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November 21, 1996, 11:00 pm

Source: The Commercial Appeal

Pumpkins' creativity never riper; Rockers pull together after tumultuous summer; [Final Edition]
Bill Ellis The Commercial Appeal. The Commercial Appeal. Memphis, Tenn.: Nov 22, 1996. pg. E.17

It's been a whirlwind year for the Smashing Pumpkins, full of cherub rock and hellish roll.

Rock: Their latest release, ''Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,'' has moved 7 million copies. Videos for two of its singles walked off with six honors, including Best Video of the Year, at the Sept. 4 MTV Video Music Awards.

Roll: Touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin died from a heroin overdose July 12. Longtime drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who had been shooting up with Melvoin, was fired for his chronic drug abuse. The Pumpkins' tour, including two sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, was postponed.

Considering the Pumpkins' notorious history of band infighting, canceled shows, temper tantrums and prevailing moodiness, it's a wonder they didn't disband for good after such a tumultuous summer. Yet the Pumpkins - singer-guitarist Billy Corgan, guitarist James Iha, bassist D'Arcy - have pulled together.

They're finishing out their tour with Filter drummer Matt Walker and plan on going back in the studio sometime next year.

''It's together right now,'' says Iha, reflecting by phone on 8 1/2 years in the Chicago band.

While the Pumpkins have enough personal problems to give a group counselor gray hairs, they haven't sounded more together creatively than they do on ''Mellon Collie.'' Full of strings, lush acoustic textures, piano and lap steel, the two-CD, 28-song ''Mellon Collie'' is a throwback to the grandiose concept albums of the '70s, when words like sprawling, ambitious and epic were used favorably about rock music.

''We just wanted to separate ourselves from the typical alternative rock albums,'' says Iha.

''It does have some of the '70s just in the pretentiousness of making a double album; but also in trying to make something bigger, (something) that lasts more than five minutes in the disposable, alternative rock world.''

Like Elton John's 1973 double-record milestone ''Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,'' ''Mellon Collie'' has gone multiplatinum partly for its blend of pathos with a bigger-than-life arena sound - a record of operatic emotions and instant nostalgia. The single 1979 is the kind of mythic pop tune that, even if you weren't around then, puts you in the middle of an entitled memory. On Tonight, Tonight, Corgan sings ''You can never, ever leave without leaving a piece of youth . . . We're different tonight, so bright tonight.''

''We record records a certain way - it's always big,'' says Iha, who admits that, though the Pumpkins are more classic rock than alternative, he hasn't been inspired by older rock bands the way Corgan has.

''I always heard classic rock, and I liked it, but it just didn't hit me on a gut level,'' he says. ''It's only now where I'm into Keith Richards or Eric Clapton.''

Don't expect Britsh blues anytime soon from the Pumpkins, however. The band that built its reputation on fuzz boxes, twin feedback solos and a wall of noise plan to embrace the world of technology when they next convene in a studio. According to Iha, Corgan and company will abandon the traditional four-piece rock band format on their next record, experimenting instead with keyboards, sampling, drum loops, and sequencing. It's a fine line, after all, between classic rock and art rock, and the Pumpkins seem braced to cross it.

Any chance the band will welcome Chamberlin back into the fold for their brave new sound world? ''No, we're done with him,'' says Iha. ''The drug problem wasn't stopping (and) we gave him many chances. It's like being in a bad relationship, so we're out of it.''

Sampling him, on the other hand, is a distinct possibility.

WHO: Smashing Pumpkins with Garbage

WHERE: The Pyramid

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. tonight

PRICE: $25 plus service fee

INFORMATION: Call Ticketmaster at 525-1515

Credit: Bill Ellis