By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
No, they aren't still goony twentysomethings, frozen in the amber of faded pictures running with Spin 's top 100 albums of the last 20 years. At 38 (Billy Corgan), 40 (Frank Black), and 44 (Bob Mould), the trio have at least a couple lifetimes left between them to squander or capitalize. Their back catalogs allow them a few more spins of the rock wheel of fortune, while their chrome domes remind them the hourglass is beginning to run out.
Mr. Smashing Pumpkin has been especially busy, between taking out full-page ads in Chicago rags announcing his fabled band will reunite and bashing his hired hands in Zwan: "They were supposed to be these cool indie rock people where it's all about the music. But it was all about hanging out with skanky chicks in bars. It was shocking to me." Ahem. Billy, isn't the best reason to be in a rock 'n' roll band to hang out with skanky chicks in bars? And how do you explain your friendship with Courtney Love?
Still, it's a given that the more smug and self-important Corgan sounds, the lamer his music gets. On TheFutureEmbrace, the Anal Alien's wish is granted and all other pesky humanoids are banished from his studio capsule. The woefulness begins with the third-rate Anthony Burgess title, and on the cover, where ol' Uncle Fester finds himself in full-on Kabuki mode.
Hyper-processed, synth-drum saturated, and vacuum-sealed, the Nine Inch Nails for Dummies music is smothered in Corgan's nasal bleat, oh yay. The handful of not-insubstantial melodies can't be so summarily dismissed, but Corgan does his level best to make the whole affair as joyless as possible. "To Love Somebody," a Bee Gees cover with the Cure's Robert Smith, is a pop trifle redone, of course, a dirge. By "DIA" the Hairless Wonder is screaming at himself in a mirror, and you start to feel sorry for him. Then you remember he's an asshole.
While Corgan is walling himself inside the machine, Frank Black can be reached at the loungeone in Nashville, of all places, where he parachuted in to lay down Honeycomb with famed session men in four days. Somehow the lead Pixie got around the law requiring pedal steel on all Music City CDs, and instead stuffed his with downtempo numbers anesthetized by Spooner Oldham's tux-ruffle keyboards. So the set is just a curio, banking everything on Black's low register, which has the texture but not the stamina to pull off so many slow, velvet lullabies about sour romance. Bass-propelled, "Lone Child" and "Life in Storage" point to a richer, noirish road acknowledged but not taken. Instead, we get soft lyrics and see-how-obscure covers. All this from a guy who made his name screaming about sliced eyeballs and trampolining with beings from outer space.
Bob Mould's solo work has long been easier to ignore, especially since he became a coffeehouse troubadour 100 or so albums ago. So "(Shine Your) Light Love Hope," the first track leaked from Body of Song, was a pleasant joltjoyous, unabashed dance-tronica with a vocoder-tricked-up voice. Bob Mould as Cher? That sound you just heard is countless aging Hüsker Dü acolytes racking back their shotguns. But hold your fire: There are only two quasi-dance numbers here, and the other one, "I Am Vision, I Am Sound," is propelled by a sweet, buzzy guitar and frenetic, cymbal-crazy drumming.
Frankly, it's a relief to hear Mould express something besides pessimism and angerthough there's plenty of that, too. "Underneath Days" aims its "fucked under these days" chorus at anti-gay-marriage zealots, and "Circles" targets the Bush mob. Yes, "Days of Rain" is a ballad as mushy as the title suggests. And sure, the electrifying attack of Zen Arcade and New Day Rising is a distant memory. But Body of Songcloses with two guitar anthems oversized enough to point back to Mould's best work in Sugar. Only curmudgeonsor bunkered acolyteswould deny their power. So tip your cap to Mould's bare scalp. Or, better yet, let him have it.