Under The Grunge

MUSIC PROFESSORS SAY THAT ALL the glory in Beethoven's Third Symphony comes from the tension between the chords in the first eight bars. Pop scholars could say that all the problems in Smashing Pumpkins' new double album are epitomized in the first four beats. A piano chord strikes and three notes ascend, building to . . . the same chord. Your expectations are raised and left hanging.

With Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness--which debuted at No. 1 and just fell to No. 5--bandleader Billy Corgan asks us to see the serious artist underneath the superstar grunge rocker. Starting with a piano is a bold move for the band that brought an arena rock sound to the lo-fi world of alternative music. But a group that's good at thick guitars and fuzzy distraction shouldn't strip down if the bare essentials are too bare. Ambition doesn't pay if you can't deliver.

Here's what Corgan can deliver. Heavy melodrama: 30 string instruments and drums at full gallop on "Tonight, Tonight." A colossal whine on "Jellybelly": "Living makes me sick / so sick I wish I'd die." And hubris on "Zero": "God is empty just like me." Corgan is a skillful melodist in everything from pseudocountry to metal, but he'll repeat a catchy phrase to death, as if congratulating himself for thinking of it. It doesn't take long for all the posturing and false angst to get annoying. "Mellon Collie" makes grand claims, but its pleasures lie in the small details: the visceral guitar lines, the winsome harp on "Cupid de Locke," the inter-play between major and minor on the nine-minute "Porcelina." But there are only a few keepers here. In the end you've got 28 tracks that could have been 14.