The Smashing Pumpkins

This is the best Pumpkins album to date by a very great distance, in large part because it hardly rocks at all. Few tunes on the disc get within thirty beats per minute of up-tempo, and those that do--such as "Ava Adore," the platter's first single, and the guitar-driven "Tears"--are so ornately arranged and studiously non-spontaneous that the chances of them being covered by NOFX are roughly none to none. In other words, Corgan has rejected once and for all the quasi-grunge from which his band emerged during the early Nineties, and by doing so, he's freed his melodic sensibilities. His way with hooks has been growing stronger with the years, but unlike the 1995 double-disc Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which surrounded gorgeous airs such as "1979" with enough padding to stuff a mattress, the group's latest is filler-free. Moreover, the focus on ballads gives him an excuse to sing rather than bray through his nose like a member of Adenoids Anonymous--and unlike bandmate James Iha, who meowed like Cat Stevens on his recent solo offering, Let It Come Down, Corgan does so with a light touch that only rarely seems cloying. The first tune, "To Sheila," exemplifies his approach: It's as gentle as "Landslide," the Fleetwood Mac ditty the combo covered a while back, but whereas that tune was merely spare, this one contains deftly manipulated background vocals and studio effects that give it both sweep and heft. Just as effective are "Perfect," with its New Order feel; "Daphne Descends," highlighted by an echo-drenched chorus that you won't mind revisiting; "Crestfallen," which suggests (I'm not kidding) early-period Elton John; and the alluring drone "Shame." Lyrically, Corgan has stepped up his game, too, although not quite to the degree that most of us would like. He tries hard to write poetry, and on lines like "I can't go on digging roses from your grave/To linger on beyond the beyond/Where the willows weep" (from "Behold! A Nightmare"), the effort shows all too clearly. But there's considerably less poor-me whimpering than usual, and at least the question that introduces "Blank Page"--"Was all the rage never meant to say anything?"--is the right one to ask. Adore is pretentious as all get-out, but it's more than lovely enough to compensate. I'll be damned.

--Michael Roberts

Cesaria Evora
Cabo Verde

Hailing from the Cape Verde islands off Africa's western shores, Evora discovered her singing talent late in life, but she's been melting the hearts of Western listeners from her current home in Paris for more than a decade now. Cabo Verde is typically enchanting--a rich, gutsy blend of Creole rhythms, Brazilian strums and Cuban spice, with a feel that recalls some of the more vine-draped musical musings from New Orleans. The soprano saxophone that slithers deftly through "Sangre de Beirona (Beirona's Blood)" sounds like the one the Neville Brothers summoned up in "Yellow Moon." Likewise, "Regresso (Return)" recalls Dr. John's "Litanie des Saints," yet it floats freer thanks to Evora's rich alto voice. There are hardly any percussive instruments here; the hour of music shuffles along on the power of rippling guitars. And although Evora sings "Ess Pais (This Country)," a song about her homeland, in Portuguese, her winsomeness comes through clearly whether you speak the language or not. Translated, one of the lines from the composition reads: "Our poets have sung of love in their immortal Creole verses." Evora's songs of pain, loss and nostalgia quietly confirm the truth of this sentiment.

--Jack Jackson

Pet Shop Boys
Essential (Limited Edition 1998)

This new compilation is part of a series of reissues celebrating the 100th anniversary of EMI that also includes retrospectives of recordings by R.E.M. and David Bowie. Pet Shop Boys definitely belong in this company: Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are the most commercially successful pop duo of all time, with worldwide record sales topping the 25 million mark. However, Essential doesn't quite live up to its title. Because the focus is on rare, alternate and extended mixes of radio hits from 1985 to 1990--songs like "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)," "West End Girls" and "Domino Dancing"--a majority of the group's strong Nineties work, including material from the albums Very and Bilingual and collaborations with Suede and DJ Danny Tenaglia, doesn't appear.

The historical angle brings out the edgy, street-wise rhythms of early songs like "Paninaro (7-inch version)," which features an existential rap about Italian fashion designers from Lowe, who's usually known for his brilliant production and mixing skills. But the process by which the energetic drum programming and eerie club-life anecdotes of tracks such as "In the Night (Remix)" and "Two Divided by Zero" mutated into complex orchestral compositions like "It Couldn't Happen Here," made with contributions by Angelo Badalamenti and Ennio Morricone, isn't adequately detailed. (The disco-funk of the Shostakovich-based "My October Symphony" would have been a better example of this process, and its exclusion is inexplicable.)

This shift cost the Pets their dominance on the American charts and their credibility in the underground dance community, but that doesn't mean that their mid-period tracks aren't worthy. The cover version of Sterling Void's early house-music classic "It's Alright (7-inch Version)" and the surreal "We All Feel Better in the Dark (Extended Mix)" confirm the act's staying power, and two of the Boys' greatest songs, "Being Boring (Extended Version)" and "Left to My Own Devices (7-inch Version)," effectively showcase Tennant's critically acclaimed lyrical wit. The players' preoccupation with higher goals will probably prevent them from regaining their commercial footing stateside, but their experimental play with the electro-pop genre has heavily inspired the likes of Saint Etienne, Stephin Merritt and the KLF. Essential hints at this influence, but it hardly tells the whole story.

--Kelly Lemieux


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