Too bad it's all been heard before: the well-meaning creep in the selfishly romantic "Until I Say So"; the clean-and-sober grumblings in "World's On Heroin"; the "Romantic Junkie" who always gets the chicks but treats 'em like shit; the hypersensitive loser who's really "Good as My Word"; the pathetic loner who's sulking in "Silence." Though it's hard to argue with lines as sharp as "I feel like a dope for thinking she's so fine" (from "Perfection"), it's also hard to believe that after a decade these guys haven't found something new to bitch about.

-- John Floyd

Natalie Merchant

Natalie Merchant's big, brassy pop success as the singer and songwriter for 10,000 Maniacs came at the expense of her more poetic aspirations. After seven albums with the group she decided to hop off the cash cow and quietly pursue a solo career. Her 1995 debut, Tigerlily, proved Merchant could make hits on her own terms; the organic, hand-carved sound exemplified by the moody singles "Carnival" and "Jealousy" caught the public ear, to the tune of triple-platinum album sales. But with the release of her second CD, Ophelia, Merchant comes across as something of a porcelain figure, cool and unreal, with a less cogent, more remote sound. We hear a more spiritual, subdued Merchant singing, "I've been treated so long as if I'm becoming untouchable," and proving that she is. The fragile, muted tone of Ophelia creates a sense that these songs are best kept under glass, ever beautiful to look at and free of the mess that warm-blooded emotions bring.

Whether Merchant's affected vocals are artistic or pretentious will always be a matter for debate, but when an American makes "class" sound like "closs," as she does here, it's just plain irritating. Her singing is also lethargic, as she drops and oozes the lyrics to the point that it's often difficult to understand what she's saying. But if you can get past the mannered veneer there are a few interesting things going on. The title track, a hymn to womankind, features snatches of stories about people as different as a suffragette and a human cannonball. And "Thick as Thieves" starts off stepping lightly through the Garden of Eden but ends in a sensual, ecstatic dance as rude electric guitar interrupts the tune's tranquil flow, summoning vibrant noises and squeals.

"Break Your Heart" is an admirable attempt at a soul ballad, but Merchant is quickly out of her depth in the company of former Brand New Heavies singer Dea Davenport and jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. Paired with Tibetan devotional singer Yunchen Llamo, she fares better on "Effigy" with its short, graceful mantra, "I'm an effigy, a parody of who I appear to be."

Lovely, stark piano and vibrating Hammond Leslie organ illuminate the record, but the majority of the cuts still follow a bland, bloodless formula that makes them almost interchangeable. "Life Is Sweet," "King of May," "Kind & Generous," and "The Living" are not the same song in structure, but all share the common melodic elements and phrasing that have given Merchant's work a certain nagging sameness over the years. Merchant used more than 30 musicians on Ophelia, chasing a new diversity of sound that, to a certain degree, she achieves. If she had only given herself a similar makeover and dropped the arty pretense (as she was beginning to with Tigerlily), Ophelia could have been vivid and real.

-- Robin Myrick

Smashing Pumpkins

Radio programmers in the Nineties, searching desperately for heroes on whom to bestow their favors, have to thank the gods every time Great Pumpkin Billy Corgan wraps a record. Adore, the followup to the band's 1995 double set Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (eight times platinum in the United States alone), gives them exactly what they're praying for in the lead single "Ava Adore." The song is classic Top 40 Smashing Pumpkins: raucous yet soothing, breathy yet forceful, a model of Corgan's lavish, overdub-laden production.

Alas, it is but a fleeting aural apparition. Adore delivers not the deliciously angry and reliably excitable Pumpkins of old. Instead the disc crawls from a morass of sensitivity right from the first laser scan with the maudlin "To Sheila," a "Landslide" on Xanax. "Perfect" and "Daphne Descends" are less depressing, but only slightly more up-tempo; both are dreamy, full of want and heartache. Swirling guitars drip with tremolo, relaxed human-powered drumming struggles against precisely programmed percussion, and synthesizers and single-note guitar riffs float far above Corgan's reedy whine.

Except for the instrumentation (and the drum chair: alternately warmed by Beck's Joey Waronker, ex-Filter and former Pumpkins touring drummer Matt Walker, and, on "For Martha," Matt Cameron, ex of Soundgarden), nothing changes much. On all sixteen tracks Corgan is thoroughly introspective, deeply moody, and sadly, completely boring. If "the world is a vampire," as he proclaimed on the Grammy-winning "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," then surely it has sucked all the life out of Billy Corgan.

-- Adam St. James

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