Scandal, Controversy & Romance
If you ever wondered what the great girl groups of the early '60s would do in this bolder, more sexually frank era, an answer comes in the form of the debut album by New York quartet The Prissteens. This three-quarters-female band (drummer Joe Vincent is the lone male) is positively besotted with the musical naivete and high spirits of the Shangri-Las, the Angels, and the Chiffons, and by injecting a welcome dose of punk attitude and aggression, they sound gloriously timeless, not retro. It's no wonder that Joey Ramone--another New Yorker who expressed his Ronnie Spector fixation at high speed and decibel levels--calls The Prissteens the best band to come out of NYC in years.
A declaration of intent comes on the album opener, "The Hound." Over a driving four-to-the-bar drum beat, the girls sing in unison of meeting "the sweetest boy in town." By the second verse, they've kissed the boy. In verse three, they announce, "I've just fucked the biggest boy in town." Although the song is ostensibly a warning to girls to watch out for a dreaded hound, the euphoric shouts and boastful tone send a different message. The Prissteens are taking all the street toughness and sexuality implied by the Shangri-Las and getting explicit with it. As they later state in that deliciously sweet-and-sour way of theirs: "He's my baby/Gonna beat you up."
The Prissteens aren't the first female-fronted band to pull this off. The much underrated Holly and the Italians broke similar ground nearly a generation ago, and more recently, Austin trio Pork has taken the girl-group aesthetic into the garage. But The Prissteens stand out because they simply do it better than the competition. With vocals that often suggest Joan Jett and Courtney Love singing in harmony, and a guitar-driven sloppiness that is pure rock 'n' roll, they go walkin' in the sand with the unforgiving "I Don't Cry," worship at the chapel of love with "I'm Devastated," and smartly resuscitate the long-forgotten mid-'60s nugget "Sorrow."
Good as all these tracks are, it would be hard to find a more wondrous slice of vintage rock than this album's title song, which, like all the great rockers of yore, is so committed to its own snottiness that it feels like a burst of pure innocence. Singer Lori Yorkman makes the song's fundamental threat ("Scandal, controversy, and romance is what you get from me") sound like an enticing promise. Here's hoping that this quartet has a lot more tuneful misbehavior ahead of it.
If any '90s band proves the power that production has on our tastes, it's Smashing Pumpkins. After all, Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan is an obnoxious self-pitying geek with a horrendously whiny voice and notebooks full of obtuse lyrical psychobabble. As he himself has admitted in interviews, he couldn't write a catchy melody to save his soul (although "1979" and "Today" are exceptions that prove this rule). Yet he's widely venerated as a genius of contemporary music, an innovator and a spokesman for his generation. What gives?
The answer is that Corgan knows his way around the recording studio and he's adept at decorating his songs to look like the masterpieces that they're not. And, contrary to what some of his critics might have imagined a few years ago, his technical prowess isn't limited to the guitar. Adore, the Pumpkins' fourth full-length release, demonstrates more fully than even the sprawling 1995 double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness that Corgan doesn't need an army of guitars to work his aural alchemy. For instance, the gentle "To Sheila" uses subtle brush strokes--like Corgan's octave-apart vocal tracks on the chorus and the distant timpani rumble at the coda--where the old Corgan would have bludgeoned the ear with the multitracked self-importance of his Marshall stack.
Corgan's reduced reliance on six-string soundscapes and his increased use of keyboards and tweaked drum sounds have led some to call this the Pumpkins' "electronic" album, a stretch by any logical measure. Nonetheless, the cynical juggernaut "Ava Adore" does suggest a latent appreciation for techno and industrial that suits Corgan's nerdy detachment. And the computer-chip rock of "Appels + Oranjes" sounds great, even if the song itself is a repetitive existential rant. On occasion, Corgan's less raucous textures on Adore allow him to break through and be as expressive as he always thought he was. The simple understatement of "Shame" and the post-breakup conciliation of "Perfect" ultimately deliver a greater emotional wallop than "Cherub Rock" and all its heavy-rock clones ever could.
Adore will probably prove a slight disappointment to early Pumpkins fans, though it should please those who considered the expansiveness of Mellon Collie a step in the right direction. However, this album, like its predecessors, can't shake one problem: Corgan is a producer who thinks he's a songwriter. Even on Adore, too many of his songs are both mediocre and way too long, and no amount of cosmetic refinement can make them truly appealing. And if there'a singer who can sell his ideas, it's not him. If his ego wasn't so sizable, he'd make like Butch Vig and look for his Shirley Manson.
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