Corgan carves a Pumpkinless path


"Mary Star of the Sea" (Reprise)


When Paul McCartney emerged from the Beatles breakup with his band Wings' debut album "Wild Life," there was a sense of giddy liberation in the group's shabby communalism and the album's odes to domestic bliss. Launching his new band, Billy Corgan seems similarly relieved and at ease out of the expectations and tensions of leading Smashing Pumpkins.

Though there's nothing quite as carefree as Wings' "Bip Bop" here, at the end of "Settle Down" Corgan does sing a lighthearted "la de da" chorus with no trace of irony. And the song's celebration of love and contentment echoes throughout the album in stark contrast to his Mr. Melon Collie stance with the Pumpkins. "Sunshine and some tea, that's all I wanted," he sings on "El Sol." Even the religious imagery of "Jesus I / Mary Star of the Sea" seems earnest and straightforwardly joyous.

The band, with drummer Jimmy Chamberlain as the only Pumpkins holdover, shares the joy. There's an infectious spirit evoking '60s and '70s musical freedoms in such sunny songs as "Endless Summer." At times it's a bit cluttered with three guitarists (Matt Sweeney and David Pajo plus Corgan). But the almost hippie-like exuberance is hard to resist on the album, which is due in stores Tuesday. Corgan's old rat in the cage has been let out and transformed into a playful puppy, and gloomy zero duckling has become a happy, well, zwan.

Steve Hochman

A thudding rendition of tell-tale art

Lou Reed

"The Raven" (Sire/Reprise)


Edgar Allan Poe's spooky stories have been adapted to a fare-thee-well by many, so why not by Lou Reed? The Velvet Underground co-founder and solo artist has certainly mastered his own brand of macabre recitation, exploring with similarly unflinching resolve the universal themes of obsession, guilt and madness that so fascinated Poe.

A spare revisitation of Reed's 1973 lament "The Bed" underscores that common ground on this two-disc reworking of "POEtry," his 2001 stage collaboration with director Robert Wilson. (A single-disc version is also available.) The set (out Tuesday) combines theater, spoken word and Reed's signature brand of grandly discordant to minimally melodic rock in two hours that are by turns dire, humorous, absorbing and tedious.

Enlisting such guests as gal pal Laurie Anderson, David Bowie and Ornette Coleman, Reed intersperses fragments of Poe's tales and poems with his own lyrics and scenarios. But Reed's unenlightening revisions, along with a handful of mostly slight new tunes, only compound the silliness of his goal to contemporize the author to make sure he is not lost on today's audiences. (After all, Poe's only a suspense pioneer and the father of the modern detective story.)

Bombastic readings atop eerie soundscapes flatten Poe's nimble language and run roughshod over his morbid romanticism. Reed succeeds with more dramatic turns, however, such as a two-part "The Tell-Tale Heart" in which a flurry of alternately accusatory and defensive voices reflects the tale-teller's guilt-driven insanity.

More revealing are the poignant undercurrents in such originals as "Who Am I?" and "Vanishing Act," which reflect on aging hipsterdom with a combination of curiosity and dread that makes Reed resemble one of Poe's characters, clearly seeing his path but unable to save himself from the inevitable.

-- Natalie Nichols

Configuration is none too Social

Ry Cooder and Manuel Galban

"Mambo Sinuendo" (Nonesuch/Perro Verde)


Buena Vista fans, beware. This collection (due Tuesday) is not another typical spinoff from that lucrative well of Cuban nostalgia tapped by Cooder since 1997.

Here, the American guitarist and producer spotlights yet another Havana veteran, guitarist-keyboardist Galban. The results are bound to disappoint anybody accustomed to the charm, warmth and personality of the original Buena Vista Social Club and its sequels featuring the lovable, elderly Ibrahim Ferrer or Ruben Gonzalez.

This entirely instrumental record features Galban and Cooder on electric guitars backed by skilled bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, consummate conguero Miguel "Anga" Diaz and two drummers, Jim Keltner and Cooder's son, Joachim. It's an oddly configured sextet that, according to Cooder in the liner notes, can "swing like a big band and penetrate the mysteries of the classic tunes."

But this record neither swings nor reveals anything new in standards such as the gently joyful "Caballo Viejo" or the haunting "Drume Negrita." The twangy guitar sounds too tiki-tiki light to carry these rich, vintage melodies. This strangely listless work is a campy throwback to the '50s, when Galban led the Cuban doo-wop group Los Zafiros.

Though it has its moments, it ultimately proves that nostalgia, like the eras it evokes, can only last so long.

-- Agustin Gurza

Quick spins

The Exies

"Inertia" (Virgin)


These four good-looking guys from L.A. had better tell their stylists to get ready to tour, because this sound is too much of the moment to not be gobbled up by the mainstream. The Exies' debut kicks off like prepackaged stadium rock somewhere between Linkin Park and say, Matchbox Twenty, then suddenly takes a jolting turn toward the interesting with a Big '80s-flavored sing-along called "Kickout" and the slower, classic AM-radio-road-trip sound of the title track. More effective when they pull back to half-throttle (with the exception of the forgettable "Lo-Fi"), this seems destined to come pouring from your car radio until you're just sick of it.

-- Dean Kuipers

The Belles

"Omerta" (Lakeshore)

** 1/2

What's striking about this Lawrence, Kan., duo's debut is not the lovely, Midwestern-porch-swing music but its backroom undertones. "Omerta" -- it means code of silence and usually is associated with members of the Mafia -- roots around in the conscience, where crimes of self-deception seldom go unpunished. Amid simple tunefulness suggesting influences from alt-country heroes to mop-topped British invaders, it adds up to admirable stylistic subterfuge.

-- Kevin Bronson

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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