Standing on the Shoulder of Giants

It was time for a new pair of shoes, and as usual I headed directly for the Doc Marten rack at my local footwear emporium. But this time, there was no Doc Marten rack, and when I asked the clerk why, he flashed a consoling smile. Sales had dropped so precipitously, he informed me, it didn’t pay for the store to devote floor space to Docs anymore; they were lucky to sell one or two pairs a week. The symbolism couldn’t have been more obvious. Even though the British shoes are linked to punk, Docs became the pavement-pounder of choice of the Lollapalooza nation — another empire whose freak flag has been steadily drooping for years.

As if the comparisons weren’t plain enough, I returned home and was confronted with the latest albums by Oasis and the Smashing Pumpkins. Only a few years ago, both bands straddled the landscape like card-carrying rock-star brats. But in light of a dramatically altered pop climate in general, they now seem like musical Docs — overnight relics from a past century. On their new records, they’re more than aware of this grave-new-world scenario, and they grapple with a vexing question: Should guitar-wielding rock bands that don’t rap or play a derivation of metal be considered elder statesman — or dinosaurs?

In a press statement that accompanies Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, Oasis mastermind Noel Gallagher attempts to show he’s down with the 21st century by mentioning drum loops, ”funky keyboard noises,” ”underground club culture,” and hip-hop. Also, the album was produced by Mark ”Spike” Stent (whose credits include Bjork and Massive Attack). The results are less clotted and grating than 1997’s Be Here Now, and the sonic openness allows Gallagher’s melodies and guitar and his brother Liam’s pissy bray to shine brighter (they’re the only original band members left, by the way). Liam’s first attempt at songwriting, an ode to his adopted son called ”Little James,” is a wee treacly, but it personifies what’s so charming about these guys — their very human, and very public, screwups.

Elsewhere in that press release, Noel uses ”groovy” and describes one song’s ”Paul McCartney-esque bass line,” and those word choices are just as symbolic. The secondhand feel of most Oasis songs is now joined by another troublesome trend: a discernible album formula. As on prior records, mod-squad rocker (here, the bracing double shot of ”Put Yer Money Where Yer Mouth Is” and ”I Can See a Liar”) is followed by sweeping ’60s-ornamented ballad, followed in turn by song with unnecessary punctuation (”Gas Panic!”, ”Go Let It Out!”). ”We’re the keepers of the destiny,” Liam sings, but that destiny increasingly involves recycling not only rock’s past but Oasis’ own as well.

Equally intent on staving off obsolescence, the Smashing Pumpkins began signing autographs at record stores and playing surprise club dates before MACHINA/the machines of God was even released. This newly aggressive — or desperate — strategy is also evident on the album, which shelves the multi-textured forays into balladry and electronica of 1998’s Adore in favor of a nearly nonstop barrage of buzz-saw guitars. If the urgency to reestablish the Pumpkins isn’t obvious enough, auteur Billy Corgan makes it groaningly transparent in his lyrics: ”I’m not dead yet” goes the first line in the first song, followed on other tracks by repeated uses of living-dying metaphors and, in the unfortunately titled ”I of the Mourning,” the line ”I blow the dust off my guitars.”

The heavy-handedness is as bald as Corgan’s dome, and often just as unappetizing. Earlier Pumpkins snarl-fests had a ravaged grace, but these are a monochromatic bunch, and the album is more interminable than both brilliant discs of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness combined. Corgan wants us to forget Adore, since it didn’t sell well, yet MACHINA‘s highlights are those in which the band picks up where that unjustly chastised album left off, with back-from-rehab drummer Jimmy Chamberlin adding a harder backbeat. ”The Sacred and Profane” and ”Try, Try, Try” find Corgan again balancing beauty and ballast. But the more he tries to convince himself that the band still matters because they can rock, the deeper in Corgan digs himself (”Heavy Metal Machine,” which amounts to Kiss for eggheads, is a prime example). He’s still a rat in a cage; this time, though, it’s of his own design. Standing on the Shoulder of Giants: B MACHINA: C+