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I was recently writing about a difficult period in my life, 1994-1995 and some of the great music that got me through those rough times (Tom Petty: New Vault Song, “There Goes Angela” From The Upcoming ‘Wildflowers’ Box). When I think about that rough patch in my life one of the bands that I think about, who got me through it, is the Smashing Pumpkins. In 1994 I had one of those milestone birthdays that make you start to ponder your life and the direction you’re heading. My good friend Doug flew in for that birthday celebration at a live-music bar down in Westport, the Hurricane. It was indeed epic but those records are sealed. As a gift Doug brought me 2 CDs. While Doug grew up in KC like me, he was living in Chicago at the time and had adopted that city so thoroughly that we referred to him as “Mr. Chicago.” Naturally this led him to gift me two CDs from Chicago-based groups. The first was from singer/songwriter Ralph Covert who eventually started recording music for children. The second CD was from this group I hadn’t really heard of named the Smashing Pumpkins.
The album he gifted me on that difficult birthday was the Pumpkins’ masterpiece second album Siamese Dream which had come out less than a year prior. I have to admit that Doug, despite not owning a stereo, has turned me onto some great music over the years. I’m trying to talk Doug into buying a turntable so we can disguise our beer drinking jaunts as trips to the used record store and yet he resists the idea, but I’m getting off topic here. The Smashing Pumpkins hadn’t really broken through on KC radio yet in 1994. Their debut Gish was so broadly ignored here that I have to admit I thought Siamese Dream was their debut (at least I did in ’94). It was years before I picked up or even listened to Gish, which I love. In 1994 I had vaguely heard of the Smashing Pumpkins. I was aware they had a video involving an ice cream truck (“Today”) but that was about all I knew.
Well it’s no surprise but Siamese Dream knocked me out. Not only the big songs like “Today,” “Cherub Rock” and “Rocket” drew me in, but some of the deeper album tracks grabbed me too – “Mayonnaise,” “Space Boy,” and “Hummer.” Needless to say, I was on the bandwagon despite still being blissfully unaware of Gish. A year and half later, the Pumpkins – Billy Corgan, vocals/guitar/bass/keyboards/mastermind; James Iha, guitar; D’Arcy (Wretzky), bass; and Jimmy Chamberlin, drums – exploded when they released the 1995 guitar magnum opus Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. After that album everyone was on the bandwagon. Tracks like “Zero” and “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” were everywhere. That was the first tour I saw the Pumpkins and I was extremely impressed. Some friends and I were on the floor – there were no chairs – and we got up close to the band and they were on fire. It was scorched earth with guitars.
Alas, toward the end of that tour the wheels came off. Jimmy Chamberlin’s heroin addiction got the best of him and he and their touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin both O.D.ed. Melvoin died and Chamberlin was subsequently fired from the band. And I thought I was having a rough time? On their next LP, 1998’s Adore, the band took a stylistic left turn and adopted a more electronica based sound. I always thought it was symbolic of how pissed Corgan was at Jimmy (who he described as his “musical soulmate,” the two had roomed together on the road in the early days) that they’d choose a musical direction that didn’t really require a drummer. A lot of people were put off by the new Pumpkins’ sound on Adore. My friend’s wife, when we saw them on that tour, turned to me and said “What is this shit?” How Greil Marcus of her! I dug that album and that tour. I was especially impressed with James Iha at that show, he was coaxing wild, bizarre notes out of his guitar. He reminded me of the Edge from U2.
Unfortunately, Chamberlin’s departure from the band began what has continued to be an almost constant churn in the line-up of the band. Chamberlin came back for Machina and a more rocking sound but then D’Arcy left. The band finally broke up in 2000 only to reform in 2007 with only Corgan and Chamberlin as members. Before I knew what was happening Chamberlin was out. The band was down to just Corgan and a guitarist named Jeff Schroeder for a while. They actually brought in Tommy Lee of Motley Crue fame to drum on 2014’s Monuments To An Elegy, an album I really dug. So it was a big deal when it was announced that both Chamberlin and to my delight Iha were returning to the fold in 2018 for Shiny And Oh So Bright. I liked that record – LP Review: Smashing Pumpkins, Iha’s Surprisingly Tentative Return ‘Shiny And Oh So Bright’ – although I have to admit, it was not the guitar assault I was hoping Iha’s return would have suggested. The line up at the time was Corgan, Iha, Chamberlin and guitarist Jeff Schroeder so you do the math – 3 guitarists and 1 drummer – I just thought it would rock harder.
I’ve been waiting with great anticipation for what I assume will be called “Shiny And Oh So Bright Vol 2.” I was delighted last week when I saw that the Pumpkins had released two new songs, the mysteriously titled “Cyr” and “The Colour Of Your Love.” And I have to say, like the last album, only Billy Corgan can have a band with three guitarists and record two songs that are keyboard based. “Cyr” is all keyboards and what sounds like drum machines. It sounds like what U2 has been grasping for lately, a current sounding song. I played it for the Rock Chick trying to find a modern equivalent in terms of sound – I was thinking the Killers, Imagine Dragons or someone like that. When she heard “Cyr” she said, “That sounds like hopped-up Coldplay.” Withering criticism at least in this house. I despise Coldplay. To me, it sounds like a song that would have fit nicely on Adore. Yes, I’d like more guitar but this song has such a great beat (something I never thought I’d write) and melody it drills into my brain. It’s very poppy. “Cyr” signals to me that Corgan is going to do whatever the Hell he wants to do.
The better of the two tracks to me, is the second track, “The Colour Of Your Love.” On this track I can at least discern Chamberlin’s drumming. Again it’s not the guitar-assault you’d expect or hope for when Iha and Corgan are on guitar… It’s got a lot of keyboards. It’s of the same smooth, polished music that Corgan has been doing since Oceania. It doesn’t seem to matter whose in the band. There isn’t even a guitar solo on this track which is disappointing. It is a hooky song and again an infectious melody. These aren’t bad songs they’re just not what I expect when I think of the classic Smashing Pumpkins.
For any of you hoping for “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” these tracks aren’t for you. If “Daphne Descends” from Adore is your thing, then you’ll really dig these songs. Again, they’re not bad, they just aren’t songs I’d recommend to anybody who isn’t a die-hard Pumpkins fan like me. One has to wonder how involved Iha really is with this new music or really with the last album if I’m being honest. I’m starting to wonder if they’re just paying him to be in the publicity photos. While I am still greatly looking forward to whatever these guys do next, I’m the last person to predict what the next album will sound like…I guess it’ll be whatever the Hell Billy Corgan wants to do.
Be safe out there, Cheers!