Pop Stops Turns 10!
Ten years ago this month, a cub reporter at The Star Newspapers approached Madelyn Merwin, the paper's Entertainment Editor at the time, and asked if, in addition to his normal coverage of Orland Park village board meetings and the Palos police beat, he could perhaps start a record review column for the weekend section.
That cub reporter was myself, and the answer was yes. Since then, there have been a lot of changes in the music scene, in my life, and at The Star — shortly after I began writing the "Pop Stops" column as it was quickly dubbed, The Star created a "Prime Time" weekend magazine, (now known as "First Look"), where my column has resided ever since. Over the past 10 years, The Star has expanded and moved offices from Chicago Heights to Tinley Park. My editor these days is Don Snider, and while in 1988 everything I reviewed came to me on vinyl LPs, today in 1998, everything is on compact disc.
I've moved around myself, serving as an editor for a couple of local music magazines (Illinois Entertainer and CAMM), and for the past few years as a medical association editor. Through it all, though, there has been one constant in my life: every week, I listen to anywhere from six to a dozen albums, and at the end of the week, sit down at my computer to pass on my thoughts on a select group of them to you, the "Pop Stops" readers. Mostly it's a joy, occasionally a chore, but I've striven in these 10 years to be a fair reviewer, focussing more on albums that I think are worth your dollars than on throwing spears at music that comes up lacking.
Not that I haven't "trashed" albums occasionally. Madonna and Ric Ocasek, for example, have seen both sides of my five star rating system over the past decade. And while I rarely give space to albums that only garner a single star, I rarely have found albums that truely rate five stars either.
I hope my musings on music have been helpful to you in making your choices at record stores over these years, as the pop-rock music scene gradually shifted from the synth stylings of Erasure, The Escape Club and George Michael in the late '80s to the glam/metal of Poison and Guns 'n' Roses in the early '90s, to the grunge rock of the Seattle sound sparked by Nirvana's explosive "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" and now in the midst of the "women's movement" of rock led by Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan and Paula Cole. I still enjoy the anticipation of thumbing off the plastic rap on a new CD and wondering what those first notes will sound like when I pop it into the player. I look forward to another 10 years of serving up these weekly "Pop Stops."
It's perhaps appropriate that this week, as I decided what to listen to, my aural sweet tooth was torn between listening to an album from a band from deep in my past and a band at the top of the charts today. In the end, I alternated the two in my car CD player all week long. Here's how it shook out:
featuring the London Symphony Orchestra
Always Never The Same
There are few bands in rock and roll whose songs deserve, no, beg for a symphony orchestra to flesh them out. Kansas is one of those few. In its early incarnation, the band's calling card was eight- or 10-minute progressive rock songs with multi-layered vocals, a violin often taking centerstage and percussion booming grandly behind it all. Now Kansas, like The Moody Blues before them, has teamed with The London Symphony to broaden the depth of some of its early material.
Original violinist and co-vocalist Robby Steinhardt returns on this CD to the fold which also includes founders Phil Ehart (drums), Rich Williams (guitar) and vocalist Steve Walsh. It's the closest the band has been to its original lineup in nearly 15 years (still missing are Dave Hope and Kerry Livgren) and the result is often magical. While vocalists Walsh and Williams sound a bit weathered on some tracks, the orchestra adds a pomp and power to classic Kansas anthems like "Song For America" and "Hold On" that fans will crave. The songs that garner the best orchestration all seem to hail from one of the band's most popular albums, 1977's Point of No Return. "The Wall," "Nobody's Home" and "Dust In The Wind" are recast from that disc to be this album's showstoppers.
The band omitted many of its big hits for this orchestral outing, leaving off "Point of No Return," "Play The Game Tonight" and "Carry On Wayward Son" in favor of its more complex pieces. Always Never The Same also offers a couple new tracks which show that Walsh still can pull off powerful material. The disc opens with a cover of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" (an odd choice for the opening of the disc; one of the band's own hits might have been a better introduction). There are moments in some songs, like "Song For America" that seem to beg for more orchestral assistance rather than less, but overall, it's a fine merging of strings, horns, timpani and rock 'n' roll.
The band is touring this summer with an orchestra (they're scheduled to play Chicago's Ravinia in August) which should make for a grand outdoor festival of nostalgia.
The Smashing Pumpkins
Chicago's Pumpkins have never failed to take chances with albums; their last double CD release Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was a major gamble that paid off in Grammys and 8 million copies sold in America alone. The band's followup release to that huge album is a 180 degree turnabout. Adore is, by comparison, mostly a quiet affair, eschewing the brazen guitars that have marked many of the band's best known songs, from "Cherub Rock" to "Bullet With Butterfly Wings."
The hardest rocking song here is the current shuffling techno-beat single "Ava Adore," which isn't even as hard-hitting as the band's orchestral hit ballad "Tonight Tonight." In many ways, this album is leader Billy Corgan's answer to Pumpkin guitarist James Iha's recent solo album of gentle love songs. Iha, by the way, takes no writing credit on this disc, leaving Corgan centerstage with his contemplative side. Most demonstrative of this album's direction is the opener, "To Sheila," which finds Corgan crooning some impressive poetry:
"Twilight fades through blistered avalon
the sky's cruel torch on aching autobahn
into the uncertain divine
we scream into the last divide."
As Corgan has so often in the past delved into the poetry of angst and isolation, this album is his exploration of love and relationships. In "To Sheila" he offers, "I could bring you the light and take you home into the night." In "Ava Adore" he declares "We must never be apart" and in "Perfect," the album's techno-based sister to "1979" he reminisces about lovers who are now "just like old friends."
Adore goes on like this, moving from a demanding lover's questions in "Crestfallen" ("who am I to need you when I'm down and where are you when I need you around") to near Hallmark cliche in "Appels + Oranjes" ("What if the sun refused to shine?/what if the clouds refused to rain?") to unabashed piano ballad and barbershop quartet vocal harmony beauty in "Behold! The Night Mare" ("I've faced the fathoms in your deep/withstood the suitors quiet siege/pulled down the heavens just to please you, appease you").
The one major shortcoming of Adore is that it sidesteps one of the band's historical strengths. Throughout their catalogue, the Pumpkins have always paired slow ballad moments with blistering attacks of guitar and vocals. That dichotomy of lite and dark made for aural rollercoaster rides that were, while abrasive, also highly effective and affecting. Adore, on the other hand, rarely varies from Corgan's easy lilting croons and strums and asides at the piano. The addition of background strings and harmonies on many tracks and electronically static drum sequences means that by the mid-point of this 15-song disc, the listener is lulled into a dreamstate, rather than being rivetted to Corgan's lyrics or melodies. That may make the Pumpkins more palatable to a general audience, but may also alienate fans who have loved the band for its "power."
In any case, Adore reflects the restless interest of a band that refuses to stand still. If Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness offered the slow songs of night and the screaming riffs of day, Adore encapsulates the quiet thoughts of the morning after. It begs the question: where will they go next?