Part requited commendation, part early-year new musical round-up, this missive comes by way of a collection of noteworthy projects that stood out to us of late. Both complete exploits and works in progress alike, each one alone might not warrant a whole chaptered entry by itself, yet gelled together they stoke a surprisingly elevated appeal. How not to begin with the incomparable Smashing Pumpkins, who are knee-deep and well underway the release cycle for their libertine high-brow triple LP ATUM: A Rock Opera in Three Acts. After having dropped the first instalment at the tail end of last year (15th November), the 35-year old American alternative rock giants are just fresh off the coattails of releasing Act Two, this past 31st January.
Ideated and intended as the clear spiritual and musical successor to the band’s seminal concept albums Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) and Machina/The Machines of God (2000), the 33-track sequel was produced entirely in-house by wizard in chief Billy Corgan. Each part enlists eleven tracks, and the whole sonic opera’s roll out is being staggered with exactly eleven weeks of separation between each Act—with a highly anticipated final instalment slated for release on 21st April. Owing to the seasonal faculty inherent to its titling, the project loosely follows the changing atmospheric intervals following the Fall Equinox into winter and spring (album title ATUM is to be pronounced Autumn).
The Chicago rockers’ twelveth studio effort clocks in at a whooping 138 minutes of runtime—nothing unfathomable by any stretch of the imagination given Corgan’s first-hand involvement, yet a remarkable feat by any other unadulterated metric. Not least on account of the consideration that the Pumpkins’s last record in time, 2020’s CYR, was a bloated and ambitious 20-track double-sided affair of its own. Previewed as early as last September by the frizzy distortion and self-repressed marching of “Beguiled“—a cut ending up being sequenced at number nine on ATUM‘s Act Two, go figure—the auditory epic now sports two thirds of its unhinged musical narration, compounding to 85 minutes of material readily available for taste discernment.
To accompany the release and help fans make head or tails of the sheer critical mass of new music unveiled, the 55-year old National Wrestling Alliance-owner saw fit to design an audio-only companion guide to the rock-opera roll out, aptly dubbed Thirty-Three podcast. In it, the emblematic frontman dissects one new ATUM track per episode—alongside selected past works from his Pumpkins and solo back-catalogue—whilst contemporaneously offering previously unheard insights straight from Smashing Pumpkins Factory. Handpicked special guests such as bandmates Jimmy Chamberlin and Jeff Schroeder as well as fellow artists like Butch Vig and YUNGBLUD act as sidekicks to the ever so verbose and erudite Corgan.
Musically, the 22 recordings revealed hitherto cover a wealth of relevant sonic terrains. This is not something terribly foreign to third-act Smashing Pumpkins, who after having brought most of the founding line up back together for their fugitive yet brilliant Rick Rubin-produced Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1 / LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. have found themselves working more and more synth-pop elements, if not even country pop at times, into their trademark alt-goth aesthetics. If Act One rollicks through a somewhat disjointed and tortuous sonic backdrop, with numbers as inherently variegated as the unforgiving “The Good In Goodbye“and the soft nintendocore “Hooray!” placed on the same side, Act Two reigns supreme with both its immaculate sound tightness coupled with an almost irresistible catchiness.
Songs such as “Neophyte“, “Every Morning“, “To The Grays“, as well as “Springtimes” on ATUM‘s second instalment sit comfortably amongst the band’s best and most timeless in the last twenty years. Notwithstanding side B’s overall superior delivery, what both parts have in common is a new found knack for compositional stickiness by Corgan. Significantly more so than in recent years, these tunes emanate universality and endurance. Mind you, the core leitmotiv journeying throughout is still of a softer and lighter blend—for all intents and purposes, ATUM is a very current-era Pumpkins statement—so invidious nostalgic pundits orthodoxly pledged to their 90s sound should probably best stay away. Everyone else is invited to bask and indulge in Corgan’s studious artistic idiosyncrasies, and look forward to welcoming Spring with a final set of tracks that might well round up what could become the group’s most exciting and readily accessible project since its spiritual predecessor Machina/The Machines of God.
A shorter, yet no less ambitious release hitting the shelves recently was from Brooklyn-transplant via Washington, DC rapper Oddisee, real name Amir Mohamed el Khalifa. To What End is out on budding New York label Outer Note and follows the imprint’s debut ODD CURE (2020), as well as a lustrum during which the underground sensation forayed into one-off live albums and EPs. The 16-track tape is the 37-year old American-Sudanese’s most ambitious and refined to date—a highly accomplished and well-rounded exploit perhaps only matched by 2015’s The Good Fight. Clocking in at a robust sixteen joints, with no skits and a slim layer of carefully placed featured guests—special mention for the Phonte, Bemyfiasco, and Kay Young trio illuminating album standout “Choices“—the LP coasts through a wide array of high-caliber sounds, freely touching on hip-hop, jazz, soul, and R&B throughout its beats portfolio.
Dropping this past January, this thing is a near all killer, no filler—with a metric ton of hooks splashed on top, just for us. Historically more renowned and commended for his articulate, heady, and introspective flows, on here Oddisee trades some of that vitiated one-dimensionality of rhyme spitting for a heightened sense of melody. All without sacrificing urgency, intention, or poignancy of message conveyance. Take the focus and conciseness of sophomore groovy dancer “How Far” on the tracklist, or even the pop-affability and radio-friendliness of lead single “Try Again” and “All I Need“; one would be hard-pressed to sample similarly effective-while-accessible spells in his back-catalogue.
Thematically, the MC re-essays previous notions of struggle and bottom-up realness, however this time with a higher aspirational grandeur. The systemic self-perpetration of purposelessness seeps through album opener “The Start of Something“, rising all boats and not even sparing kindred fringe-adjacent geezers: “You might not beat the odds but you got to meet the odd / It took time to accept that I’m worthy of admiration / Was brought up in a family not caught up in celebration / No clock within the house to remind me that time was racing“. Meanwhile, the chorus on glossy and tender curtain closer “Race” can’t help but wrestle with slews of unanswered questions, preventing closure from subduing overwhelmingness: “Sitting in my car, in the driveway / I’ve been home a while, but my minds late / It’s the only time that I day dream / Getting really hard to find a quite space / Open up the door and world screams / Getting overwhelmed by the high pace / Something’s on my mind I deserve peace / Until the door swings, race“.
Bookending this early in the year round-up with the inaugural offering from the enthusing and anticipated new supergroup Far From Saints. A country rock-meets-Americana trio composed of brit-pop legends Stereophonics‘s founder Kelly Jones, as well as Patty Lynn and Dwight Baker of Austin group The Wind + The Wave. The perhaps unlikely pairing first started gestating when Jones and Lynn met backstage during a U.S. tour ten years ago. That encounter led the Phonics frontman to recruit The Wind + The Wave to open for his 2019 solo tour, as part of which they whipped up impromptu on-stage renditions of Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks’s timeless “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around“—which immediately resonated with both them and the fans.
Fast forward to this past Friday 20th January, when Far From Saints officially came out of the pandemic-halted woodwork with their debut taster “Let’s Turn This Back Around“, a rich and full-bodied offering of flavoursome country with evident pop tinges. A dejected guitar picking, paired with forlorn steel-guitar laments, underpin the lead single’s first half, before converting into an expansive and swelling feast of accompanying strings and anthemic chants by Jones and Lynn (a vocal timbre pairing made in heaven). The number counts a such a wealth of engrossing musical elements that it grandfathers itself as a mouthwatering teaser for what else is to come as part of the yet-to-be-named ten-track baptism project—produced by the band itself and helmed by Al Clay on the mix. If a good beginning bodes well, Far From Saints seems poised to pan out as so much more than the occasional atrophied side-project.
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.
THE SMASHING PUMPKINS
2023, Martha’s Music
TO WHAT END
2023, Outer Note
FAR FROM SAINTS
LET’S TURN THIS BACK AROUND
2023, Ignition Records