinvent their sound while keeping the parts of it that they are known and loved for.

Rocker “Tiberius” gorgeously and triumphantly integrates haunting keyboards and synths with a hard and ferocious riff from Corgan. It also dispels some of my doubts about Tommy Lee — largely being that he would be too pounding for the Pumpkins’ simultaneously melodic and intense sound. He does a nice job of driving the beat throughout. 

“Being Beige,” the album’s lead single, follows with a dulcet U2-ish tone. 

The next track, “Anaise!” is one of the highlights. It features a kind of funky bass groove, that hasn’t been heard before in the Pumpkins’ catalog, and serrated, melodic guitar-work from Schroeder and Corgan.

“One and All” is a solid, driving rocker that fits right along with the rest of the Pumpkins’ work.

The single “Drum + Fife,” is another brilliantly catchy highlight showcasing Corgan’s skillful songwriting abilities and some surprisingly subtle, layered drumming from Lee.

“Dorian” is another unorthodox, catchy song that harkens back to the new-wave sound of New Order and Tears for Fears.

But closer “Anti-Hero,” while rocking, shows one of the weaknesses of the album — the lyrics. Corgan’s never been a consistently strong songwriter — on albums like “Machina/The Machines of God,” and “Adore,” he’s crafted some gorgeous, thoughtful notes, but he can also write petulant-sounding diatribes (“despite all my rage / I am still just a rat in a cage”). He can still do better than he does on this one though — “With a girl like you / Oooh / With a girl like you.”

The other weakness is that there aren’t any of the epic, long rockers that the Pumpkins are sometimes known for. But all-in-all, this is a cohesive, interesting and fun album with new musical layers the likes of which we haven’t heard from the Smashing Pumpkins before. So, the antics of Corgan aside, readers should definitely give “Monuments” a listen when it comes out Tuesday.

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