The Smashing Pumpkins – CYR
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In 2014, Billy Corgan said he'd been convinced that The Smashing Pumpkins’ album Monuments to an Elegy would get positive reviews. “But I’m getting the same reviews I got back in the day,” he complained. “These kind of middling, muddling reviews that just won’t f***ing say: ‘This is a f***ing brilliant album from a brilliant artist.’” It was a tedious remark made by many a musician who feels mistreated or underrated by critics. Yet Corgan of all people knows his big mouth is often the source of the band’s biggest problems: “If I kept my mouth shut, and if I kept my band together,” he told The New York Times this September, “we’d be playing [bigger] venues and we would be a lot more successful.”
By now, the fatigue caused by the band’s early antics – drugs, ego-wars, and Corgan's reputation as a self-described “bitter contrarian” – has affected their music. CYR, their 11th studio album, features original members James Iha and Jimmy Chamberlin, who returned to the fold in 2018. Yet even that isn’t enough to reignite a spark that, during their Nineties heyday, earned the band four consecutive platinum albums. They appear to have forgotten how to inject songs with the drama heard on “Tonight, Tonight”, with its cinematic strings and Corgan’s searing delivery.
CYR, instead, is 20 songs that alternate between good and dreary. Two tracks – “Wrath” and “Ramona” – are virtually interchangeable; others, such as “Birch Grove”, are strangled by saccharine synths. In another recent interview, Corgan referred to the band as “pop assassins” and, indeed, some of these songs are their most pop-friendly to date – they do a great impression of The Killers on closer “Minerva”. They’re best on “Purple Blood”, a superb rock concoction of snarling guitars, sharp percussion and Corgan’s eerie whine. Public figures often court controversy when they’re struggling to offer anything of substance. Perhaps that, and the standard of this album, explains Corgan’s antics of the past few years.
Steps – What the Future Holds
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Steps have always been perky. Their unfailingly cheery demeanour was a staple of the late-Nineties; since then, they have steadfastly refused to change their sound to keep up with modern music trends. So it’s amusing that this year’s What the Future Holds, a sugary rush of high-octane bangers, fits so well into 2020’s onslaught of maximalist dance-pop. After more than two decades, Steps are finally on-trend.
Still, for an album that claims to be thinking about the future, the sound is overwhelmingly retro. They stay true to their ABBA influences on the wonderfully dramatic “Something in Your Eyes”, with flurries of synths and exultant key changes. Juddering techno pulses dominate opener “What the Future Holds”, written by Sia and Greg Kurstin, while there’s more than a hint of Kylie on “To the One”.
Sometimes the sheer relentlessness of the album’s go-to animated tempo can begin to grate. Fortunately, they slow things down and turn up the heat on “Under My Skin”, a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Little Mix album. In a year dominated by doom-and-gloom headlines, Steps feel like just what the doctor ordered. Your dentist, however, might not be so happy.