November 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

The emergence of symphonic pop

Grunge is dead. No surprise there. But now retro-punk appears to be slipping, what with the respectable but less-than-stupendous debuts of new discs by Green Day and Rancid. In their place and out of the past come melody, harmony, and lush orchestration — much maligned of late, but getting royal treatment from the Smashing Pumpkins on their new double-disc CD, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

And the Pumpkins aren’t alone. A small but rapidly expanding number of up-and-coming rockers (Witch Hazel, Olivia Tremor Control, Richard Davies) are crafting precious confections that proudly display an affinity for the near-symphonic pop of the ’60s and ’70s. ”I write the same way I did when I was 9 years old, playing piano and wanting to be Elton John,” says Ben Folds, 29, of buzz trio Ben Folds Five. Indeed, despite homespun production that is more knotty-pine rec room than Radio City Music Hall, the songs on Five’s self-titled debut are rooted in piano riffs exuberant enough to be cast-off demos for Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

Adam Silverman — whose Flydaddy label was founded to release an album of symphonic pop by the Boston duo Cardinal — sees the new sound as a response to grunge’s mopery: ”It makes sense after five years of cacophony and grating noise that people want to try something different.”

Perhaps the strongest evidence of the shift away from gloomy rock is that Sub Pop Records, original home of grunge granddaddies Nirvana and Soundgarden, is gambling on sludge-free sounds. In addition to distributing Flydaddy, it has just released It’s Heavy in Here, a disc by ex-Cardinal Eric Matthews, pop’s reigning champ of orchestral arrangement: ”To me it’s the newest-sounding thing,” says Matthews, 26, of his undeniably retro sound. ”I think of it as being the future.” Sounds as if the Beatles reunited just in time.

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