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Wednesday, 15 February 2012 09:36

Album review: Smashing Pumpkins still sparkle on 'Gish' and 'Siamese Dream'

Album review: Smashing Pumpkins still sparkle on 'Gish' and 'Siamese Dream'
Written by Chris Bay

Smashing Pumpkins
"Gish" and "Siamese Dream" Deluxe Reissues

Smashing Pumpkins' debut record "Gish" was released in May of 1991, just over 20 years ago. Their second record, "Siamese Dream," came a touch over two years later in July of 1993.

By the time "Siamese Dream" dropped, the Pumpkins had been thrown (or more arguably, jumped) headlong into the alternative rock maelstrom that put loud, ragged, deviant thrashing at the forefront of the commercial music industry. The monstrosity of that world would leave them battered and artistically and commercially dulled, but what remains of those early years still resonates.

Remastered editions of "Gish" and "Siamese Dream" were released separately in November 2011, and are each accompanied by a full disc of non-album material. Much of this extra material has seen prominent release before. Though many have been remixed for this release, a large number of these cuts were B-sides or appeared on the compilation "Pisces Iscariot," released in 1994. Also present in each reissue is a DVD of a live performance from the period and extended notes from Billy Corgan on the original album material. (Notes on the non-album tracks would have been nice as well, and likely more valuable to the listener.)

While not much in these collections is fully new, the bundling of this material from the band's early period -- which is both wide and deep in scope -- gives a comprehensive representation of their work and identity that until now has been harder to glimpse.

Perhaps the most iconic Smashing Pumpkins album is their third, "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," which captures the sprawling, cinematic vision of singer, guitarist and creative principal Billy Corgan better than anything else they produced. The music on that record is well-polished and presented with every care to control what the listener hears and, in the case of the accompanying videos and artwork, sees. By design, very little reality exists on the fantastical "Mellon Collie." The story of the band's artistic maturation is obscured.

That story is wrapped up in their first two albums, which portray a naive group of talented individuals that managed to create some of the most ambitious and impactful music of their generation in spite of infighting and immense pressure (both external and self-imposed). They haven't been lionized to the extent that many of their peers have (cf. Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam). But the band's best contributions, primarily present in these collections, argue for elevated status in spite of the disfigured image the band would eventually acquire.

If there is any narrative uniting these two albums it encompasses Corgan's manic, psychedelic ambitions and how differently they are presented on each. On "Gish" the ideas are half-formed, splattered across the speakers. The themes contained therein -- mystical, idealistic, claustrophobic and pained -- are difficult to decipher and identify with. Corgan spun the world he saw inside his own head, without imagining how that world might be made accessible to others. The album's redemption comes in the form of unrestrained sonic energy, which does a better job of communicating than the individual songs. Where Corgan's lyrics stutter and slur, his screaming, razorblade guitar and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain's heavy metal assault come through with a massive impact, jolting the senses. Passionate unrestraint renders the lyrical themes secondary.

By the time of the release of "Gish" Corgan had realized that his band's scorched-earth methodology needed to be refined if his ideas were to get across. Artistic maturation coupled with personal gravitas -- brought on by depression, a nervous breakdown and subsequent recovery -- altered Corgan's relationship with his craft. "Siamese Dream" applies calculated restraint and hence lands most of its punches. It is brash and loud precisely when it needs to be and no more often.

To see the effects of this approach, one needs to go no further than its most well-known track, "Today." The demo of that song contained on the rarities disk in this set has guitars cranked to 10 for the duration. And while the album version certainly benefits from better production, the payoff comes from the dynamic and atmospheric contrast between its lithe verses and window rattling chorus. Energy and emotion exist in that chasm between the two, and in the leap from one side to the other. This juxtaposition is present not only within tracks but between them, for example in the transition from "Rocket" to "Disarm" and from "Spaceboy" to "Silverfuck." This welding of elements became the band's stylistic trademark, and it sees no greater demonstration than on "Siamese Dream."

The collections of rarities that accompany each album are good and interesting listens, but lack the collective impact of the albums themselves. There are some great tracks here, to be sure. The "Siamese Dream" set contains the uncharacteristically mid-tempo and mid-volume "Never Let Me Down Again," which shows that the band still had something in its pocket. The "Gish" rarities set opens with a new mix of "Starla," the B-side to the second release of the single "I Am One" in 1992. It clocks in at 11 minutes, a duration which gives the sprawling ideas hinted at on "Gish" the space to reach full fruition. The new mix, like the remastered album cuts and most of the other newly remixed versions, is more contoured and up-front than the original.

The main payoff of the rarities collections is to give greater context to the distillation process that produced the albums themselves. In alternate arrangements and discarded tracks we see the Pumpkins (and specifically, Corgan) pushing and scraping to arrive at the most effective way to frame their expansive vision.

The video footage constitutes the largest new contribution to the Pumpkins oeuvre. A 1990 performance, accompanying "Gish," shows the band as ragged and loose, with questionable fashion, still becoming comfortable on stage. The band is shy; Corgan awkwardly addresses the audience and he and his bandmates do little more than bob in place, heads down. The audio quality is rough (as is the performance itself), and the video quality is not much better, but the time capsule view into the band pre-fame is enlightening. Only three years later, as seen on the video accompanying "Siamese Dream," they appear as you'd expect to see a band that was rapidly approaching the zenith of the popular music world: confident, engaging, dynamic.

These reissues are satisfying and illuminating portraits of a band that many think they know well, but which few likely know fully. The alternative rock bubble burst long ago, but the Smashing Pumpkins' work still stands and still inspires.

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