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Billy Corgan: This Pumpkin stands alone

His latest CD does have hints of his former band’s sound
/ Source: The Associated Press

This week Smashing Pumpkins fans get a taste of what they’ve been missing with Billy Corgan’s solo CD, which includes an interesting take on a Bee Gee’s tune. Meshell Ndegeocello will get you into the spirit with her latest jazz collaboration project, which includes vocals by Cassandra Wilson. Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis collaborate for his latest jazzy trip down the ivories. Finally, sample some experimental rock from dredg.

Billy Corgan, “TheFuture
Embrace”
Billy Corgan, the brains and soul behind ’90s alternative rock heroes The Smashing Pumpkins, takes an electronic turn on his solo debut, “TheFutureEmbrace.”

It’s evident right off the bat with the appropriately titled opener “All Things Change.” It’s led by hollow, lifeless electronic drums but eventually given a heart by Corgan’s always-mesmerizing vocals.

Despite Corgan’s ever-progressive perfectionism and the album’s forward-looking title, longtime fans can rest easy because there are undoubtedly remnants of Pumpkins scattered about the record. It comes most notably on “DIA,” which starts refreshingly with Corgan’s longtime bandmate Jimmy Chamberlain on drums, creating that trademark Pumpkins feeling of hopeful nostalgia they captured so perfectly on 1995’s “1979.”

The same goes for the semi-anthemic “I’m Ready,” which picks the record back up after the teenage heartbreak downer “Now (and Then).”

Corgan and the Cure’s Robert Smith collaborate to gothify The Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody,” which they somehow do fantastically by taking it to a minor key from a major, with Smith providing backup vocals.

“Walking Shade,” the first single, maintains the momentum built by “I’m Ready,” but it doesn’t last long. The record finishes fairly weakly with “Pretty Pretty STAR” (a tribute to David Bowie that sounds more like a nursery rhyme than a nod to a rock ’n’ roll icon), and the minimalist dirge “Strayz.”

If you’ve never been a fan of Corgan and aren’t into heavily produced electronic music, this record probably isn’t for you. But if you’re a Pumpkins devotee, there’s enough vintage Corgan here to get your head bobbing up and down, just like those cool kids in the “1979” video.—Matthew Ott

Meshell Ndegeocello, “Dance of the Infidel”

Shanachie

You may not hear the voice of Meshell Ndegeocello on her most recent disc, but sonically, she’s everywhere. On “Dance of the Infidel,” Ndegeocello forces all her genre-bending attitude through the funnel of jazz, and ends up with material reminiscent of Miles Davis’ and John Coltrane’s work.

Ndegeocello has assembled some of her favorite artists for her “Spirit Music Jamia” ensemble. Lalah Hathaway and Cassandra Wilson are among the vocalists. Horn player Oran Coltrane (son of you-know-who) and pianist Oliver Lake are on the roster of instrumentalists.

The musical arrangements are built from the bass line up and indelibly bear Ndegeocello’s signature. The tracks alternate in tone between freewheeling improvisation and moody bliss. Sabina (of the Brazilian Girls) ruminates about a love that has her trapped like a fish in an aquarium; “Will you starve me or feed me/I never really know.” The pulsating bass line that rocks her fishbowl world comes courtesy Ndegeocello. Wilson drops thick, honey-coated vocals on “The Chosen,” but the subtly erotic and vulnerable lyrics, using imagery from the Bible’s “Song of Solomon,” are all Meshell.

Then there are the instrumentals. The title track is imbued with such powerful emotion that you can’t even put words to why you feel like crying after it’s over. And who locked a screaming, tormented woman in the bell of Kenny Garret’s saxophone? Instrumental anguish soars to new heights in his solo at the end of “Al-Falaq 113.”—Aimee Maude Sims

Harry Connick Jr., “Occasion”

When Harry met Branford during their teenage years in New Orleans in the 1970s, Connick had the reputation of being a jazz piano prodigy. Over the years, Connick’s success as a pop singer and actor came to overshadow his jazz roots, but now thanks to a special deal worked out with Sony/Columbia, Marsalis’ new record label has been allowed to put out a “Connick on Piano” series of instrumental jazz (non-singing) releases.

This new CD of saxophone-piano duets, a followup to Connick’s 2003 quartet album, “Other Hours,” marks the first occasion the two friends have had to record an entire album together. This is jazz without the safety net of familiar mainstream standards to fall back on, informal and spontaneous rather than carefully arranged. In this intimate and sparse setting, Connick and Marsalis engage in inventive and playful interaction, constantly pushing and challenging each other as they shift between lead and supporting roles.

Connick demonstrates an almost encyclopedic knowledge of jazz piano styles from stride and ragtime to the avant-garde, though his central focus is hard bop and his main influences include Thelonious Monk and Erroll Garner. Connick also reveals his talents as a jazz composer — 11 of the tracks were written by the pianist and the remaining two by Marsalis — with highlights including “Spot,” a throwback to his New Orleans roots; two poignant ballads, “I Like Love More” and “All Things” from his Tony-nominated score to the Broadway musical “Thou Shalt Not,” and the hard-driving and soulful “Good To Be Home” that closes the session.

Marsalis, already known for his robust tenor sax playing, shows a gentler side with his soprano saxophone playing, particularly on his original tune, “Steve Lacy,” an ethereal ballad dedicated to the jazzman who died last year and is credited with helping bring the soprano sax from the traditional into the modern era.

But what’s most striking about this CD is that these two friends obviously enjoy playing together, and their infectious enthusiasm is clearly conveyed to the listener.—Charles J. Gans

dredg, “Catch without Arms” “Catch without Arms,” the third album from this rock quartet, is rife with intoxicating, reverb-laden melody. The album is a bit less experimental and more accessible than previous efforts, yet it doesn’t sacrifice their progressive, highly original, artistic foundation.

The atmospheric vibe dredg emits is less dark and haunting than their previous album, “El Cielo,” was at times. This time around they focus on opposites. One such indication is the song “Hungover on a Tuesday,” a ballad about the struggle of alcoholism. Interestingly enough, the song is also one of the heavier tracks, in content and in delivery, with guitar distortion and tempo turned up.

Most of the songs otherwise challenge the listener in engaging acoustics, with bits of piano layered amongst a few tracks. Singer Gavin Hayes’ smooth crooning complements and highlights this intricate blend of instrumentation so well that his presence makes the material that much better. From sullen to surreal, his presentation amongst climatic moments is top notch.

One of the bigger surprises of the album is the jazzy/lo-fi “Zebraskin.” This track replaces the guitars with a synth and a drum kit, a wildly intriguing combination for a rock band. “Jamais Vu” provides the best guitar riff of the entire album with its intricate electric acoustic arpeggio.

Overall, the album plays out like a psychedelic dream sequence. Fans of The Mars Volta, Pink Floyd, and Queens of the Stone Age are bound to fall in love with this album.—Vincent Cherubino