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C. Spencer Yeh’s Gift

When C. Spencer Yeh makes a statement along the lines of “Not that I was going for anything intentionally grotesque, but I felt like kicking around these acoustic sounds really loud and dry, just made it more visceral,” it’s instinctive to assume he’s referring to some instrumental or electronic effect or process capable of clearing a crowded singles bar with the flick of a volume knob. From sphincter-tightening scree to layer-cake drone to minimalist crackle, the Burning Star Core mainstay knows his noise P’s, Q’s, and Z’s. The avant-garde stews in which Yeh has dipped a hand, a violin bow, or a mixing board—unruly, loopy, or shrink-wrapped—are legion, and the Cincinnatian–turned–New Yorker can often be found testing the limits of timbre locally, solo, and in collaboration with fellow travelers.

Yeh, as it turns out, is holding forth on the decision to apply reverb to his vocals on Transitions (De Stijl), a new collection of verse-chorus-verse originals and covers that has the effect of simultaneously overturning his experimentalist bona fides and showcasing artistic abilities that the likes of Challenger, Inside the Shadow, and the Solo Violin series could only hint at.

“I was absolutely appalled when I started singing at rehearsal,” he remembers during an early October e-mail interview. “I was talking with someone about this recently, and they suggested electronics ‘to help with blending the voice into the music better.’ I was like, ‘Reverb?’ ‘Yes.’ Ha. And all this time prior, I tried to avoid reverb as much as I could, when I would use my voice as other means. Boy, it’s going to be my friend now.”

Indeed, there is companionship about Transitions. Rangy and slightly parched, its 10 songs carry the feel of well-executed demos doubling as short fiction. If last year’s “In the Blink of an Eye”/”Condo Stress” single suggested life for him exists beyond improv’s sub-basement, this album proves it. Yeh, whose low-end register telegraphs a gravity that could be mistaken for pathos, works almost exclusively in three gears here: desiccated rock ‘n’ roll, desiccated rock ‘n’ roll with synth-pop flavors, and immersive synth-pop. (While Yeh recorded Transitions solo, Tall Firs’ Ryan Sawyer and Daren Ho [a/k/a Driphouse] will join him onstage for the CMJ show—the first time these songs will be performed in a live setting. “I’m working on one or two others, who aren’t confirmed right now, so I can’t name them.”)

Yeh is fond of rogues—see the shorter tracks on last year’s 1975—and Transitions goes in for a few. “Laugh Track,” a singsong-y tumble for horns and piano Yeh describes as “more of a question mark or contrasting piece” and “Don’t Make Me Chase You,” which pairs screwed vocals and caffeinated synth, immediately register as outliers. But “Whose Life” arrives armed with arch, perspective-unaffiliated lyricism and sciatic-nerve feedback. The song’s powers of appraisal are as multipurpose as they are open ended; the question it poses isn’t, in an unlaced Spoon-single way, so much “Who’s that girl?” as “Who’s that girl now?” On “Something Forever”—all flailing, controlled chords and cryptic imagery—Yeh’s stylistic resemblance to David Byrne is uncanny. And though “The New Guy” ingratiates via overly generous shakers and sloppy distortion, “Starts With a Look” is poised, chromatic, and second-person romantic enough to give even the most cynical misanthrope a glimmer of codependent hope.

If Transitions‘ originals are worth the price of admission, though, the covers are a wonder, and find Yeh pushing his vocal reverberation agenda into dangerous, exciting places. In his hands, Father Yod’s “I Can Read Your Mind” is transformed from a psychically minded, amorphous folk curio into rattling, cosmic trolley cruise, what Yeh calls “the ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ to my campaign.” Elsewhere, and perhaps more impressively, he flips Stevie Nicks’s smoldering, late-1980s adult-contemporary hit “Rooms on Fire” into early 1980s pop bubblegum—check those massed, Duran Duran sandpaper synths—a move inspired in part by tour-drive mix-CD making with laptop noiser John Wiese.

“We’d make lists of songs while driving, and whenever we stopped, we’d pull these playlists together,” Yeh recalls. “[Wiese] was the one who brought ‘Rooms on Fire’ back to my attention, as a song where he had held onto a certain lyric/hook in the back of his mind, but he couldn’t identify the artist or song, and then we figured out who it was, and kind of went on a mini-Nicks bender from there, down to even debating whether the Billy Corgan cover of ‘Landslide’ handled this particularly awkward verse melody better than Stevie did. Like, Corgan didn’t go for this low note that Stevie did in the original.”

Yeh had better watch himself. He runs the risk of becoming part of the never-ending Stevie Nicks reinterpretation conversation that Corgan has long dominated. Until now.

The C.S. Yeh Band plays Death by Audio on Friday, October 19, with Circuit des Yeux, Samara, and Messages.

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Smashing Pumpkins

The band that taught a generation of disaffected teens that melancholy was two words is back again. Though Billy Corgan is the only remaining original member, and the only one in the current lineup old enough to have even the faintest memory of 1979, the reconstituted alternative rock outfit shows he hasn’t lost his touch for all things angsty. The band has been rolling out Teargarden by Kaleidyscope track by track, with Oceania rumored to drop next month. Corgan’s latest has a buoyant, distortion-heavy feel and a world-weariness that, after exhausting the possibilities of lint, has him gazing far beyond his navel

Tue., Oct. 18, 7 p.m., 2011

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Welcome Back, Courtney Love

Room, meet the rhinoplastied elephant in a tutu. To address the new Hole record, Nobody’s Daughter, without considering Courtney Love’s chaos-prone reputation—the “Courtney Love Monster,” as she recently described it on Twitter—is to analyze the recent health care bill without acknowledging Barack Obama. It’s impossible not to be distracted by the circular chorus of “Samantha,” a slow-burning rager co-written by Billy Corgan that substitutes curse words for handclaps: “People like you FUCK!/People like me FUCK!/People like you FUCK!/People like me!” These four lines repeat, at various intervals, four times, bringing the track’s final F-word count to 23, and raising the question: Who are these people like “you” or “me,” exactly? Even Love admits that, unlike “friend” Stevie Nicks, she finds it impossible to disentangle herself from her lyrical narrators. “It’s me,” the 45-year-old recently told Amazon. “If it’s ‘Samantha,’ it’s probably me.”

So let us consider who people like Courtney Love might be. Someone whose husband’s suicide is the 9/11 of modern rock? Someone who once thus enjoyed global goodwill and national sympathy, but then squandered it in spectacularly public fashion? Someone whose legendarily combative personality is as polarizing as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Or someone who overdoses on Oxycontin in front of her daughter and has generally cultivated a reputation as the Tasmanian Devil’s Ambien-woozy girlfriend? Should we even get into who the “you” fucking her might be?

Let’s not. At one point, there was a feminist-studies doctoral thesis on the notion that Courtney Love was the rock-‘n’-roll Hillary Clinton: a strong, shrewd, icily ambitious woman who used her tumultuous, high-profile marriage as a professional catapult, wielded a powerful relentlessness and stereotypically masculine calculation, and therefore got labeled a bitch with balls. Hell, they both also found themselves conspiracy-theorist targets in allegedly suspicious suicides and begot only-child daughters whom the tabloids openly pitied. But that was the ’90s. It’s two presidents and countless major-label failures later. Hillary Clinton is now Secretary of State. And Love? She’s currently a court-deemed unfit parent who still urinates with the door open in the company of an AP reporter and fronts a band named Hole.

Yet we are still paying attention. (OK, I am.) And Nobody’s Daughter‘s snarling, grunge-revival lead single, “Skinny Little Bitch,” makes it easy to remember why, evoking everything Hole once stood for: self-tortured vanity and the punk-rock girl pummeling the prom queen. The track’s iTunes art is a bloody glass slipper; the song itself advances the belief that all Cinderella ever really wanted was to kick the shit out of her deserving stepsisters. Credit nostalgia, if you like, but it’s a truly fantastic Hole song.

But this Hole is not the Hole you, or anyone, remembers. No Lurch-by-way-of-Thurston guitar-slayer Eric Erlandson. (He’s pissed.) No ginger-pixie four-stringer Melissa Auf Der Maur. (She’s solo.) No erstwhile bassist Kristen Pfaff. (She’s dead.) You might be tempted to brace the band’s name with quotes—go ahead. Her Holeness doesn’t care. “We are Hole whether you like it or not, you little suck shits,” she spat at this band’s first U.S. show at SXSW in March, draped in a yellow sash reading “BEWARE.”

This Hole actually has no other women—just three men joined by an occasional touring fourth. The guy who matters most is Micko Larkin, a British guitarist/occasional roommate who has emerged as Love’s even-keeled foil and possible saving grace. Nobody’s Daughter, the first Hole release since 1998’s Celebrity Skin, began five years ago with Love scribbling songs in rehab, where she went after flashing David Letterman on the air while her fairly terrible 2004 solo record, America’s Sweetheart, tanked. Collaborations with ex-lover Corgan and producer/pop doctor Linda Perry started and stopped in reportedly dramatic fits; Skin producer Michael Beinhorn eventually stepped in. But when Love, who swears she only takes prescribed drugs now, decamped to New York (“Fuck that goddamn desert,” she says of Los Angeles), Larkin took over. The 23-year-old is now a credited co-songwriter on five songs—nearly all the best ones, too. Without him, it’s likely Nobody’s Daughter would be Nobody’s Record.

But if the result belongs to anybody, it’s the Courtney Love Monster. “Skinny Little Bitch” isn’t about any of the singer’s many adversaries (Lily Allen, Madonna, Mary Lou Lord)—it’s about when the Monster shape-shifted into an anorexic cokehead. The beast’s genesis is also sketched in the Martha Wainwright–assisted title track, an arresting raised-lighter lament that Love has said reflects both her story and Frances Bean’s peculiar situation: “Nobody’s daughter, she never was, she never will/Be beholden to anyone she cannot kill.” (Love’s mother, therapist Linda Carroll, published a 2006 tell-all called Her Mother’s Daughter—this is a hostile denial.) We also get to escort the Monster on a walk of shame home from “Someone Else’s Bed.”

“Play this recording very very loud please,” beg the record’s liner notes—this is very good advice. Otherwise, you will probably hate the rest of it. Love has made a career by lashing out—few women in rock have told the world to fuck off with such cathartic abandon—and yet aside from the punk pogo “Loser Dust,” the rest of Daughter lacks that profound aggression, which is the whole reason we—OK, again, I—loved this crazy lady in the first place. Instead, we get a litany of annoying rock ballads and anguished modern-rock pap, plus one extremely ill-advised affectation: Just as fellow recovering addict Eminem inexplicably adopted a Jamaican patois on 2009’s Relapse, here Love cops Bob Dylan’s folk-codger cadence on at least four songs.

It’s absolutely bizarre, bordering on self-parody, like Julianne Moore’s Boston accent on 30 Rock, except serious. Through headphones, it’s nearly unbearable, though during a mid-April listening party at Fall Out Boy–affiliated bar Angels & Kings, that feigned nasal rasp didn’t sound so bad. But the joint’s speakers couldn’t save the despairing soliloquy “Letter to God”—woof. Linda Perry supposedly wrote this as a sequel to Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” but it sounds like a cruel prank, with Love the too-proud Emperor, Perry the swindling weaver, and this heaven-sent telegram sewn from a brilliance everyone else is allegedly too stupid to see. It reminds me of Kermit the Frog’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

See Hole live. You will be entertained. Don’t worry: They’ll play much of what you want to hear, including the exhilaratingly perfect scream-along “Violet”; the fist-pumping, trash-culture-skewering “Celebrity Skin”; and, if you’re lucky, the enraged, Kim Gordon–produced triumph “Pretty on the Inside.” Nor will Love not disappoint with her reliably loony onstage banter: At that SXSW performance, the widow Cobain concluded Daughter‘s “Pacific Coast Highway” thus: “I like that song. It reminds me of sex. You know, fucked-up hate sex. Like when you punch. You guys know what I’m talking about, when you fuck someone and then you PUNCH them right in the middle of it: ‘I fucking hate YOOUUUUUU! Yeah, this is so good, OK, baby, FUCK YOU!’ ”

Courtney Love “is the girl who won’t shut up,” Deborah Frost wrote in these pages back in 1992. “She is all the things that should not be, and she shoves it, raw, right in your face.” Chaos begets chaos theory, and in 18 years, nothing about her has really changed—and that is exactly the point.

Hole play Terminal 5 April 27 and 28. Both shows are sold out.

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PAGING DR. JUNG!

On Billy Corgan’s new touchy-feely spiritual blog, Everything From Here to There, a recent post titled “Who Am I to Love Myself So Much??” (we’re not making this up) reads: “I need love, and yet, I deny it to myself. I wonder where this idea came from?” Oh, Billy, you’re so complicated. Tonight, he may get some answers when he participates in the Red Book Dialogues, a new series at the Rubin Museum in which celebrated artists are paired with a psychoanalyst to interpret a folio from Carl Jung’s recently unearthed Red Book—and perhaps uncover some mysteries about themselves in the process. And someone, please give Corgan a hug already.

Sat., Nov. 14, 3 p.m., 2009

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STILL GLOWING

Billy Corgan couldn’t have looked more bored than he did playing playing the new Smashing Pumpkins single “G.L.O.W.” on the Jimmy Kimmel show last month. It’s a profoundly dour song, though it’s unlikely anyone will wonder about Corgan’s motivations too intensely: The song was recorded exclusively for “Guitar Hero World Tour.” (And given that, it’s not even that complicated.) Mainly, it’s an awareness generator—Smashing Pumpkins are celebrating their 20th anniversary, even if only Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain have survived from the original lineup to this tour, and even if it’s been a decade since the band made an album worthy of Corgan’s self-assuredness. Tonight, the second of this two-night stand, he has said, will be “lighter and transcendental”; the first will be “darker and heavier.” Both will be a little precious, probably.

Nov. 6-7, 8 p.m., 2008

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FRESH RAGE

With Dave Grohl courting Grammys, Billy Corgan squashing his own legacy, and Chris Cornell aping Justin Timberlake, Trent Reznor is looking like a mighty respectable alternative-nation ambassador nowadays. Free from the major-label slaughterhouse, the doomy hothead is riding an Internet-fueled creative crest that includes meandering instrumental wank sessions (Ghosts I-IV) and brutal signs of fresh rage (The Slip). Though the Nine Inch Nails sound hasn’t progressed much since H.W. swore in back in 1989, Reznor’s wonky attitude toward technology, distribution schemes, and Chinese Olympics–style opening-ceremony LED blind-sides lend his enterprise a winning illusion of evolution. Reznor gets older, but his angst stays the same age.

Wed., Aug. 27, 7:30 p.m., 2008

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Smashing Pumpkins’ Zeitgeist

“I don’t wanna be alone,” sings Billy Corgan on “Tarantula,” the first single from the first Smashing Pumpkins album since 2000’s
Machina discs. Thank Mellon Collie for that: Two years ago, on his disappointing solo debut The Future Embrace, Corgan lost his grip on all that made Smashing Pumpkins the awkward kings (and queen) of post-grunge misery rock, his infinite sadness diluted by watery synth-pop settings no more assertive than the wimpy singer-songwriter ballads on Pumpkins guitarist James Iha’s own solo debut, Let It Come Down.

There’s no Iha on Zeitgeist, nor any trace of bassist D’Arcy Wretzky: When Corgan placed ads in the
Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times proclaiming his desire to “renew and revive” the Pumpkins, only drummer Jimmy Chamberlin—the same guy kicked out of the original group approximately 18 times as a result of his drug abuse—showed up at (or was allowed through) Corgan’s door. Still, the drummer’s participation must’ve given Corgan a sufficient feeling of togetherness, as most of
Zeitgeist finds the singer-guitarist once again in the cone-destroying zone of Siamese Dream.

In fact, thanks in part to the presence of Pantera producer Terry Date, this is the Pumpkins’ hardest-rocking record ever: On opener “Doomsday Clock,” Corgan builds a wailing wall of sound with immense slabs of doom-glam chug, while “United States” grinds away like the intro to “Iron Man” for nearly 10 minutes. Sadly, the tunes aren’t what they used to be—nowhere on
Zeitgeist does Corgan stud the amp-shredding guitar fuzz with a hook as sweet or as sharp as those that powered “Today” or “1979.” Yet at a moment when alt-rock radio is saturated with sly emo bands long on songcraft but short on sincerity, it’s Corgan’s unembarrassed anguish that feels unique. The butterfly has his bullets back.

Smashing Pumpkins play Live Earth at Giants Stadium July 7, liveearth.org

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Happy Days Are Here Again

With precious few champions and their fair share of clueless naysayers, New York quartet Chavez spent three years in the mid ’90s birthing two albums and a couple singles’ worth of glorious melodic bombast before submitting to a hiatus that only breaks occasionally. Grafting massive hooks onto lurching riff shifts that stagger and sway atop window-rattling, off-kilter percussive thwaps, the band met with a bizarre indifference while trying to navigate an ocean teeming with lesser guitar-centric plankton.

The 28 tracks on Matador’s Better Days Will Haunt You, an essential and generous double disc that collects the band’s every last musical scrap—chiefly the full-lengths Gone Glimmering (1995) and Ride the Fader (’96)—don’t showcase wicked innovation. But mold breaking was never Chavez’s real intent. Instead, they bracketed ferocious rhythms with a taut dual-guitar attack that allowed the chiming strings of “Break Up Your Band,” the near balladry of “Unreal Is Here,” and the metallic sheen of “You Must Be Stopped” to tunefully twist molars while cracking skulls. Contemporaries and labelmates like Pavement and Guided by Voices may have garnered the lion’s share of the press and praise, but listening to this spare 90-minute set straight through proves that an insistent power came with being indie rock’s greatest unheralded also-ran.

After touring Ride the Fader, bassist Scott Marshall and guitarist Clay Tarver dedicated themselves to film work, while drummer James Lo pounded skins for various projects around town. Singer-guitarist Matt Sweeney, meanwhile, stared down Billy Corgan’s bald pate long enough to collect a paycheck in Zwan before collaborating with Will Oldham on the Superwolf record. But Chavez are tentatively, temporarily back in business: Known for their blistering live sets—glimpses of which can be had on Haunt You‘s accompanying DVD, with hilarious commentary from Scott’s father, Happy Days creator Garry Marshall—Chavez will be back onstage Saturday night, playing only their third hometown show in the past seven years. Longtime fans and recent converts alike will have a rare opportunity to watch these boys shine through tracks that evoke a not-so-distant era in which “indie” could reference pummeling guitar heroics, instead of the yelpy, overly sensitive pablum that mistakenly gets labeled “rock” these days.

Chavez play the Warsaw Saturday night, warsawconcerts.com

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Melancholy Rockers’ Infinite Betterness

Melatonin,” the first cut on Silversun Pickups’ debut full-length, either has no chorus or consists of nothing but. Same goes for the next one, the gorgeous single “Well Thought Out Twinkles.” Either way it doesn’t much matter, as the Silverlake, California, four-piece repeatedly goes for sonics over structure, the songs on Carnavas rendered in broad strokes, all soft-loud dynamic shifts, lushly layered melodies, oversaturated tones, ripples of feedback, and squalls of white noise. Tunes whirr to life and soar skyward, fizzle out and start up again; there is no hook because it’s all the hook. The easy—and constant—reference point is Smashing Pumpkins (and damn if “Waste It On” doesn’t simply transpose that old “Crush” bassline), but the Pickups are warmer, fuzzier, Silverlakier than Chicago’s finest ever were, what with Billy Corgan’s reedy, pathos-infused whine forever deflating that band’s heady roar. There’s no such grounding here. Brian Aubert whispers and sighs his words, and even his screams suggest twee tantrum rather than acute angst. More helium for the balloon, it would seem, and at their best—”Lazy Eye,” “Dream at Tempo 119,” the aforementioned “Twinkles”—the Pickups manage not only ethereality, but euphoria.

Silversun Pickups play Hammerstein Ballroom November 22 with Wolfmother, mcstudios.com/newsite/hammersteinballroom.

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From Hair to Eternity

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 lounge—one 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 jolt—joyous, 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 anger—though 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 Song closes with two guitar anthems oversized enough to point back to Mould’s best work in Sugar. Only curmudgeons—or bunkered acolytes—would deny their power. So tip your cap to Mould’s bare scalp. Or, better yet, let him have it.