Oasis, Pumpkins Try To Get Their Groove Back

Posted: March 05, 2000

The '90s are so over. Are Oasis and the Smashing Pumpkins, too?

The cocky Brits fronted by squabbling sibs Noel and Liam Gallagher and the Chicago rockers led by the imperious Billy Corgan reached their commercial high points with albums released way back in 1995. Oasis mined a series of hits from the melodious wonder What's the Story (Morning Glory)? and the Pumpkins sold more than 3 million copies of its double-disc Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

But those were different times, before hip-hop, rap metal and teen pop ruled the charts. In 1995, Christina Aguilera was in middle school. And grungy guitar-rock reigned. Oasis and the Pumpkins rode the alternative wave, their rock-star audacity providing a refreshing change from mopey Lollapalosers, whose poster child, Kurt Cobain, was still warm in his grave.

The Gallaghers allowed that the Beatles might have been better than they were, but saw no contemporaries to equal Oasis. And Corgan never missed an opportunity to overreach in angsty rock symphonies that recalled '70s royalty Black Sabbath, Queen and Cheap Trick.

Judging by the titles of their new albums, neither outfit has lost its healthy self-regard. Machina/The Machines of God flaunts Corgan's belief that his music is divinely inspired. And Oasis' Shoulders of Giants is taken from a 1676 Sir Isaac Newton quote ("If I have seen farther than others, it's because I was standing on the shoulders of giants") that reflects the Gallaghers' belief that thievery is the highest form of artistry.

But beneath all the bravado, each band is dealing with the humpty-dumpty insecurity that comes from falling off the top of the charts. For Machina and Shoulders come on the heels not of runaway hits, but ego-deflating failures.

The Pumpkins' 1998 Adore dealt with the absence of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain - who was shown the door after a musician he was shooting heroin with overdosed and died in 1996 - by using rent-a-drummers and dabbling in electronica. The moody, experimental album was a commercial and critical bust.

Likewise, Oasis' 1997 opus Be Here Now negated the charm of Morning Glory ("the greatest rock and roll album of the '90s," according to Noel) by turning every song into a six-minute jet-engine roar. The lumbering Now landed with a supersonic thud (Liam now says it suffered from "too much drink and too much coke"), leaving the newly married Gallagher brothers to retreat to London.

Both groups are now attempting to rebound with new musicians. Oasis has picked up guitarist Gem Archer, formerly of Heavy Stereo, and bassist Andy Bell, late of Ride, a lineup that debuted with a majestic five-song set at the First Union Center in December. A presumably cleaned-up Chamberlain has rejoined Corgan and guitarist James Iha, but longtime bassist D'Arcy Wretzky, who worked on Machina, has been replaced by the similarly leggy Melissa Auf Der Maur, formerly of Hole.

(The Pumpkins have also been beset with management difficulties. After leaving the high-powered firm Q-Prime in 1998, the group hired Sharon Osbourne, wife of Ozzy, late last year. The fit turned out not to be a good one, and Osbourne quit in January "due to medical reasons - Billy Corgan was making me sick." Last week, the band sued Osbourne, claiming she reneged on her contract.)

Corgan's strategy for Machina (Virgin ***) is simple: Get back to what you do best. Having Chamberlain back is a boon - the powerhouse drummer helps the Pumpkins sound like a band again. That may be an illusion, however: There are rumors that after the others completed their parts, control-freak Corgan went back and re-recorded them himself.

At more than 73 minutes, the album is occasionally overbearing and tedious. The band succeeds in spite of Corgan's screechy voice, not because of it. And a sense of desperation curdles many a hoped-to-be hit. On "I of the Mourning," Corgan practically pleads with radio stations to play his songs again. And on the "The Imploding Voice" he's all heavyosity, counseling "All you have to do/Is play the part of who you are/The rest is up to you."

But Machina is well-stocked with careening rockers reminsiscent of Mellon Collie and the 1993 breakthrough Gish. And while mid-tempo love songs such as the banal "Stand Inside Your Love" and hortative "Try, Try, Try" aren't as irresistibly elegant as Mellon's "1979," they raise the bar set by most rock radio playlists.

Naturally, Machina wouldn't be a Pumpkins album without psychodrama and delusions of grandeur, and Corgan doesn't disappoint. "Glass and the Ghost Children" contains snippets of a conversation in which he says he operates on "this premise that I'm hearing the voice of God." "What if I'm insane?" he muses.

And on "Heavy Metal Machine," the singer - who coproduced Hole's Celebrity Skin and allegedly had an affair with the married Courtney Love - is still competing with Kurt Cobain. "If I were dead," he wonders, "would my records sell?"

On Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (Epic ***), a re-energized Oasis smartly updates its approach. In recent years Noel Gallagher has supplied personality and vocals to crossover techno cuts by the Chemical Brothers and Goldie. So, acknowledging that "the last album rocked, but that's basically all it done," the elder Gallagher brought in producer Mark "Spike" Stent, who has worked with dance-savvy acts such as Bjork and Massive Attack.

Shoulders isn't a dance album and it's not as gloriously catchy as Morning Glory. But it does come roaring out of the speakers with the instrumental "F- in the Bushes," a big-beat fusillade featuring a snarly mother of a guitar riff and voices sampled from a documentary on the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. Whoa, is this an Oasis album?

It is, though it never gets quite so wild again. With the second song, "Go Let It Out!" the Gallaghers are back on familiar turf, albeit with drummer Alan White augmented by a funky drum loop and in blessedly tighter, feistier song constructions than found on Be Here Now. Liam does his best John Lennon sneer, the vaguely Eastern backward-tape psychedelics of "Who Feels Love?" recall "Tomorrow Never Knows," and Noel's melodies sweep and soar.

The standard Oasis objections still apply. Noel is a lazy lyricist whose words don't do justice to his melodic gift. (What is a "wonderwall," anyway?) And though loutish Liam - who, like his brother, claims to be off the drugs and lager - is everything you could want in a rock singer in terms of texture and attitude, he often sounds as if he doesn't understand the words.

And then there's Liam's composing debut on "Little James," a dreadful "Hey Jude"-ish tribute to his stepson, the child of his wife, actress Patsy Kensit, and Simple Minds singer Jim Kerr. "Thank you for your smile, you make it all worthwhile. . . . Live for your toys, although they make noise." Wince!

Like Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis will never recapture its mid-'90s moment. Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit and DMX fans aren't particularly interested. But there's nothing to stop them from carrying on for decades, like their heroes Paul McCartney and Cheap Trick, making music for a shrinking, yet devoted audience. Machina/Machines of God and Standing on the Shoulders of Giants suggest that much of it will be worth hearing.

Dan DeLuca's e-mail address is ddeluca@phillynews.com.

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