|SONIC YOUTH - A Thousand Leaves|
|SMASHING PUMPKINS - Adore|
|ratings: 1 - 5 *s|
A Thousand Leaves
I'm not one to instantly judge a band's album on the first listen. Hell, I absolutely despised Nirvana's Nevermind the first time I heard it; now I can't hear it without remembering the halcyon days of 90's music. But, after numerous listens and much thought, I still don't know what to say about A Thousand Leaves, Sonic Youth's latest. It's, well, different.
The band has stated that the album is based heavily on Washing Machine's "The Diamond Sea" and their 3 self-produced SYR efforts. And it really shows... the way they craft their sound is really not that far from what they cite as their resources for this album. The problem with this album is, whereas their older albums have offered up songs that seem shorter than they are, the latest album makes the songs sound as long as they are. And when some of those songs are 7-10 minutes, it really taxes one's patience. But as I listen to the album again as I review it, I'm given to realize what's really going on here. They're utilizing the "slow burn" effect to give you truly evocative soundscapes.
Some of the songs on this album are instant classics; for example, "Sunday" is perhaps their most radio-friendly song ever. Actually, there are a lot of tracks on this album that I could refer to as newly-ordained Sonic Youth classics. "Female Mechanic Now On Duty" and "Wildflower Soul," if you can get through them, are actually beautiful pieces. I have to call them "pieces" because they almost transcend standard song matter... they're more orchestrated than anything else. Then my favorite, "Hoarfrost." Incredible artistry. It actually creates imagery in one's head as they listen to it. "Snare, Girl," is one of the first Sonic Youth songs that could actually be classified as a "straight-out lullaby," comparable to "Unwind" from Washing Machine in beauty and mystique.
Some of the songs are harder to listen to, in my opinion, though. "Hits of Sunshine" and "Heather Angel" are either longwinded or wanked-out completely, and neither are that listenable. But sometimes longwindedness works on this album, like in the case of "Karen Koltrane" and some of the aforementioned classics.
The thing about this album is that it really is more cerebral than previous efforts. It takes a little while to get used to it, and a little while longer to enjoy it, but eventually you can catch the groove it's givin' off and get swept into the music.
The Smashing Pumpkins have always carried themselves with a certain artistic aesthetic; past albums have included themed discs, eight to ten minute epic songs, and liner notes full of odd fairy tale sketches. They've usually pulled off this leaning towards high art with a modicum of subtlety, though, masking any attempt at true concept with a wall of fuzzy, distorted guitars. Adore is a stark and complete contrast to all that, an album that begs to be recognized for its overwrought pretention.
In itself, there is no real problem with a band striving towards higher art. However, Smashing Pumpkins has sacrificed its signature bombast and excitement in the process, exchanging these elements for spare rhythms and synth-and-piano melodies. This change in style would seem to be a reaction to the absence of Jimmy Chamberlin, their pulse-pounding ex-drummer... except that former Filter drummer Matt Walker and former Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron lend a hand on a couple songs, trading their trademark heavy percussion for the sedated, repetitive, "drum machine" sound that permeats the record.
That's not to say that the album is horrible as a result. The use of acoustic guitars, synths, pianos, and strings works at times, particularly on the "Perfect," which sounds like "1979"'s less solid sister, "For Martha," a shameless anthem disguised as a Carpenters-esque piano melody, and "Appels and Oranges," a Cure-like synth drone. Most of the time, unfortunately, the formula produces a kind of unfinished quality; "Annie-Dog,' specifically, is less a song than an underlying groove that goes nowhere. Other songs are simply repetitive, like "Shame," which repeats the lyrics throughout, and "Daphne Descends," whose stays way too consistent.
All in all, Adore is the Smashing Pumpkins attempt at making an album full of pretty pop songs. It's an interesting concept, but as a reality it really doesn't serve any purpose other than to show that the band does not function correctly without a consistent, loud drummer and a couple electric guitars. The album ends with "17," in which a piano plays for 17 seconds and is then cut off abruptly. Here's hoping that symbolizes the end of this little "soft piano-synth" tangent that they've gone off on and a return to what they do best... spacey, power chord driven rock.