Hungry, hungry again
Being an album of leftovers, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Pisces Iscariot has always enjoyed a good reputation. Unlike other compilations of its ilk, its release came with great anticipation. In 1994, CD sales were at an all time high and the Pumpkins’ meteoric rise to fame showed no signs of fading after their sophomore smash hit Siamese Dream impacted the charts. When Virgin approached Billy Corgan and company to organize a collection of stray tracks for a stopgap release, it was no gamble. The entire globe had a new favorite band and only two albums (and one EP) on which to hang their affections… people wanted more. More is what they got, and they loved it. Pisces Iscariot was one of those rarities compilations that was loved in the same way that a “real” album is loved. Sure, it was inconsistent, but consistency is never an end goal when an artist is clearing the cupboards. And considering the size of the recent deluxe editions of Gish, Siamese Dream and now Pisces Iscariot, it’s a wonder that Corgan was able to make this collection as focused as it was at the time given the quantity of material and the looming deadline from Virgin. In other words, Pisces Iscariot could have come out far, far less focused than it did.
The reissues of the first two Pumpkins albums were threatening to make Pisces Iscariot a little redundant. Many of these leftovers were represented on the bonus disc corresponding to their parent album, albeit in an updated mix. This pattern holds for Pisces Iscariot with the first disc being remastered and the second disc showing only a handful of tweaked mixes. In addition to this 17 track 73-minute-plus bonus disc, the box features a DVD of some early footage of the Pumpkins performing for Chicago public access back in 1988. The new liner notes by David Wild and Billy Corgan are addorned by seven attractive and meaningless postcards. But the first thing to catch your eye when you lift the lid is—get this—a cassette. Tucked in a red cardboard sleeve is the very first Smashing Pumpkins demo tape from 1989. Talk about courting nostalgia!
This is quite a bit to digest at once, so let’s take it step by step. The original Pisces Iscariot, aside from the remastering, his been largely untouched. I say “largely” because there are a few curious differences. For instance, an errant tape noise is inserted at the beginning of the sludge-groover “Plume”. “Frail & Bedazzled” sounds like the masters are running at a slightly slower speed (the pitch drops almost half a step when compared to the 1994 pressing). The orignal warts remain, like the sound of the bus pulling out into the street outside Corgan’s apartment on the whisper-quiet opener “Soothe” and the ambulance and/or fire engine siren blaring in the background of the 11-minute jamtastic “Starla”. Pissed-off live mosh favorite “Hello Kitty Kat” still sounds like it’s clipping on all levels, and yes, the remastering job does offer a noticeable difference from beginning to end. The only thing that doesn’t survive this pressing are Billy Corgan’s original liner notes. Remember those impossible-to-read thoughts hammered out on a typewriter the day Billy didn’t have any Whiteout on hand? Well, he redid them. The cryptic nature of describing the music remains but this time they come equiped with more than 15 years of hindsight. One piece of insight we gain from this new draft is just how tossed-off Bily Corgan’s approach to Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide” really was. The BBC session which spawned the cover was anything but auspicious and the fact that such a bare-bones recording gained such significantly airplay genuinely took Corgan by surprise. “Landslide” ended up being the commercial anchor for Pisces Iscariot, the album that people ended up liking more than they thought they would.
The bonus disc makes the experimental sides of Pisces Iscariot look like kid’s stuff. This is where the late ‘80s/early ‘90s era of the Smashing Pumpkins takes us on a tour all over the place. Collectors are already familiar with “By June” and “Glynis”, both of which get a “2012 Mix” job. Lull‘s “By June” pretty much sounds the same but “Glynis”, from which everyone in my generation would be familiar with thanks to the No Alternative compilation, becomes far less restrained by the end of this new mix as Corgan chuckles his way through vocal overdubs, sounding more like a White Album freak-out than the sobbering version from 1993. The covers tucked in the disc are all very good considering how many a music afficianado would consider them untouchable sacred cows. It’s surprising how much “Cinnamon Girl” rocks—you would think that the raw muscle of Crazy Horse would be difficult to capture. But the crisp snare on Jimmy Chamberlin’s kit makes this Neil Young tune slide into the rest of the collection easily. “Venus in Furs” has the ambience of a hazy afternoon nap rather than the restless fever-dream sensation of the Velvet Underground’s original. But considering this was recorded for live radio, that’s actually kind of impressive. The Pumpkins’ cover of Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Jackie Blue” has been sought after by many a collector, and here it stakes a place between a pulverising live take of “Slunk” and the Velvets tune.
Earlier original tunes make appearances too, standing in sharp contrast to where the band was in 1994. The musical mix on numbers like “There It Goes” and “My Dahlia” bear a closer resemblance to the college radio scene that buoyed R.E.M. and the Cure just before their arena days than the snarling punk roaring from the American Northwest via Sub Pop. But the most unexpected nuggets from the second disc are when the Pumpkins would let their instrumental freak flag fly. “French Movie Theme” is, appropriate to its title, cinematic mood music of the indie variety. A glowing field of backwards electric guitars makes “Cinder Open” the closest thing that Pisces Iscariot now has to an Eno moment. Standing opposite of that is the 15-minute guitar attack that is “Why Am I So Tired”, embodying a rolodex of guitar licks so dense that it makes “Starla” sound like Guided By Voices by comparison. There are a few tracks on this bonus disc that dovetail with how the world saw the Smashing Pumpkins and where they were headed circa 1994, but its the stuff that gets thrown at the wall to see if it’ll stick that takes hijacks your attention. Even the most ardent Pumpkins fan will understand why most of these tracks were homeless—because some of them just didn’t fit with anything.
The DVD’s main selling point is the band’s appearance on the Chicago public access show Pulse. Invited to be on Lou Hinkhouse’s Basement Jam segment of the show in late 1988, the Smashing Pumpkins took the “stage” to play their usual set. If you have heard the recording of the band’s first Metro show of around this time, then you are familiar with songs like “She”, “My Eternity”, “Bleed”, “Under Your Spell” and “There It Goes”. The visual component, though technologically flawed, is quite a piece of history. Billy Corgan’s lets his long hair obscure his face while literally performing lip service to the microphone. James Iha’s guitar parts play an integral part to the songs’ overall sounds, offering a different story from those we’ve heard of Billy Corgan playing everything in the studio. D’arcy Wretzky appears to be her reserved self, holding down the rhythm with a mullet-sporting Jimmy Chamberlin. Pounding his yellow kit with a goofy but experienced demeanor, he looks so very young here. Hell, they all look young. Iha was only 20 at the time. This was not the smash-first-ask-questions-later act that warmed up Guns N’ Roses crowds during the Use Your Illusion tour; this is a band placing song and style before courage in a subdued nod to Joy Division. Just as surprising is that an hour’s worth of this footage has survived. The remaining 30 minutes of the DVD ranges from interesting to average. They cover Steve Miller while soaked in sweat in a small Milwaukee club, cover Thin Lizzy acoustically in London, and give the Lollapalooze crowd in Dallas something to mosh/pogo about with a ferocious “Hello Kitty Kat”. None of this footage was captured “professionally”, and that suits the overall package just fine. This is supposed to be a rarities thing, after all.
Which brings us to the final rarety: the demo tape. There is something disorienting about listening to “Jennifer Ever”, “East”, “Nothing and Everything”, “Sun”, “She”, and “Spiteface” from 1989 through my tape deck, one that almost allows me to vicariously experience a small piece of the Chicago indie scene that I was not old enough to appreciate or even know about at the time. In 1989, Nirvana was still just a funny word uttered by people who practiced yoga and bought “health foods.” The vague architecture of “East” seemed destined to keep this band in the undergorund, no matter how poppy “Jennifer Ever” was leaning or how punkishly prog “Spiteface” sounded as the tape wraps up. But we all know how that story ended: Seattle split the musical atom and nothing on the Smashing Pumpkins’ demo made its way to Gish. But none of this reduces the cassette’s ability to fascinate in hindsight. You hear the same punch and roar that caught the attention Hinkhouse and later Butch Vig.
In April of 2011, PopMatters’ Joseph Fisher pondered why Pisces Iscariot, an album of rarities, would be rereleased with more rarities. It turns out that Smashing Pumpkins vault runs deep, and even with all of the appended material accompanying Gish and Siamese Dream, there was more where that all came from. Plenty more. And since Pisces Iscariot snapped a picture of Billy Corgan and his band deep in a transitional phase anyway, we are treated to even more of the anything-goes ethic in the doleing out of goods. If Corgan felt any constraints to make an accessible product with his orphaned tracks fifteen years ago, those shackles are clearly gone now. We’re deep in it now. A dyed-in-wool fan of any band will always tell you that the quality of their band’s unreleased material rivals that of their released material. This is something Smashing Pumpkins fans have been boasting all along. Pisces Iscariot (Deluxe Edition) does not change this argument for them, it just reaffirms it. With two CDs. And a DVD. And a casette. Don’t worry old school Pumpkins fans, you will have a lifetime of listening material. And your favorite band still has an impressive display of unreleased shit. Now go have fun. Get lost in it.