Smashing Pumpkins’ debut, “Gish,” wasn’t the cool, everybody-has-to-hear-it album of 1991. It gave a passing glance to the emerging alternative-rock culture that worshiped Pacific Northwest “grunge,” but it was more in tune with unfashionable ‘70s influences.
The Chicago quartet looked mismatched from the start: Singer-guitarist Billy Corgan’s beads and frilly sleeves, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin’s muscle T-shirts and mullet, the porcelain iciness of bassist D’Arcy Wretzky, the shy inscrutability of guitarist James Iha. Their sound was a hodgepodge, too: metal roar, fey folkie drama, Gothic despair, arena bombast, progressive rock, psychedelia, a weird mix of hip and mainstream, the populist and the arcane.
“Gish” was a modest hit, but it was outsold and out-hyped later in the year by “Nevermind,” the second album from Seattle’s Nirvana. Kurt Cobain delivered the songs, pithier and punkier and more readily accessible than Corgan’s. But the Pumpkins’ sound had its own allure. And it laid the groundwork for the quartet’s big breakthrough two years later, “Siamese Dream,” one of the era’s cornerstones.
Now, both “Gish” and “Siamese Dream” are getting the deluxe reissue treatment, with tricked-out packages stuffed with outtakes, concert videos, liner notes and extra artwork. The remastered albums still sound potent — a testament to the rigorous attention to detail that Corgan and producer Butch Vig brought to the original sessions. And the bonus material testifies to Corgan’s evolution as a songwriter. He was prolific, driven and a little nuts — suicidal, to hear him tell it. He also was almost embarrassingly transparent; he poured his obsessions into those two albums, providing decades of fodder for audiophiles and psycho-analysts alike.
“Gish” remains among the more sensual hard-rock albums of the decade. In contrast to the testosterone pouring from contemporaries such as Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails, Corgan had the yin and the yang in his limited voice, toggling between pinched howl and fragile, child-like breathiness. His voice rides the curve of the guitars, the arrangements swerving rather than stomping in typical hard-rock fashion, yielding surprises with each turn. For all its sensitivity to flow, the group could crush your skull when you least expected it, going from near-silence to a thunderclap. The ebb-and-surge dynamics in a track such as “Siva” still impress, as if Corgan were trying to compress a side-long suite by his beloved Rush into four minutes. “Tell me, tell me what you’re after/I just want to get there faster,” he sings.
He’d get there fast enough with “Siamese Dream,” with its more focused, sturdily constructed songs and even more fastidious production. Corgan once again dominated the sessions, playing all the instruments save for Chamberlin’s monster drums. And yet Iha contributed heavily to two of the album’s best songs, “Mayonnaise” and “Soma” (a beautiful instrumental version is among the best of the bonus tracks).
The outtakes show the work in progress. A rehearsal demo of “Today” hums along like a perfectly agreeable hard-rock track that probably would’ve been played on emerging alternative-rock stations and then forgotten. But Corgan later came up with an intro guitar part that gave the song its chiming fragility, a sense that its beauty and optimism were just a cover-up. “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known” becomes “Today is the greatest day I’ve never known.”
More than any moment, “Today” is the pivot point of the Pumpkins’ career, a breakthrough song for a band that had been all about sound. “Siamese Dream” was loaded with melodies, from “Luna” (both in its gossamer studio version and its even more haunting “apartment demo”) to the scorched overdrive of “Cherub Rock,” Corgan’s raised middle finger to the independent-rock scene that never embraced him. The feeling was mutual. Corgan wrote his share of clunky lyrics (“Life’s a bummer when you’re a hummer”) but they spoke with a directness that Cobain’s more poetically inclined words sometimes lacked. Corgan was a stoop-shouldered suburban misfit from a splintered household, much like many in his audience, and “Siamese Dream” became a soundtrack for a significant portion of his generation.
It did so by tempering some of the first album’s extremes; sticky melodies and pretty production can make almost anything radio-friendly, even a desperately sad song like “Today.” Live, there were no such restraints, as illustrated by a DVD from an August 1993 concert. Before plunging into the alternately pummeling and self-indulgent closer, “Silver …,” Corgan advises the audience: “After this, you won’t want to hear no more. We will be so bombastic, you’ll never want to hear music again.”
As the song crashes, Corgan screams, “Liar! Liar!” at the audience, then mocks the encore-hungry fans and himself by leading a half-hearted chant of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” before exiting.
That confrontational stance served Corgan’s music, if not his public image. Corgan didn’t want to be liked. He wanted to be heard.
“Gish” Deluxe Edition (EMI); 3.5 stars (out of 4)
“Siamese Dream” Deluxe Edition (EMI): 4 stars (out of 4)