[25 July 2013]
Three years ago, The Independent‘s Fiona Sturges wrote a feature called “Imagine no new artists, just endless re-releases” in which she examined the artistic and financial aspects of reissued albums. She concluded by observing that “artist back catalogues are part of our cultural heritage, something to be cherished and preserved, not degraded and exploited”. In Sturges’ view, record companies do a disservice to the culture and to consumers by offering subpar reissues of older albums with little in the way of new content and by repackaging “relatively new” albums with bonus content just to “extend the shelf life”. So the test of a reissue’s worthiness is not so much tied to the original album’s historical period or essentialness, but instead a measure of the added artistic value relative to the original release. Do the songs sound better? Is the packaging more attractive? Are the liner notes and other supplements informative?
This line of reasoning is useful in approaching the curious case of Smashing Pumpkins’ The Aeroplane Files High, a 1996 box set presently being reissued (according to the band’s website) “as part of the continuing series of reissues of The Smashing Pumpkins’ acclaimed catalog via Virgin/UMe”. The original release was a collection of five expanded singles/EPs from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995). The singles, spanning 33 tracks in all, were housed in a box meant to look like a carrying case for 45s. Inside the box was a label for the owner to personalize it by writing his or her name. Each of the five discs had separate artwork. Also included was a silver embossed booklet containing messages from band members, song lyrics, a discography and other notes. The sturdy 1996 version, by design a collector’s item, has a place in my collection to this day.
Though The Aeroplane Files High seemed like an extravagant item in 1996, its commercial success (300,000 copies sold) validated the deluxe presentation. And following double album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the b-sides and other non-album tracks included in the box set revealed just how prolific Billy Corgan and his band had been during the writing and recording period for that studio album (which itself consisted of 28 songs). The existence of The Aeroplane Files High suggested that no matter how wildly ambitious a double quasi-concept album might have seemed in the era of dispassionate alternative rock, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was the product of some restraint. If Corgan had shown neither interest nor ear for editing, that two hour release might have been significantly more bloated.
At present, one could reasonably accuse the 2013 edition of The Aeroplane Files High of being overstuffed. A press release on the band’s website boasts of 104 tracks (90 audio and 14 audio-visual) featured in the limited edition CD+DVD box set. A cynic would probably cite the greed of the company man or the ego of the artist. After all, the prospect of reissuing what was already an expanded version of singles brings to mind a funny, memorable phrase from guitarist James Iha that was included in the 1996 booklet. Iha summed up the Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness experience as “releasing a double cd under the jaundiced eye of business acumen and winking hipsters”.
But any such criticism/cynicism could be countered by considering the added value Fiona Sturges might say justifies such a reissue. Sure, as a compilation The Aeroplane Files High was non-canonical to begin with, but that shouldn’t prevent those who want to go deeper into its world (via a deluxe reissue) from doing so. It stands to reason that listeners who appreciated the 1996 box would enjoy the opportunity to have its contents properly remastered, greatly expanded, and exquisitely packaged—all of which are true of the limited edition box set described in the press release. Yet as much as I would like the chance to report on the success or failure of Virgin/Universal’s effort to repackage this collector’s item, I cannot do so. The “large/collectible/high demand box set” edition of The Aeroplane Files High is not available for review. In its place is a “deluxe digital” version that almost completely undermines the purpose of the entire reissue campaign.
The deluxe digital release of The Aeroplane Files High introduces a method of acquiring music that is new to me. Strangely, assembling these 90 songs involves steps more associated with bootlegging or illegally downloading than with having access to an officially sanctioned release. After receiving a “UMG eFolio” that requires the aid of missing and difficult-to-identify plug-ins, the user must manually download 90 individual tracks. Then, since the tracks are named but not identified with their respective discs, the user must find an online track list for each disc and manually arrange/create six separate playlists in order to imitate the experience of having six CDs that are included the box set. Only after spending a considerable amount of time putting together the correct order of songs in each playlist is the listener able to focus on the most important aspect of this release, which is the music itself.
The first playlist is “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”, expanded from seven songs to 22. Of the original seven songs, the highlights are the title track and two songs that hand vocal duties to other members of the band. “…Said Sadly” is written and sung by Iha and Nina Gordon. It’s a simple love song featuring an acoustic guitar, but their duet and the contrast with the musical and lyrical “rage” of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” make the song effective in context. A cover of Blondie’s “Dreaming” features Corgan in duet with bass player D’arcy Wretzky. Similarly to “…Said Sadly” the song benefits from counterpointing vocals and its stylistic uniqueness (this time a simple drum loop and atmospheric guitars with some other electronic effects).
All of the remaining bonus tracks on the “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” playlist are songs from the Gravity Demos that were made available in semi-official form in 2000. I suspect these songs are also remastered for inclusion in this set. These instrumental takes display a variety similar to that of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, ranging from heavy riffs like “Movers And Shakirs” and “Jackboot” to contemplative numbers like “Milieu” and “Rings”, which could be categorized as classic post-rock. Other songs, like “The Groover,” owe more to the guitar style of Siamese Dream, the band’s 1993 album.
The second playlist is “1979”. The lyrics to “Ugly” bring Corgan’s preoccupation with nothingness and emptiness into focus: “I know I’m nothing. I know there’s nothing I can say / To change the judgment in their ways”. Of course, “Zero” is the single that brought such ideas to the masses with its chant of “Emptiness is loneliness / And loneliness is cleanliness / And cleanliness is godliness / And god is empty just like me”. “Zero” appears in this playlist, but only in an instrumental demo version. Two additional Iha songs, the uplifting “Believe” and “The Boy”, are standouts. In the notes of the box set, Corgan praises Iha’s songs but notes that the guitarist’s aloofness was to blame for his limited contributions to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in its final form. Relegated to The Aeroplane Flies High, Iha’s songs do make one wonder if the mood of the studio album might’ve been even more varied and satisfying had they been included.
Among the expanded bonus tracks, an acoustic/instrumental take of “Tonight, Tonight” is effective in calling attention to the song’s excellent composition, apart from the lyrics and orchestration that decorate the studio version. In fact, the instrumental numbers are the strongest material of the “1979” playlist. “Have Love Will Travel”, Mellotron stunner “Infinite Sadness”, and the appropriately named comedown “Take Me Down” balance out misfires “Jupiter’s Lament” and “Marquis in Spades”, two vocal songs that feel undercooked in their presentation here, the latter sounding like an entrant at an open-mic night.
The third playlist is “Zero”. Though it is the shortest and simplest single of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, the song “Zero” seems to set the mood for much of Corgan’s other songs about loathing/loving. “God” continues in that direction, with the singer claiming that “God is as helpless as me”. In “Marquis in Spades” Corgan sings “all I see is empty cause now I’m one of them so adored”. All of these songs fixate on emptiness and helplessness without any real sense of relief/fulfillment. Perhaps the songs are in some ways attempts to fight back against such feelings. But if there is a resulting fulfillment for the singer, then it’s not one that extends to the listener.
As a playlist, the expanded version of “Zero” is most notable for its second half, consisting of eight live rehearsals for the band’s shows at Double Door. During “By Starlight”, Corgan breaks character and begins to laugh. It’s a downer of a song, but the injection of positive emotion in that unguarded moment provides a glimpse into a side of the artist that doesn’t surface often enough, at least not in these recordings.
The fourth playlist is “Tonight, Tonight”, which is the foremost single from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and also the best of the original expanded singles in the 1996 release of The Aeroplane Flies High. The song is joined by “Meladori Magpie”, which Corgan says dates back to Siamese Dream and is his attempt to “reverse engineer” a romance and breakup. The arrangement is most compelling for its use of a Hawaiian slide guitar, which adds a distinct character to the group’s usual set of guitar tones. “Medellia of the Gray Skies”, recorded with the Frogs, is one of the most romantic numbers in this entire collection. Piano accents help to sell the emotion of the song, which is free of loud guitars or excessive orchestration and better for it. “Blank”, a Corgan-only affair, is the culmination of his preoccupation with emptiness and achieves the requisite solitude to make the theme convincing, even if the singer claims there’s some irony involved.
Live tracks from three February 1995 Double Door shows make up the second half of the fourth playlist. Highlights of these performances include the morbid but melodious “Stumbleine” (from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness) and a blistering take on “Pissant” (from Pisces Iscariot (1994)). The only major misstep on the playlist is “Special Winner’s Song”, a ridiculous improvisation in honor of the person in attendance who purchased the last ticket for the show that evening.
The fifth playlist is “Thirty-Three”. Like “Meladori Magpie”, the title track makes use of a Hawaiian slide and is perhaps more instantly palatable than any other single from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. The song that gives the box set its name is one Corgan describes in his notes as “a funerary for too many fallen comrades”. And it is like a dirge, with alternate spoken and sung lines paired with metallic guitars. This playlist ends the box set in its original form. A fitting feeling of twilight sets in thanks to “The Bells”, another excellent Iha contribution, and “My Blue Heaven”, a cover of the song written by George Whiting and Walter Donaldson, originally published in 1927 and most popularly recorded by Gene Austin. The only bonus track in the new deluxe edition is a nearly 35 minute live version of “Silverfuck” (from Siamese Dream). That length will likely appeal only to Smashing Pumpkins’ super-fans, but it does testify to the band’s ability to jam for more than a half an hour on one song—something that was not in vogue for alternative rock acts of the 1990s.
A sixth playlist, “Live Inside the Dark Globe”, is exclusive to the deluxe reissue, and it is made up of various live recordings from the 1996 tour. The songs differ in quality, but what becomes most apparent is the live band’s skill with the hard rock and metal-influenced numbers. There appears to be a greater enthusiasm for their execution than for the more tranquil songs. In a live setting, Corgan’s voice is often most effective when he is screaming or snarling, rather than singing.
Physical editions of the deluxe reissue also purportedly include a “deluxe edition concert DVD”, but that content is entirely missing from the “UMG eFolio” edition. It is difficult to determine whether any audio-visual content will appear on the digital deluxe version being sold through outlets like iTunes. While the hours of music in the digital deluxe edition is certain to keep old and new fans entertained, this is not a set of songs that benefits from a digital release. The shift from physical to digital media has created a topsy-turvy marketplace that (at its worst) diminishes artistic value and context for the sake of convenience. And in my experience with this release, the digital format proved to be especially inconvenient.
The process of accessing and arranging these playlists caused me to remember a quotation from Pitchfork‘s Nick Mirov when he reviewed Damien Jurado’s experimental found recordings CD Postcards and Audio Letters in 2000: “With the Internet around, there’s simply no reason (aside from the obvious financial one) to sell a disc of this material. It’s not like the sound quality needs to be crystal clear, and besides, you aren’t likely to listen to it more than twice, anyway.” In 2013, the exact opposite is true of a deluxe reissue of The Aeroplane Flies High. I cannot suggest any practical reason to invest in the digital edition. Though the iTunes download might be more organized than my eFolio folder, this box set is meant to improve on an already impressive collector’s item. To invert Mirov’s quotation, the sound quality needs to be clear and the listener is likely to revisit the recordings more than once. The tactile experience associated with The Aeroplane Flies High disintegrates when translated to a digital format. A once-prized item becomes empty.