[13 December 2011]
Sound Affects Editor
It’s a sad fact: the Smashing Pumpkins’ stock has plummeted drastically since the band’s popularity crested in the mid-1990s. For a while, the Chicago group formed contemporary alternative rock’s Holy Trinity with Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but the Pumpkins have since hastened down the path toward irrelevancy, due to distracting internal squabbling that led to line-up shuffles and a 2000 breakup, all while frontman Billy Corgan’s obstinate inclination to follow his muse has yielded wildly mixed results. The extremely devoted among the Pumpkins faithful will argue until they are blue in their faces in favor of the 2007 comeback LP Zeitgeist and the currently-ongoing Teargarden by Kaleidyscope song cycle, but everyone else sees Corgan carrying on without any of his original bandmates as he and his latest roll call run through the songwriter’s dodgy new material. It’s hard not to feel that the Pumpkins are a shadow of their former glory.
At their creative peak, the Smashing Pumpkins were glorious, even if Corgan’s whiny singing voice and his flowery pretensions would always remain “love them or leave them” qualities for many. At the same time Corgan is busy polishing the latest Teargarden by Kaleidyscope installments, the public is provided with new remastered deluxe editions of the band’s first two albums, Gish (1991) and the breakthrough Siamese Dream (1993), the recordings responsible for the ascendancy of the classic Pumpkins line-up—singer/lead guitarist/chief songwriter Corgan, second guitarist James Iha, bassist D’arcy Wretzky, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin—to alt-rock supremacy. Both sets are generous packages. Nestled in gorgeous, candy-gloss lift-top boxes, each record is polished up a tad (I couldn’t find my original copy of Gish for a comparison, but I can verify that Siamese Dream is slightly louder and a tad sharper, with the only striking change being the removal of a barely-audible snippet of a televangelist sermonizing from the end of “Soma”) and served with a second CD of bonus tracks, a DVD containing a period performance from Chicago’s Metro venue, liner notes with track-by-track pontificating by the Corgster himself, and a heaping pile of striking postcards. The remastering jobs may be flimsy justification for repackaging old records, but it’s evident from an examination of the contents that equal amounts of loving care went into crafting what now sits on the store shelves.
That is not to say that these two records are in the same league. They’re not. Released on Virgin Record’s “semi-indie” imprint Caroline a scant few months before alternative became big news, Gish—produced by Butch Vig with Corgan, whose “prove all the skeptics wrong” perfectionist streak led him to play most everything that wasn’t drums in the studio—is a promising yet not wholly cohesive record that displays a group trying to figure out what it wants to say and how to say it. Having originated as lukewarm Cure copyists, by 1991 the Pumpkins had hit upon a mixture of influences including goth, metal, psychedelia, and ‘70s arena rock, while also exploring shifting dynamics that would veer sharply from head-crushing heaviness to restrained delicacy. Jane’s Addiction is the primary comparison for the Gish-era Pumpkins (and an acknowledged inspiration, as Corgan stated in 2001 that the Los Angeles foursome “was the first band that told us you could combine the atmosphere of goth-rock with heavy metal and make it work”), but Corgan’s crew dispensed with that ensemble’s transgressive sexuality and prioritized the role of the guitars, which Corgan and Vig layered into what became a characteristic squadron of six-string overdubs. Thus armed, Gish aims to shock and stun by deploying heady rockers, including “I Am One”, “Bury Me”, “Tristessa”, and especially the awesome “Siva”, while also setting aside plenty of space for more subdued offerings like “Crush”, “Daydream”, and “Suffer”.
As laudably impressive it is as a freshman undertaking, Gish also has its hands overfilled. The diverse genres the Pumpkins attempt to meld here haven’t fully gelled yet. Having cut his teeth on the likes of Van Halen, Queen, and Judas Priest as a teenager, Corgan’s unabashed shredding during his lead breaks can come off as incongruous. Furthermore, Corgan’s early dabblings with long drawn-out mood pieces and layered arrangements overreach themselves more often than not, by attempting to stuff everything in one song. “Siva”, for example, starts off powerfully, but after four destroy-all-doubters riffs, a ripping guitar solo, two distinct breakdown sections and a false ending, the original energy that propelled the track has dissipated. Even when the band hits pay dirt (the insistent Jane’s Addiction clone “I Am One”, “Bury Me”, “Rhinoceros”) the meticulousness that went into crafting Gish results in an uptight, guarded air. Except for the jokey hidden track “I’m Going Crazy”, the group never unclenches. Then again, the washed-out performance footage included with this remaster indicates that’s how the quartet carried itself at the time. With nary a word to the crowd beyond Corgan’s humorless “Rock is dead” declarations, the Pumpkins put their long-haired heads down and run through their nine-song set with single-minded, joyless determination. Even the Blue Öyster Cult cover in the encore is all attack and precious little fun.
Gish represented a learning curve for the Pumpkins, and it was on Siamese Dream that they finally got everything right. Not only that, but I would argue anyone, any day, that Siamese Dream is one of the top five alternative rock albums of all time (and, in the interests of complete transparency, I will readily admit to the world that it is also my favorite album ever). On their first LP for Virgin proper, the Pumpkins find their own voice at last, and with Vig (fresh off producing Nirvana’s epochal Nevermind) and Corgan hitting their stride in mining of the possibilities of the recording studio, it is here that the group is finally able to achieve the greatness it so arduously strove for. Now flavored with a dash of British shoegaze, the army of guitar overdubs is honed and maximized in order to prepare the band for battle in the high-stakes post-Nirvana landscape, enveloping the Pumpkins’ new radio-ready alterna-anthems in the warm, gauzy buzz of Corgan’s fuzz-drenched guitar distortion. Perhaps most importantly, on Siamese Dream Corgan comes into his own as a songwriter and singer. No longer drawling vague musings in a low pitch, as on Gish, in an effort to mask his limitations as a vocalist, Siamese Dream finds Corgan in full-on angst mode wearing his blood-spurting heart on his sleeve. Standoffishness is replaced by catharsis, as Corgan opens up to listeners about his suicidal depression between albums (“Today”), his abusive childhood (“Disarm”), and his disdain of indie scene snobbery (“Cherub Rock”), all alternately screamed and cooed about in the Great Pumpkin’s unmistakable nasal screech.
All the struggle and turmoil that infused the recording of Siamese Dream (Iha and Wretzky had split as a couple, Chamberlin was addicted to heroin, and Corgan’s overbearing demands set off heated arguments as he once again assumed guitar and bass duties) pays off handsomely once the listener places the remastered LP into a CD drive. Siamese Dream isn’t some mere collection of songs—it’s an immersive aural landscape that draws people in, takes them on a grand journey through Pumpkinland, and leaves them back home 70 minutes later, ready to be lulled to sleep by the pillow-soft “Luna”. Its first half—from the dense droning swirl of “Cherub Rock” through to the panoramic “Soma”, the band’s most meticulous production job to this point—is the most perfect stretch of music the Pumpkins ever laid down, and it’s hard to imagine how it could have possibly been improved. The second half is less immediate and more sprawling (particularly the extended noise-rock epic “Silverfuck”), but there are still no weak links to be found, no tracks that can be easily swapped out without undoing the larger tapestry. Everything on Siamese Dream, down to how each song begins and ends, has been carefully considered to keep ears perked up and engaged, and repeat listens are bound to uncover subtle ear candy Corgan and Vig tucked away in the album’s crevices.
Ambition means little without the talent to pull it off, and as this set’s “Lollipop Fun Time” disc illustrates, Corgan was on a prolific hot streak as a songwriter and riffmeister during that time. When compared to Gish’s second disc (some nice rarities aside, it’s hard to see it as more than a curious behind-the-curtain glimpse at when the band was tentatively exploring its chosen terrain), the increase in the quality of material is remarkable. It’s astounding the number of ace compositions the band had recorded during the Siamese Dream sessions that were either relegated to b-sides or left in the vaults, never to earn a place on a studio LP. The bonus CD makes it alarmingly clear that the Pumpkins could have assembled another cracking album from the Siamese Dream castoffs before embarking on the road to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995), even if a few (“Moleasskiss”, “U.S.A.”) could have done with a bit of fine-tuning. In fact, the disc is sequenced as a compelling listen in its own right, giving listeners insight into what an alternate universe version of Siamese Dream would sound like if it kicked off with the “Cherub Rock” b-side “Pissant”, incorporated blood-pumping outtakes “Frail and Bedazzlled”, “Hello Kitty Kat” and “STP” into the running order, and ended in grand fashion with “Soma”.
Fittingly, the August 1993 Siamese Dream release show is a joyous celebration. The concert DVD is the chief reason to purchase this set, and not just because commercially-available live footage from the band’s ‘90s heyday is thin on the ground. Viewers will be treated to a riveting two-hour victory lap, with both the sound and audio quality (Corgan’s vocals are not distractingly prominent in the mix, as in the 1990 show) markedly superior to that found on the Gish DVD. As a rapturous sea of moshers crowd the lower half of the screen, the Pumpkins bash out transcendent performances of “Cherub Rock”, “Geek U.S.A.”, “Siva”, and “Bury Me”, and cultivates a welcoming rapport with the audience that it lacked back in 1990. The group’s adversarial relationship with those who it feels dismiss its efforts surfaces when Corgan yells “Fuck the Sun-Times!” after “Hummer” (a reference to Jim DeRogatis criticizing his lyrics in a one-paragraph blurb about the new album) to rapturous reception. But it’s okay—the band is basking in the glow of a monumental accomplishment, and has earned the right to gloat during this very special moment.
These days, Billy Corgan could probably care less what the world thinks of the Smashing Pumpkins’ current output. He’s first and foremost making music that satisfies himself, a stance that is admirable in any creative circumstance. Yet Siamese Dream was a triumph precisely because the boulder-sized chip Corgan bore on his shoulder in 1993 compelled him to show up all the naysayers who jeered that he was doing it wrong. While that passion and determination strained intra-band relationships and irked those who felt the advent of alt-rock signaled the death of guitar histrionics, it produced phenomenal music that still ranks among the most outstanding of the last 20 years, even as the Pumpkins continue to diminish their legacy. The new editions of Gish and Siamese Dream (especially Siamese Dream, which handily outclasses its companion release in all areas) are steps in the right direction, being sumptuous reminders of the heights the group once attained back when it had everything to prove and nothing to lose. We at PopMatters already published our countdown of the best reissues of 2011 before this pair of records could be afforded consideration, but there’s no doubt in my mind that they deserve a place near the top spot on that list.