Death By Nostalgia
Two Reunion Albums Miss the Mark

In case you hadn’t noticed, reunions are all the rage these days.

Among the top-grossing acts at the moment is the reconstituted Police, rehashing their glory days in sold-out stadiums around the country as we speak. Genesis, Led Zeppelin, the Doors… hell, even the fricking Spice Girls have announced reunion plans recently, confirming what the folks in Branson, Missouri have known for ages: nostalgia is big business.

In the constant battle between art and commerce, reunion tours and albums rank almost as far in the filthy lucre camp as you can get. They usually only happen when the old members of some once-famous band realize that they’ve just never raked in as much cash as they did when they were together, and the “musical and artistic differences” that drove them apart just don’t matter so much when they’re unable to buy that fifth Porsche while supporting the massive drug habit.

If you think the Police reunion isn’t about the cash, just look at the sales of anything any of the three members have done in the last 10 years. You’ve got Sting with his fucking lute, tunneling even further up his own rectum, and you’ve got Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, who haven’t done a damn thing in more than a decade, just waiting to lick their fearless leader’s boots. These are three guys who couldn’t be in the same room together after they split up, but for the right price, they’ll churn out “Roxanne” every night for a few months.

But at least the Police reunion contains all three original members. Nothing’s worse than a reunion that isn’t a reunion, one that’s just one or two original members trading on the name, and putting out music that taints that name in the process. Pretty much the only guy I can think of who’s pulled that off is Mike Peters – he’s the only original member left in the Alarm, but the new band retains the passion and power of the old one, and he never sold it as a reunion. Peters even adds the date after the name Alarm on each new record, just to make the point – it’s the Alarm MMVII on tour now, and the Alarm MMVIII who will be credited on their new album, Counter Attack, next year.

Not so the Smashing Pumpkins, who returned to store shelves this week for the first time since 2000 with Zeitgeist. For more than a year, big bald boss Billy Corgan has kept the lineup of his new Pumpkins a secret, and for good reason – there isn’t one. Zeitgeist is all Corgan and faithful drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. I expected that guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky would not be involved, but I didn’t expect that Corgan would just Jack White the whole thing.

The Pumpkins were probably the most ambitious American band of their time, consistently building on their own formula over a delirious deluge of material between 1991 and 1998. With Siamese Dream in 1993 they crafted one of the most layered rock albums of the day, full of seemingly boundless beauty and rage, and then with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in 1995 they delivered one of the first true double albums of the digital age, exploding their sound over 28 songs that ranged from good to great. Even the wispy pullback album Adore was a treat, and the Pumpkins also released a treasure trove of b-sides in their heyday, most of which were just as good as the a-sides.

When Corgan fell apart, he fell apart hard. 2000’s Machina/The Machines of God was a terrible swan song, a raging rock record that went nowhere and took forever to get there. And Corgan’s post-Pumpkins output has been pretty sad, especially The Future Embrace, his godawful embarrassing solo album from 2005.

So to say that Zeitgeist is his best work in years isn’t really saying a lot. Despite the money-hungry revival of the band’s name on the cover, this is almost more of a solo album than The Future Embrace was, only this time Corgan’s put aside the synthesizers and returned to his trademark thick-as-molasses guitar sound. Trouble is, he’s forgotten how to make that sound work – Zeitgeist is a remarkable failure in the production department, with a truly abysmal mix and an overall sub-Gish vibe that buries the songs.

Truth be told, the songs aren’t all that bad, for the most part. Zeitgeist mostly sounds submerged beneath an avalanche of squealing guitars, but now and then, Corgan’s stacked harmonies break through, and occasionally (very occasionally) he’ll stumble on a melody worth hearing. Mostly, it’s the songs that sound like Zwan that are the keepers, like “That’s the Way (My Love Is),” or “Bring the Light.” But for a depressing stretch of Zeitgeist’s running time, Corgan tries to capture the magic of Siamese Dream (on which he played all the instruments, too), and it just doesn’t work.

But at least he keeps all those half-ass retreads to four minutes or less. The real stinker here is “United States,” Corgan’s sad attempt at an epic. Over Chamberlin’s thudding drum dirge, Corgan pounds out a repetitive, boring slog that drags on for 10 minutes as he whines about the state of the country in his ever-reedy voice. This song contains the most pathetic call for revolution you’ve ever heard, and its lyrics are typical of the forced social consciousness that infects Zeitgeist like a rash. Corgan’s never written political songs before, and it shows in the clumsy wordplay of “Doomsday Clock” and “For God and Country.”

The final two tracks find Corgan just disintegrating. He brings his beloved synthesizers back, and on “Pomp and Circumstances,” the goopy closer, he conjures little puffy clouds, then goes all ‘80s guitar hero on top of them. It’s laughable, really, something that probably would have been a low point even on The Future Embrace. The last word on the album is “shamed,” and I only wish he meant it.

But Corgan appears shameless here. Slapping the name of his most successful band on a glorified solo record, particularly one as poorly made as this one, just seems desperate, akin to renting out a 50-foot neon sign that reads “LOOK AT ME!”

That’s the downside of reunion records: had this been released under Corgan’s own name, or under another moniker, I’d probably be focusing on its smaller charms, and calling it a leap forward from Corgan’s last couple of efforts. But since it’s the new Pumpkins album, ostensibly, then I have to compare it to the Pumpkins catalog, and I’m sad to say this comes up far short of even the worst of their records. Never mind that this isn’t really the Smashing Pumpkins. It purports to be, and in doing so, stains that band’s legacy.

At least Neil Finn has been honest about the origins of Time on Earth, the Crowded House “reunion” album he’s just released. He’s openly admitted that it began as his third solo album, but after the sad death of Crowded House drummer Paul Hester, he reunited with bassist Nick Seymour and, later, guitarist/keyboardist Mark Hart. And since the band was all there, mostly, he decided to call it Crowded House. (Presumably the fact that the band’s name is still worth its weight in gold in Finn’s native New Zealand didn’t factor in at all…)

But there’s another reason to call Time on Earth a Crowded House record – it’s something of an album-length eulogy for Hester, who took his own life in 2005. There are no songs here that specifically address the void Hester left behind, but there are numerous little lyrical nods, lines about keeping hope alive, and dealing with loss, and sighing with regret. And the entire record exudes a slow, mournful vibe, a hushed reverence that sometimes sounds funereal.

I consider Neil Finn, the driving force behind Crowded House, to be one of the finest songwriters alive right now. His catalog is chock full of gems, from his days in Split Enz to his excellent second solo album One Nil. But his four albums with Crowded House remain his best work. Those records are like an aural home run derby, Finn sending one ball after another out of the park, coming up with hook after indelible hook. Some people think writing good pop songs is simple, and they only think that because geniuses like Neil Finn make it look easy.

So how, then, to explain Time on Earth, an album on which Finn’s gift for memorable melodies seems to have failed him entirely?

It actually starts out well. “Nobody Wants To” is a whisper of an opener, but its chorus is sweet, and Finn includes a lyrical turnaround that knocks me out. The single, “Don’t Stop Now,” is next, and it’s a sweet little song that would have made a nice b-side from the Woodface sessions. From there, though, it’s downhill fast, as Finn delivers his most average and forgettable set of songs… well, ever. Some of it, like “A Sigh,” is very pretty. Some of it, like the Johnny Marr collaboration “Even a Child,” is nearly hummable. But none of it sticks with you, and most of it just lies there, barely moving at all.

Some have termed Time on Earth a grower, and sure, I can see that. Each time I listen to it, I gain more of an appreciation for what Finn was trying to do. But it still takes intense concentration for my mind not to wander away from some of these songs. “Silent House,” co-written by the Dixie Chicks, lumbers forward for an eternal six minutes, doing almost nothing, and it’s hard to pay attention for that long. It would help if the song had anything approaching a chorus, or a melodic hook. But like most of the songs here, it doesn’t.

But at least it’s not dreadful, like the final fourth of the disc. “Transit Lounge” finds Finn trying to shimmy and shake his way through some form of lite-funk, and he just can’t bring the slinky. And the terribly titled “You Are the One to Make Me Cry” slips into Norah Jones territory, and it’s just awful. He pulls it out in the end with the above-average “People Are Like Suns,” but it’s too late. Time on Earth is a full plate of boredom with an embarrassing cherry on top.

Here it is again, the whole reunion thing. Had this album remained the third Neil Finn solo album, I would be calling it a disappointment after the great One Nil, and I would be looking forward to the next one. But it’s not. It’s the new Crowded House album, representing now 20 percent of that band’s output, and it simply is not worthy of the name. Very few new pop albums can stand with the four Crowded House records, and to invite that comparison, especially with a collection this slipshod, is just silly. This is not Crowded House. This is Neil Finn going through a rare dry spell, and coming up empty.

I know, I know. No matter how bad these new albums are, they don’t actually change the old ones. Mellon Collie and Temple of Low Men are both right there on my shelf, just as excellent as ever. It’s just depressing that now I have to file these sub-par reunion affairs right next to them. I’m as susceptible to the name-dropping as anyone – there was no way I (and thousands of others) wouldn’t have bought the new Crowded House, no matter how bad it was, and Neil Finn seems to know it. He has my money, and I have this limp coda to his finest work, and now I have to decide just what to do with it.

Anyway. Next week, better albums from They Might Be Giants, Interpol, Spoon, Emerson Hart, Rooney and the Chemical Brothers. Or some combination thereof.

See you in line Tuesday morning.