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The Legacy and Possible Rebirth of the Smashing Pumpkins: Part 2 The Songs
For me, the Smashing Pumpkins are one of those bands, like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, that even at their worst I found interesting and compelling enough to listen to. I'm a big fan of their first three albums of course, but can also appreciate the their new directions on Adore and even MACHINA I and II. Since the announcement that they would be "reforming" for a new album and subsequent new tour I have been preparing myself for new Pumpkins music and have stated multiple times that I was looking forward to hearing new material from one of my all time favorite bands.
That new album was released on July 10th 2007, and I have been listening to it along with all of my other Pumpkins material from the major alums to the obscure b-sides, demos and covers trying to decide what exactly I wanted to say about this release; how I think it will be perceived by the fans, new and old; and what it means in terms of the rebirth of the Smashing Pumpkins in a society that last saw them nearly 7 years prior.
As part two to this discussion I thought it would be good to look at the band's evolving sound with some of my favorite songs from each album as well as a few of the great b-sides and rarer songs and hence we have part 2: The Songs.
Some Smashing Pumpkins fans might find it strange that I say I can listen to just about every song this band ever produced, but that is the kind of band they are to me. Even at their worst they are compelling enough for me to want to listen and see what they were trying to achieve. Of course I'm definitely more geared towards Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness but I still find some great songs, although with a slightly different feel, on Adore, MACHNIA I and II, and amongst the many b-sides issued on albums and box sets.
While digesting the latest album from this most recent incarnation of the band I've been going through all of there material and a decided to go through a pick some of my favorite songs to discuss and help get a handle on exactly what made/makes the Smashing Pumpkins such an amazing band to me and countless others across the globe.
It seemed best to start at the beginning and go through with a song from each of the major releases and then discuss some of my favorite b-sides as well a the end. Some were obvious choices and others more obscure but together I think they paint a great picture of the band's music over the years right up until their rebirth now.
"Snail" - from Gish
Not only one of my favorite songs from this album, but "Snail" is also one of my favorite Pumpkins tracks of all time, with it's soft intro and surging guitars. Although it hits pretty hard with the same thick guitars, this is actually not one of the harder Pumpkins songs with an almost uplifting quality to it's lyrics and quasi progressive guitar leads. This one of their earlier forays into the epic arena rock of later days. What I really love about it is the lyrics and specifically Billy Corgan's delivery, which surges and spikes just as the song surges and spikes putting emphasis specifically where needed to make this more than just a great rock song, but one of their first true anthems.
"Geek USA" from Siamese Dream
With it's great riff, this is the Pumpkins channeling their inner hard rock band through and through, without falling into some of the traps of typical hard rock and metal. It's a rockin' riff that is catchy but there is enough psychedelic and progressive feel in the song's morphing riffs. The song is more than just your typical rocker and something a little dreamy and deep as well, especially in the break before the guitars come crashing back... And then of course it kicks back in with a killer screaming guitar lead that shows off some of Billy Corgan's impressive shredding skills. Although for some people there might be other songs that are better representative of the Pumpkins hard rock tendencies, "Geek USA" will always be one of my favorites and one of the first songs I think of when I think of this band.
"Hello Kitty Kat" from Pisces Iscariot
Although this was primarily a b-sides album there are some stand out tracks here as well including this one which is another favorite. Although it's got a great hard rock riff that pulses and has an almost hypnotic repetition, the lyrics are far more passive aggressive and have an almost pop feel, although slightly buried under guitar girth. This is something the Pumpkins always excel at; the ability to take some of the hardest guitar tracks imaginable and yet make songs that have a far wider appeal either because they are anthemic, or have that slight pop flair that draws people who normally would not be listening to such heavy riffs. "Hello Kitty Kat" is a definite example of that... probably not the best, but I still like this song for it's great feel.
"Here's No Why" from Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
This may very well be my favorite Pumpkins song of all time. It's got great riffs throughout that almost sway and soar rather than grind. It's not really a hard rocker or a power pop anthem, but a progressive mix of the two with great lyric lines and vocals that range from haunting and floating to scorchingly powerful . Few groups can write a song that is so much equal parts riff and lyrics without having either dominate but I see this song as the perfect mix. I like to listen to it just as much for it's lyrical content as it's great riffs. That is another thing that the Pumpkins excel at, taking a song and making it catchy and rockin' but also deep and intellectual. I also see this song as a great example of their high degree of musicality as the riffs are not at all stock hard rock riffs, but have that progressive flair and they shift the mood of the song throughout from upbeat to dark and back again...song and riff writing at it's best in my opinion.
"For Martha" from Adore
When I first heard this album, like most people probably, it was not what I was expecting. Although the recent Pumpkins singles had hinted at their move towards an industrial feel, the piano driven songs like this one, were completely unique for a band that was almost entirely guitar driven. Still they are quite beautiful in their own right, perhaps not the rock anthems that had come from the previous albums, but intensely confessional and powerful. This song is slow sad and almost bluesy and jazzy at times in it's simple piano part, but it builds into a full on rock ballad with some semi cryptic lyrics, but still extremely soulful. What I like about this song in particular, is that it starts out slow and builds, but recedes back into a subtle dreamy, center that then returns to build again right back to the huge, thick guitars that were always the band's trademark with a massive power pop riff of fuzzy gritty goodness that makes this another huge arena rock song, but in a different way... a lighter way that would beg lighters and swaying instead of moshing.
"Stand Inside Your Love" from MACHINA I -The Machines of God
This for a long time was the most misinterpreted Pumpkins album, but there were some absolutely stellar songs including "Stand Inside Your Love" which is my second favorite Pumpkins song of all time. This may be the most obvious choice from this album but I felt it was a necessary inclusion simply because it's such a great song and captures some of the more uplifting aspects of the Pumpkins music in a catchy, but hard rocking love anthem. As I've written previously in other posts, it also has a fantastic but subtle lead that just soars about the hard rock riffs and pushes the song from anthemic into the stratosphere. Maybe the album as a whole fell a little short, was definitely over processed and a little sterile, but this song rocks without question.
"Dross" from MACHINA II â€“ The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music
Although this Internet lengthy release actually sounded more processed than it's predecessor, something many might not have thought was possible, and many of it's best songs were released as b-sides later on, there is still some good music including this song: "Dross". A bit of a spacey rocker it definitely sounds a bit washed out and processed, but that doesn't detract from the fact that it has a catchy riff and some great lyrical lines. This was definitely one of the standouts from this release that were also not released later on on b-sides albums. A great indication that although the band had gotten heavily into electronic and digital sounds by this time, there were still some great straight up rockers being written... they just weren't released as rockers or at all.
"7 Shades of Black" from Zeitgeist
Upon first listen to the new release from the Smashing Pumpkins, this was one of the tracks that really struck me as it seems to hearken back to some of their hard rock roots in it's grinding riff and screeching guitars but the fuzzy bass pulses sound closer to the later Pumpkins and I find the chorus, in it's stops and starts with haunting double tracked vocals, really lingers. It seems to break ground while still rocking out and remaining close to the kind of rock and roll that made the band so successful before. I'm still sorting out exactly what I want to say from the new album, but I can definitely see this song fitting in with the earlier Pumpkins material.
The B-Sides and Rarities:
"Lucky 13" appeared on the B-Sides album either Rotten Apples (or Judas O, depending on what you want to call it) that was included with the best of album.
This song was also part of MACHINA II and is one of the standout tracks but I prefer the b-side version that was released as it has less of the fuzz and static that was introduced over many of the MACHINA tracks. It's definitely a hard rock song with a great riff and some pretty dark and menacing lyrical and musical lines that really add a sense of foreboding and darkness to the track but not in a depressing sense or a straight up Black Sabbath kind of way. There is a lot of that progressive rock feel in it as well that make this track a standout.
"The Aeroplane Flies High" appeared on The Aeroplane Flies High Box Set as well as the later B-sides album.
A great track that appears pretty straight forward in its descending riff that starts out soft but is then echoed back with full on guitars growling. The riff is dark and mid tempo but also catchy in it's minor tinge, but what really makes the song is it's cryptic and psychedelic laced lyrics and the recordings that are echoed throughout. These elements give it a depth that makes you want to sit back and really listen to all everything in the sonic landscape and try to understand exactly what they're trying to say here. It is interesting to note that there might be slight differences in the mixing from the Box Set release to the later b-sides album, but I can't really tell the difference without really analyzing each track back to back.
"Saturnine" from the B-Sides album
This song also appeared as part of MACHINA II but the difference between that version and the version that was included on the B-Sides release is massive. The MACHINA II version is over processed, dark fuzzy and far too over processed to let the great mystic flavors of the song come through. The B-Sides version is fantastic, clear with far more subtle effects (there are still lots though) that work so much better to bring out the depth of the song and add it it's natural dark psychedelic feel. Instead of plodding along it has a groove that makes it hypnotic and powerful. It also has some great cryptic lyrical lines that when combined with generous echo effects seem to hang over the simplified riff.
"Here's to the Atom Bomb" from the B-Sides album
This song was also part of MACHINA II as well, but as an acoustic version, again with a bit too much processing. The B-Sides album version is far more rock and roll with a chime-like riff that drives it along better and puts far more emphasis put upon the chorus and it's great lyrical lines. It also has some cool fuzzed out guitar leads. This is song along with the other B-sides I've mentioned could have made for the start of a great album had it ever come together in this form. They're stripped down in a way and that sounds perfect after the thick over processing of the previous two released. For lyrical content and feel this is one of my favorite Pumpkins songs.
"Transformer" from The Aeroplane Flies High Box Set
This is a song that has such a catchy riff that it probably could have been huge had it ever been released. Its a pretty simple lick, but has that perfect hypnotic quality and pause that makes it really sit well even if the mixing isn't the best on this release. This song also has a great chorus that has a distinct feel I can't place. It's not standard Pumpkins but more industrial and punk at the same time making for an interesting song to say the least, but a good one in my opinion, even if it is a bit rough.
When I look at why I like some of these songs so much, I see a few things in common. First, is that they all seem to have that compelling riff or lick that draws you in with something progressive, or unexpected, or just rockin' and makes you want to hear more. On top of that is what really made me a Smashing Pumpkins fan from the very beginning: the lyrical content. They were always a band that just had a knack for writing those lyrics that make you want to keep listening and find out exactly what is going on, what kind of depth and philosophies you can pull from those cryptic lyrical phrases and poetic images. These songs also always seem to have that special something that makes them more than just rock and pop songs and into complete anthems that get under your skin and into your brain and make you want to rock out.
There is such a legacy behind this band, especially for people like me who grew up listening to them and have become so attached and I think that is why I've had such a hard time solidifying my thoughts on the new music. I do think it's great to hear this new incarnation making music that is at the very least interesting and exciting, but when I listen through all the great tracks that have come previous, only some of which I have mentioned here, it seems impossible that anything could ever have lived up to my expectations.
Still, whether the new album is a triumphant rebirth for this band or a futile effort that falls just a little too short to be accepted, I think it is obvious that their legacy will live on forever for me and countless other fans as the Smashing Pumpkins have made some great music, with great variety, from every phase of their career.