Hooo boy, here we go. First off, I want to dedicate this blawg entry to my good friend BBH (that’s BB FREAKI’N H to somayous), without whom I would possibly never have given the Smashing Pumpkins a well-deserved second shot at winning my heart over with thier unique brand of rockin’. See, I used to hate the band merely for the reason that they were one of many bands that my cousin (the same cousin who introduced me to rock music in general) listened to in the early/mid-90′s, and aside from the Presidents, I really wasn’t a fan of the “Alternative Rock” scene. The Smashing Pumpkins were certainly part of that alternative thing, but unlike many of the more insufferable radio-rock bands of the time, these guys (this guy?) were the real deal. Today I want to talk about the album that single-handedly (albumly?) forced me to re-prioritize my musical tastes and finally accept the band as one of the best (or just the best) in an era of dour guitar rock:
I realize now that I was unfair on the boys (boy?), because this album really rocks my socks. The fact that Smashing Pumpkins are nothing more than Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain these days, and the many admissions that Billy Corgan, manic control-freak that he is, played most of the non-drum parts of all the band’s albums by himself is something that kind of makes sense with this album. The whole thing, front to back, has about as much technical perfection as you could ask for. Nowadays, perfection is achieved through computerized tweaking, pitch correction, splicing, and lots of expensive software. Anyone who enjoys recordings made this way (see: Fall Out Boy) should really listen to this album to hear what it sounds like when perfection is achieved through back-breaking hard work. This is, of course, because Billy Corgan was (and presumably continues to be) an obsessive perfectionist, and the entire album sounds like him playing an impossible amount of guitars against the satisfactory drumming of Chamberlain.
The first track is really all it took for me to take a shine to the album in general, which is the way all rock albums should be, but you know. It’s called “Cherub Rock” and it blends an interesting, recognizable beat with at least 234 guitars playing an infectious riff against a simple chord progression. Corgan’s whiny vocal delivery remains a mystery to most, I think, including me. There’s probably every reason in the world that his voice should be grating and unlistenable, but I couldn’t imagine these songs being sung by a conventionally “good” singer, and I guess complaints of tone can always be dropped as long as every note is perfect, and that’s definitely something going on with this track.
We then move on to “Quiet“, an ironically-titled near-metal rocker which features one of my earliest objections to Smashing Pumpkins: the oppressive distortion sound. As I understand, Corgan has a real ear for distortion and in fact has been known to plug his guitar into 2 of the same distortion pedals so he can distort his already-distorted sound. I used to think the whole thing was unbearable until I became the proud owner of superb headphones, and realized that the way to hear these guitar sounds and appreciate them is to crank the volume. Such a simple solution! Now I love the sound, and that really helps one to overcome any further objections about the rest of the tunes.
One reason I hate the radio (and I do hate it, believe me) is the fact that they have been playing the exact same songs every single day since before I was even a teenager. It’s like a maddening hell on earth, but one silver lining around this dark cloud is the fact that “Today” is one of those songs. Whether you can understand the lyrics or not, it’s hard to deny that this is a song about depression, given that the lyrics start out “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known”, with the trademark sardonic delivery of someone suffering from clinical depression. The video for this song is just as fun, featuring wacky guitarist James Iha in a dress.
“Hummer” is another great song, and brings to mind a recent admission by Billy Corgan on his blog that he considers, after 20 years of thinking about it, the Smashing Pumpkins to be “American Gothic” music. I am no expert on genres, but I will say that this album, particularly with this song and the next song, “Rocket“, actually sound like American rock songs. I suppose the reason is that an element of American rock music is to take major keys and very big chords and mould them into just about anything you want, in this case, into a simutaneously stimulating and depressing style of music (hence the “gothic” part I guess).
American, Gothic, either, neither, or not, there is no better way to win my affection with your music than to add cellos and church bells. The album’s centerpiece, “Disarm“, does exactly that, and with style. I can’t figure out the meaning behind the lyrics for anything, but holy crap this is a good song.
Another good song, though it marks the end of the 6-song line of “hits”, is “Soma“. It might be so-named because most of it will put you the hell to sleep, but in a nice way, and the song starts really rockin’ out after about the 3 minute mark, so as to prevent some Late-Album Slowdown.
If you really want to get a scope of just how many guitars are going on at the same time on any given Pumpkins song, just give the next song, “Geek U.S.A.” a spin, and listen for the army of feedback notes at the end, I am fairly sure, without thinking too hard, that you can count about 49 guitars in there.
Speaking of guitars, there are some fairly fascinating ones going on in “Mayonaise”, a misspelled 6 minute sludgy rocker (I know that the name is supposed to be random, but I really think the song was called “Mayonaise” because it has the consistency of such). The beginning of the song features some interesting plucky lead and a particularly tricky use of harmonics. I’d explain further but I’m no music teacher.
Acoustic guitars (gasp!) open the track “Spaceboy“, which is another song that is a tad bit slower-tempo’d, so there is only one course of action you can take when you’ve dragged your album down in tempo with 2 relatively long songs. That’s right, with a 9 minute epic rockfest!
One of the best tracks on the album, “Silverfuck” opens up with some sample way, way in the background, talking about masturbation. Delightful! This song marks something of a tradition among Pumpkins albums, they almost always have a long jam towards the end of the album, and in fact the fast tom-driven drums in the “quieter” portions of the album were re-issued for the recording of “United States” off the band’s newest release Zeitgeist. Also present on this track is an army of guitars feeding back at almost any point (probably prompting Billy at the end to say “All right, this take? ‘Don’tgiveafuck’”).
Those perhaps fatigued by the crazy amount of album you get for your money at this point would be relieved to know that there are only 2 tracks remaining, and one of them is particularly short. In fact, as the runt of the pack, “Sweet Sweet” can be easily overlooked, but watch out! It’s a pretty good song!
Finally, the album is put to bed by “Luna“, another fairly short slow “love” song. There’s not much to say about this one, besides that it’s a fitting end to quite an epic album.
So yes, say what you will about the Pumpkins, about Corgan’s insanity and persnickitude, about the fact that half the band were junkies and the other half were crazy, about the massive egos and pretention, but this album stands as a testament to one of my core philosophies about music. Pretention is nullified the instant it’s justified. This is a great album, no matter who made it. Sure I may not be able to stand quite so proud for the other Pumpkins albums, but we’ll come to those when we get to them. Until then, adios!
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