Monday, November 23, 2009

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 35 - The Smashing Pumpkins

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I have a certain affinity for the wildly ambitious. I like German Romantic symphonies and 12 hour opera cycles. I like to read Tolstoy and Pynchon. There's something I find exciting about the attempt to create something so immense that it encapsulates an entire world.

At the same time, art with these grandiose intentions is more likely to fall flat on its face than anything else. A lot of artists think they have it in them to create a epic masterpiece, but very few actually do. This especially applies to music, where the phrase "double album" is often met with equal parts excitement and dread.

The sprawling, unkempt double album follow-up to an initial success has been reenacted so often since the days of Dylan and The Beatles that seems almost a cliche now. An equally exhausted trope is the oft-repeated claim that "if they had just cut out some songs, it would have been one really good single album".

Perhaps it's true, and if the band had done a little bit of editing, there would be one 50 minute album that's compact and concise. It would also probably be far less interesting. I like to think one has to appreciate the ambitions of the double album, even if they are almost never completely successful. Part of the fun of the whole endeavor is wading through a chaotic mess. You can fully lose yourself in a lengthy piece of art, and if every track isn't perfect it's still fun to wander through a bloated, overreaching failure. Navigating through the ambitious jumble is half the fun, right?

Or so I thought. But this week, as I forced myself to listen to the entire two hours of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness yet again, I found myself succumbing to the dream of brevity and minimalism. Double albums are nice places to visit every once in a while, but you don't necessarily want to live in them.


ARTIST OF THE WEEK: The Smashing Pumpkins

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: This is a strange one. There's a show on Animal Planet called Whale Wars, which follows a bunch of hippies on a boat as they attempt to disrupt the Japanese whaling industry. The theme song is the Pumpkins' "Bullet with Butterfly Wings". It's a weird choice for the opening credits, but it compelled me to purchase the single, which in turn compelled me to choose them as my artist of the week. Other than that, I really didn't know that much, other than the Smashing Pumpkins were huge in the mid-nineties.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Siamese Dream (1993) every day this week. I also listened to the horribly-titled Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995) three times, no mean feat for an album that's two hours long. Gish (1991) and Adore (1998) were listened to twice each, and Machina: The Machines of God (2000) once. I am listening to Machina II: The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music (2000) as I write this. You can listen to it too, here. By this point in their career, Virgin Records was fed up with the double album nonsense and the band was forced to give away the second half of this album for free.


The Pumpkins have a penchant for an almost operatic sense of melodrama - just listen to the chimes at the beginning of "Disarm", or the military drumroll that starts off "Cherub Rock". I was never into angsty emotional music as a teenager, but listening to some of this stuff made me feel like I was a 15 year old who nobody - nobody! - understands. You can argue that it's corny and overly emotional, but you can't deny that the band sets out to do something and does it well.

The band backs up this sense of melodrama with some truly epic instrumentation. There's nothing minimal about the arrangements - the overdubbed guitar lines will crash over your head like a tsunami, and you have to fight your way to the top if you're not going to drown in some of these songs. Once you get used to it, it's kind of fun. And if Billy Corgan's guitar lines are towering monoliths, Jimmy Chamberlain's drumming is surprisingly subtle. He's a good drummer, and not just in the Ringo Starr sense of "well, his lack of showmanship is part of the charm". The drum parts are complex, interesting, filled with energy and momentum, but never overbearing. It wasn't until the end of the week that I noticed them at all, but once I did, they were practically all I listened to.

But the Pumpkins' songs aren't all overpowering guitar and drum blow-outs. The band can get quiet and sensitive. The most famous song in this vein is the quiet, beautiful "1979", but Adore (the "goth" album) features a lot of quieter tracks with melodic piano line (though the fact that Chamberlain had been kicked out of the band for his heroin addiction probably contributed to this new direction). "Annie-Dog" and "Blank Page" are two of Adore's songs like this that stick out in my mind.


I mentioned that the Pumpkins make me feel like I'm fifteen, but that's because Corgan himself seems like an immature, confused, lovelorn self-pitying 15 year old. While I can appreciate the emotional sentiment in many of the songs, the lyrics are god-awful. Mellon Collie is probably the worst offender in this regard. Some lines are fun in the "so bad they're good" sort of way - "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage", for example. But others are just laughable. "Fuck You (An Ode to No One)" (in which the title already puts up red flags in my mind) opens with "I'm never coming back / I'm never giving in / I'll never be the shine in your spit", before devolving into the repetition of "I don't need your love".

Mellon Collie was the Smashing Pumpkins' attempt to make The Wall for the 90s, and while The Wall could also be overbearing, pretentious and silly at times, I can still enjoy it without rolling by eyes and biting my tongue. And while other bands have done goofy concept albums, none of them needed a laughably absurd flowchart like Machina does (see right).

Here's an experiment: read the lines

Emptiness is loneliness
And loneliness is cleanliness
And cleanliness is godliness
And God is empty just like me

and take them seriously. If this is possible for you, you are either 15 years old, or too hung up on 90s nostalgia to realize that this is awful tripe. Loneliness is cleanliness? Really? Keep in mind that pretty much every Smashing Pumpkins song is about loneliness or despair, and that most of their albums go well past the seventy minute mark. This sort of thing gets old real fast.

Really, a lot of my problems with the Pumpkins go back to Billy Corgan. He's an amazing songwriter, a good guitarist, but a horrible lyricist, and he can't sing. Maybe listening to his voice for hours every day for a week does this to me, but I found his voice mildly irritating on Monday, and offensively grating by Saturday. The songs, lyrics and all, would be much more effective with a singer who come summon some amount of gravitas and not just sound like a high-pitched teenager with a raspy smokers' voice.

Finally (and this is a relatively small thing), while I'm impressed at Corgan's ability to play multiple instruments, he is by no means a pianist. Listen to the opening track to Mellon Collie, a beautiful piano piece with backing strings. Listen to how Corgan gives a bit too much weight to each chord, as if pounding down the keys too hard on each quarter note. It's a fine song, but it could have been gorgeous with a decent pianist playing. Corgan's piano skills get a little better in Adore, but it's still clear that it's not his primary instrument, and the music suffers as a result.


I learned that the best way to listen to the Smashing Pumpkins is while driving at night. Turn up the volume, roll down the window, step on the gas and tune out the lyrics. Instead, just let the waves of sound crash over you, pick you up, and carry you away. In the end, I think the Pumpkins are all about this sonic force bearing down on you, and if the lyrics aren't always up to snuff, the force of the music is still pretty damn powerful.

I also learned that not all pretentious double concept albums are created equal. The prog rock albums of the 70s remind you of the stoner in Philosophy 101 who won't shut up about the nature of Existence - they're speaking nonsense, but they're sort of fun to listen to nonetheless. The Smashing Pumpkins, on the other hand, are the goth kid in high school English who wrote a bunch of angsty poetry that no one ever wanted to listen to, but the teacher was too nice to bring up the fact that it sucked.

FUN FACT OF THE WEEK: Billy Corgan is an self-avowed perfectionist, with his songs all containing ornate, elaborate arrangements. On Siamese Dream, the band is on record saying that Corgan basically played all the instruments but the drums himself. Apparently fed up with what he believed to be inadequate performances, Corgan took everything into his own hands. This shows a remarkable degree of talent, even if this perfectionism and micromanaging would lead to disaster later on down the road.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Corgan and Chamberlain got back together to reform the Pumpkins with some new musicians, and produced the album Zeitgeist in 2007. I don't really want to listen to this though; in fact, I think the first four albums are all the Pumpkins you really need, and even that's a little too much. I will probably not be listening to Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, the album Corgan is currently releasing one track at a time, either.

Other than that, the band's various members have a ton of side projects I'll likewise be avoiding. Really, I think I'm just Pumpkin-ed out for the time being. After all, the world is a vampire sent to drain.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Bullet With Butterfly Wings"


NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Queens of the Stone Age. I'd say my choice has nothing to do with ChargeShot!!!'s recent obsession with Them Crooked Vultures, but that would be a lie.