Review: Smashing Pumpkins’ – ‘CYR’ – An Exhausting Slog With The Dark Lord of the Synth

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When I started BourbonAndVinyl I vowed to myself I’d try to be positive. There is so much negativity out there, especially online. Twitter is a cesspool of anger and grievances. At least Instagram is out there for pictures of people’s cats and what they’re eating. I joined Instagram to follow rock bands and I ended up following a bunch of cats and restaurants, but I digress. B&V was founded in order to throw light on older bands, artists who have been around for a while that are putting out new music that probably isn’t making it to your car radio (Bourbon and Vinyl: Mission Statement). I try to write about albums that I like, that excite me about rock and roll. At times, I fear that ethos has made me sound overly positive, which if you knew me is pretty ironic. 

I have indeed been critical in the past. I subscribe to the “important man (person)” theory of rock n roll. Important artists do big things. So when one of those “important” artists puts out a record that misses the mark, I have in the past felt compelled not only to comment but to be less than positive (LP Review: Creativity And The Curious Case of Jack White & ‘Boarding House Reach’). I’m hopeful that this post will not come across overly negative. However, as always, I’m going to give you my honest opinions here. 

I consider Billy Corgan, leader of the Smashing Pumpkins, to be one of those “great men” of rock and roll. Anyway you slice it, the guy has done some amazing work. However, even I must admit that Corgan, well, doesn’t lack self-confidence. No artist, if they’re being truthful, has enough ego to actually want to be the “voice of their generation.” Dylan struggled with that tag in the 60s. In the 90s that tag literally helped drive Kurt Cobain to suicide. Heavy weighs the crown. I saw Corgan interviewed years ago about Cobain and how he brought Grunge to the mainstream, changing music forever. Corgan said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that there were a lot of artists pushing rock and roll’s new sound, grunge or alt rock, and Cobain ended up getting credit for it. I got the sense watching him, that Corgan was actually kind of disappointed he wasn’t tagged with that “voice of his generation” thing because I truly think he believes he was the voice of that generation and not Cobain. It’s like he feels gipped. Who knows… he did date Courtney Love so he shares that in common with Kurt, maybe he was the voice all along. I can’t adjudicate that but the guy has had a chip on his shoulder for a long time. 

I’m on record stating that I’m a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan. I was a big fan of Siamese Dream after my friend Doug gave me that disc for my birthday many moons ago. It began a lifetime of fandom for me. I love the grandiosity of the epic Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. I followed the band through the radical shift to electronica on Adore. That album remains amongst my favorite of their work. After the band fell apart following Machina/The Machine of Gods I followed Corgan (and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin) on their next band, Zwan. I actually dug that album but I think I’m in the minority there. When Billy rebooted the Smashing Pumpkins I didn’t get back on the bandwagon until Oceania. I liked Monuments To An Elegy that featured Tommy Lee on drums. By that point Corgan was the only original member left. When it was announced that original members James Iha (guitar) and Jimmy Chamberlin (drums) were rejoining, I was excited at the guitar rock possibilities. Admittedly, I’d liked to see original bassist D’Arcy back but I’ll take what I can get. 2018’s Shiny And Oh So Bright Vol 1 was not the hard rock reunion I was expecting, but I still liked it (LP Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Iha’s Surprisingly Tentative Return ‘Shiny And Oh So Bright’. I figured they were just taking their time to re ignite the chemistry. 

The Pumpkins have finally returned with the follow-up(?), not with “Shiny And Oh So Bright Volume Two” but with what’s being billed as a double-album CYR. And in classic Billy Corgan fashion, with the chip securely on his shoulder, he’s delivered an album no one would have expected. Instead of the classic guitar-epic music we’d expect, he’s delivered a keyboard heavy album. It’s as if Billy has decided to join the dark side… The Dark Lord of the Synth, he’s Darth Keyboards. The first time I heard this record I thought I’d accidentally played a Flock of Seagulls’ disc from 85. I will say, his vocals still have that immediacy, that urgency you would expect, it’s just the music is such a surprise. What makes this all the more confounding is that drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and guitarist James Iha are purportedly playing on this record, just like the last one. Chamberlin is one of the more aggressive drummers ever and on this record he’s mostly confined to being a metronome, he’s totally neutered here. If James Iha is playing guitar on this record it’s like a “Where’s Waldo’s Guitar.” Even Jeff Schroeder who plays bass and guitar is seemingly awol. This is the sound of one man who spent way too much time playing with the latest technology. The only proof that anybody but Corgan contributed on this record are the female backup singers. 

Practically half of these tracks were released as singles… I only posted about the first two, Review: Smashing Pumpkins Release 2 New Songs, “Cyr,” “The Colour of Love”. I have to admit those two tracks have grown on me. I especially like the title track, “Cyr.” Corgan sings “I’m on the verge” so many times I have no choice but to believe him. There are other good moments here. “Confessions Of A Dopamine Addict” is actually interesting… I think it actually has some real drums. “Dulcet In E” is a nice Corgan ballad. The two tracks that generate the most heat, for me, were the curiously titled “Anno Santana” and the overly affected title of “Wyttch” (ie, Witch). Both have a bit of actual guitar. Neither is “Bullet With Butterfly Wings.” 

I’m not faulting the guy for wanting to go in another direction. I loved Adore. But by the second half of this album, washed in all the cold keyboards and synths it all sort of turns into white noise. The songs are just not that memorable, especially on the second half of the record. Corgan has always written great hooks and there just aren’t any here. While this is described as a double-LP it just feels like a boring, long single disc. If Corgan is this ambivalent about songwriting and the songs he’s putting out, why wouldn’t we be too? To call this album monochromatic doesn’t do it justice… at least Picasso’s “Blue Period” was interesting. 

This album is, in a few words, a huge disappointment. I think we were all waiting for a great Smashing Pumpkins’ album. Sadly, this isn’t it. I can’t imagine Iha and Chamberlin will stay on with the Pumpkins if all they’re going to do is pose for publicity photos. This one is a hard pass for me. 

Cheers! 

LP Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Iha’s Surprisingly Tentative Return ‘Shiny And Oh So Bright’

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I had heard rumblings about a true Smashing Pumpkins reunion forever. As early as 2007’s Zeitgeist when Corgan ran a full page ad in the Chicago newspaper saying he wanted everybody back onboard there’s been talk of a Pumpkins reunion. Then a couple of years ago on, yes, social media we started seeing pictures of guitarist James Iha and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin in the studio with writer/producer/guitarist/singer Billy Corgan. Sadly, most of the buzz and talk around the reunion was around bassist D’Arcy’s absence. Apparently Corgan didn’t feel she could carry the weight of playing on a record and a tour. It’s much the same thing with Axl and Steve Adler, who actually admitted he couldn’t have played a whole show. If you don’t play, you forget how, apparently.

When I think about the Smashing Pumpkins, I think back to those glory years. My dear friend Doug gave me Siamese Dream. Obviously, that record is a masterpiece. It was the Chicago answer to the Seattle wave that engulfed the 90s. If you subscribe to the “great man” theory of history, I don’t think Corgan gets the credit he deserves. (Just ask him, he’d agree). While Cobain was the voice of a generation, an honor he never wanted, Corgan desperately coveted that tag. People spoke of Vedder, Cornell and Staley in hushed and reverent tones but Billy never got that kind of love. I guess Chicago isn’t as cool as Seattle… although I’d argue that point. Of all the big 90s bands, I think Corgan was the most “classic rock” influenced. I bought the double CD Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and remain blown away by it to this day. That tour was my first time seeing them in concert and they rawked.

But just when it seemed world-dominance was within Corgan’s grasp things went haywire. Chamberlin who had been struggling with alcoholism and heroin addiction for quite some time, OD’d along with touring keyboardist Jonathon Melvoin who tragically died. The band had had enough and Chamberlin was fired. The line-up of the Pumpkins has really been in flux ever since. They went with an electronica thing, produced by Rick Rubin on Adore and I think they lost a lot of people. I personally loved that record. The title track, “Ava Adore” and “To Sheila” remain among my favorites. I remember my friend’s wife turning to me during that concert and saying, “What’s this shit?” How Greil Marcus of her.

Chamberlin cleaned up and returned for 2000’s Machina/The Machines of Gods but by then D’Arcy had been dismissed for undisclosed reasons. The rumor was crack cocaine. I remember hearing she and her boy friend tried to rob a convenience store… I want to party with you, D’Arcy. After that the wheels came off and Corgan ended the Pumpkins. Chamberlin, who had at one time been Corgan’s roomie on the road, joined the short lived Zwan, an album apparently only I bought. Corgan did an un-listenable solo record and opened a tea shop. Finally he ran the ad calling his old comrades back to the band. Again, only Chamberlin showed up for Zeitgiest. After that, it was really a revolving door of musicians. Only guitarist Jeff Schroeder has seemed to stick. Tommy Lee of Motley Crue actually sat in the drummer’s chair for 2014’s Monuments to an Elegy.

I will admit, I’d been ignoring pretty much everything Corgan did since the Zwan thing. But I ended up picking up Oceania and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a great record. I also bought Monuments to an Elegy but admittedly I was merely intrigued by the idea of Tommy Lee drumming for Billy Corgan. Those were both great, sort of midtempo records. Nothing as epic or earth shattering as “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” but enjoyable rock albums. Then the announcement that Iha and Chamberlin were both back hit social media… I couldn’t help but wonder what their presence would do to the Pumpkins sound.

It was a Joe Strummer documentary I watched late at night, by myself where I saw Joe say, “never underestimate the chemistry of four guys in a room.” I’ve always believed in that. No matter how badly those folks might get along, there’s something about band chemistry. You get the right guys in a room and magic happens. Chrissie Hynde just plays better when Martin Chambers is on the drum kit. He knows instinctually what she’s going to do before she does it. With Iha back, I thought some of that magic might return.

I have to admit, on first listen I was a little surprised by Shiny And Oh So Bright, Vol 1. The title actually goes on for a bit longer, but I’m too lazy to type the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, I like this record. I like most rock and roll. But I guess I expected a little more strum und drang. I was hoping for a bunch of bombastic guitar. Chamberlin’s drumming is, as usual, thunderous. For the most part, this is an all too brief, midtempo record in the same spirit of Oceania or Monuments. Iha’s presence hasn’t really fired Corgan up. I hear Iha’s distinctive guitar sound through out the record, but there’s nothing terribly heavy on this record. Rick Rubin has returned to produce this album, and he gives it the usual organic, clean production. I like the sound of this music and that’s probably due to Rubin.

The album starts off with a trio of pretty mellow tunes. I really like “Knights of Malta,” it reminds me of “Tonight, Tonight.” There are keyboards and strings. Then they slip into “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” which has that same chugging rhythm as “1979.” That song slips seamlessly into “Travels.” And I mean seamlessly, I had to look at the stereo to see that it had gone to the next track. Finally the band catches fire on the rocking lead single, “Solara” (New Single: The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Solara”: The Original (3/4 of it Anyway) Line-Up’s Rocking Return). Other than “Solara” the only tracks that really rock are “Seek And You Shall Destroy” and “Marchin’ On.” “Solara” is still the pick of the litter but “Seek And You Shall Destroy” is a very close second. The only real miscue on this record is “Alienation” which finds Corgan at his cliched worst.

Overall this is a pretty good record. It just feels like a real tentative reunion, like they’re still feeling each other out. I think a little touring and time spent together will loosen these guys up. Then maybe they can get back to their usual window shattering, earth shaking rock and roll. Give this one a listen, it’ll grow on you.

Cheers and Happy Thanksgiving!

 

New Single: The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Solara”: The Original (3/4 of it Anyway) Line-Up’s Rocking Return

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“I’m not everyone…” – “Solara,” The Smashing Pumpkins

Thanks to my buddy Doug, I was an early adopter of the Smashing Pumpkins. He was the one who gave me their breakthrough album, Siamese Dream as a birthday gift in early ’94. Ok, the album was almost a year old, but I live in Kansas City, not Chicago. I quickly picked up Gish at the used-record store. I was also one of the throng of people who showed up at the record store the day Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness came out – it was truly the band’s magnum opus at three vinyl LP’s or 2 CD’s length.

In the ’90s, “grunge” was such an overpowering force that many bands, including the Smashing Pumpkins, got lumped into that category. That era when the Pumpkins came out was when I first began to hear the term “alternative rock.” Kansas City even got a new alternative rock radio station. You wouldn’t hear Foghat on that station, but you would hear the Seattle bands – Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and of course, Nirvana. That is also where I started to hear the Smashing Pumpkins. They were so much more influenced by classic rock – layered guitars, epic songwriting, and big drums – than many of their alt rock compatriots who were more influenced by punk, especially the grunge bands. I agree with the label alternative rock, but certainly not grunge for the Pumpkins. The Smashing Pumpkins were like the midwest, more specifically, Chicago’s answer to the Seattle music scene.

By the time ’95’s Mellon Collie came out the Smashing Pumpkins – principal songwriter Billy Corgan on vocals/guitar (and almost all other instruments), James Iha on guitar, D’Arcy Wretzky on bass and Jimmy Chamberlin on drums – were one of the biggest bands on the planet. That was the first tour I got to see them on and they were amazing. But alas, at their zenith is where the worm began to turn. It was on that tour Jimmy Chamberlin and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin (brother of Prince’s old side kick Wendy Melvoin) both O.D’d on heroin, fatally for Melvoin. Chamberlin survived, but the rest of the band, who’d been dealing with his heroin and alcohol addiction for almost a decade made the decision to move on without him.

They followed up with the heavily electronica influenced album, Adore in ’98 as a trio with Kenny Aronoff on drums for the tour. I loved that record. The title track is the Rock Chick’s absolute favorite Pumpkins tune. For the Pumpkins next outing, MACHINA/The Machines of Gods, a now clean and sober Chamberlin was invited to return to the band. Chamberlin and Corgan were roomies when they were out on the road in the early days, and I think that bond brought them back together. However, just as suddenly as the foursome were reunited, bassist D’Arcy left the band. Rumors of crack cocaine use were circulating about her. Melissa Auf der Maur formally of Hole came in to replace her. It was after that tour the Smashing Pumpkins disbanded.

Chamberlin and Corgan worked together in the “supergroup” Zwan, but that ended up being short lived. Corgan released a solo album and I believe a book of poetry. Eventually, however, Billy put out a full page ad in the Chicago newspapers, stating he wanted to reunite the band. Unfortunately, only Chamberlin showed up for 2007’s Zeitgeist, an album best glossed over…

After releasing two very strong albums under the Smashing Pumpkins moniker (Oceania and Monuments to an Elegy) with Corgan as the only original member left, the rumors of a full on reunion began. The Smashing Pumpkins had really become Corgan and a loose collection of other musicians. The only guy who seemed to “stick” in the band was guitarist Jeff Schroeder. I think it was 2 years ago that both Chamberlin and Iha had signed-on to return and join Corgan & Schoreder. I was delighted to hear that, but I am still hugely disappointed that D’Arcy and Corgan couldn’t bury the hatchet. I loved their chemistry on stage. My friends Matthew and Stormin saw them in Denver and D’Arcy threw her bass on the floor and stormed off during the encore – you can’t buy that kinda passion. I’ll have to put her on my list of musicians left out of high profile reunions, My Proposed Supergroup: Those Band Members Left Out of Big Time Reunions.

There were rumors the 3/4 reunited Pumpkins would put out an album. Then I heard it was going to be a series of EPs… Who knows? Corgan, who I consider a genius, is a hard guy to figure out… he certainly means it when he says, “I’m not everyone…” While I was busy doing all my Dave Matthews Band research, LP Review: Dave Matthews Band, The Atmospheric ‘Come Tomorrow’, the Smashing Pumpkins – now Corgan, Iha, Chamberlin and Schroeder – released a new song, “Solara.” It’s our first tangible evidence of the reunion. I guess both or either Iha and Corgan played bass.

As a fan of the harder rock end of the spectrum, I like this song. It’s quite a layered, 3-guitar attack with Corgan/Schroeder/Iha all pounding out a giant riff. Chamberlin’s drumming, as always is fierce. The song actually starts with the beat of his drum. I will say, with all those guitars in the room, I didn’t hear a discernible solo. On his last few albums, the aforementioned superb Oceania and Monuments to an Elegy, Corgan’s singing has been sweeter and almost wistful. His nasally snarl is back for this track. And while “I’m not everyone,” may not be as menacing as “Despite all my rage, I’m still just a rat in a cage,” it’s nice to hear Corgan’s vocals have that old bite again. As guitar driven rock continues to seemingly disappear, I gotta say, I’m glad to hear a track like this. We need more rock n roll. It’s not on the level of that classic Pumpkins stuff, like, say, “Cherub Rock,” or “Today” but it’s a damn good Pumpkins’ song.

I urge everyone to check this out. Rumor has it there’ll be a tour soon. I’m just hoping whatever they’ve been doing in the studio will see the light of day… Corgan can be… mercurial.