Gish (Caroline ’91/Virgin ’94) Rating: A-
“With a dynamic range as great as that of the Pixies and with a twin guitar attack thicker and more dense than Nirvana and Pearl Jam combined, the Pumpkins have been quite consistent in their ability to churn out material that veers from delicate ballads to crunching arena anthems.” So said Alan Cross in proclaiming the Smashing Pumpkins one of the 25 most important alternative rock bands of all time (in his book 20th Century Rock and Roll: Alternative Rock), and Gish presented a readymade and highly original hard rock force. With screaming guitars cutting through the famously propulsive Pumpkins chug, “I am One” and “Siva” start the album off with the band at their most hard edged and rocking. However, “Rhinoceros” presents a softer side to the Pumpkins that is also apparent on most of the other songs here, most of which inevitably erupt as well (love the classic “she knows” chorus on this one). As for the rest of the songs, "Bury Me" brings the rock big time, again with screaming guitars aplenty, the lush “Crush” is a pretty low-key ballad, the trippily atmospheric, Eastern-tinged “Suffer” would later be brilliantly sampled by Tricky, the soaring “Snail” is the album’s most impressively epic arena rocker (along with “Rhinoceros”), "Tristessa" is similar to "Bury Me" but isn't as good, "Window Paine" plods a bit but its explosive peaks are genuinely exciting, and the charming finale “Daydream” is a lightly dreamy change of pace sung girlishly by bassist D’Arcy in her only lead vocal with the band. In retrospect, Gish was the blueprint for even better things to come, as it lacks the variety and the incredible peaks of their next two releases, but this album should still thrill the majority of the band’s legions of followers. Led by Billy Corgan, this was a band born for big things that knew exactly what they wanted right from the start (according to Corgan, he wanted to “combine the atmosphere of goth-rock with heavy metal”), aspiring towards everything that all of their indie “peers” despised by refusing to check either ego or ambition at the door. Granted, Corgan’s geeky, grating vocal whine takes some getting used to, but producer Butch Vig manages to smooth over its rough edges just enough, and his voice certainly is uniquely his own. Though it pales in comparison to its subsequent big brothers, on which Corgan’s songwriting would grow by leaps and bounds, Gish was the necessary first step that made those brilliant albums possible, and it remains an exciting and estimable first effort in its own right.
Siamese Dream (Virgin ‘93) Rating: A+ Gish got people buzzing about the band, and an excellent contribution to the essential Singles soundtrack (“Drown”) furthered an alleged connection to the grunge scene and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Next came a severe case of writer’s block for Billy Corgan before he penned the brilliantly uplifting anthem “Today,” a significant hit that put the Pumpkins on their way to stardom. The grungy power chords of “Cherub Rock” starts the album off with a classic rocker that’s an angry putdown of the indie community who had shunned them for not having “paid their dues.” Sorry, but greatness couldn’t wait, and with this big (in every way) second release the band blew away their competition (sorry, Pavement). Layers upon layers of guitars seamlessly intermesh to form the backbone of louder tracks like the rumbling “Quiet” and brilliantly epic arena rockers such as “Hummer” and “Rocket.” The band also proves adept at switching gear, as their dreamy melodies often erupt into blasts of power chords and shards of feedback. The band’s reliance on these soft-to-loud dynamics (the changes in volume of which can be quite jarring) can seem inevitable at times, but the end result still thrills on songs such as “Today,” “Soma,” and “Mayonnaise” (my favorite song here which also has an absolutely gorgeous guitar intro going for it). Elsewhere, “Disarm” (a major hit), “Luna” (which ends the album on a beautifully optimistic “I’m in love with you” high), and “Spaceboy” (about Corgan’s disabled half brother Jesse) are all highly impressive, lushly orchestrated ballads. If the album has a minor flaw it's in a little too much doodling down time (after all, progressive rock is a primary influence), but though the willful experimentation on the 9-minute “Silverfuck” can test ones patience at times, even here the band becomes well worth indulging when the screeching guitars search for transcendence. Apparently the album caused much friction among the band members, as it was later revealed that band leader Billy Corgan insisted on playing the majority of the guitar parts himself, untrusting that his cohorts could capture the many textured splendor of the sounds roaming inside his head. So call Corgan an arrogant control freak if you must (he thankfully let Jimmy Chamberlin put in an incredible drumming performance, which has to be heard to be believed; check out the dynamic “Geek U.S.A” for starters), but don’t deny that with Siamese Dream he crafted a landmark early ‘90s masterpiece.
Pisces Iscariot (Virgin ‘94) Rating: A-
Following the Nirvana blueprint, the Smashing Pumpkins decided to follow up their breakthrough album with a compilation of various b-sides, cover tunes (Fleetwood Mac's “Landslide” and Eric Burdon & The Animals' “Girl Named Sandoz”) and previously unavailable tracks (“Frail and Bedazzled,” “Whir,” “Spaced”). This album is much better than Incesticide, however, as most of these songs are good enough to have been included on their previous albums; in some cases they likely weren't simply because they didn't fit in stylistically. Although it contains some heavy rockers in the band’s customary style, the best of which is arguably the turbo-charged “Frail and Bedazzled” (which was also a minor hit), the majority of Pisces Iscariot showcases the softer side of Billy Corgan’s songwriting. The frail and gentle “Whir” is probably the best of several strong dreamy ballads, the other primary contenders being "Soothe," "Obscured," and the aforementioned "Landslide," while the beautifully breathy “Blew Away” is an enjoyable James Iha vehicle that boasts a soaring guitar solo. Elsewhere, “Plume” (perhaps the closest band ever came to straight up grunge) and “Hello Kitty Kat” (another really good surging rocker) both sport a big hard rocking sound with plenty of guitar heroics, but these songs and everything else here are easily overshadowed by the album’s centerpiece song, “Starla.” This 11-minute epic starts by showing off the band’s psychedelic side (so much for all those Nirvana comparisons; I should’ve mentioned before that a lot of Smashing Pumpkins songs are psychedelic in nature, actually) before surging mightily at the 2:50 mark and then ending with 5 minutes of thrilling guitar mayhem. Granted, as with most of these types of compilations not everything here connects, but most of these songs do; "Blue" and "La Dolly Vita" are also really good in the bands' classic widescreen style (particularly towards the end of both songs), but Corgan’s songs are well worth hearing even when he records just himself and his acoustic guitar in his bedroom.
Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness (Virgin ‘95) Rating: A+
After the magnificent Siamese Dream made them superstars, the Smashing Pumpkins came back a mere two years later with this sprawling double album. Though decried by critics as being too “pretentious” and containing too much filler, I don’t find the band guilty on either count. First of all, the band simply sport grand ambitions and are one of the few bands around today that actually dares to be great; if that makes them pretentious then so be it. Secondly, I only see one weak song (“Tales Of A Scorched Earth”) among the 28 here (almost all of which were written by lead Pumpkin Billy Corgan), making this not only easily the best album of 1995 but a decade defining monument that’s one of my favorite albums of all-time. Much more of a band effort than its infamously Corgan dominated predecessor, this is a rawer, more spontaneous effort that shows off all of the Pumpkins’ many sides, as they expand their sonic palette and rely less on the soft-to-loud dynamics that had previously been their trademark. Though the angsty (detractors would say “whiny”) lyrics are at times clumsy, they’re also often memorable, and besides, it is the band’s spectacular sound and terrific melodies that most matter, though Corgan’s unique voice, presented here in a less processed form, is still to many an acquired taste. Dreamy, angelic synth/piano pieces (“Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness,” “Cupid de Locke”) stand beside sparse pretties ("Take Me Down," "Stumbleine," "Farewell and Goodnight") and soaring ballads with sweeping orchestrations (“Tonight Tonight,” “Galapogos”), while fabulous prog rock epics (“Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans,” “Thru The Eyes Of Ruby”) fit snugly alongside explosive/soaring hard rock (“Jellybelly,” “Here Is No Why,” “Love,” “Muzzle,” “Bodies"), raging heavy metal (“Zero,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Ode To No One,” “X.Y.U.”), breezy pop perfection (“1979”), moody, emotional balladry (“Thirty-Three,” “In The Arms Of Sleep,” “By Starlight”), and lightly catchy sing alongs (“We Only Come Out At Night,” “Beautiful”). The amazing end result encompasses everything that was great about alternative rock in the mid ’90s, as this well-balanced collection of songs can be both inconceivably beautiful and fragile, and deliberately ugly and abrasive, sometimes within the same song! (I could therefore switch around some of the songs in the groupings listed above and they’d still be accurate.) Mellon Collie contains the bands prettiest ballads as well as their heaviest rockers (really, what more could any fan want?), with too many great moments to mention, and this smartly paced, all over the place masterpiece has been in heavy rotation on my stereo ever since its release. A Physical Graffiti for the ‘90s, this magical album was a brilliant band triumph that sold like hotcakes and briefly made the Smashing Pumpkins the biggest band in the world. Note: Longtime drug addict and dynamite drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was booted from the band in July ‘96 after another drug binge with touring keyboard player Jimmy Melvoin resulted in Melvoin’s deadly overdose. The band gamely continued onwards, but things would never really be the same.
Adore (Virgin ‘98) Rating: A-
In stark contrast to the brilliantly bombastic double disc monstrosity that was Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness, Adore is a stripped down affair that can in retrospect be seen as a transitional effort. As expected, Jimmy Chamberlin is sorely missed, as his relentless drum attack has been replaced by more subdued replacement drummers and faceless electronic beats. Gone too are the arena rock guitar heroics and big production values, as the band prefers to keep things simple this time out. Indeed, the album is completely unlike what I expected, barely qualifying as a rock record but for a few tracks (in his February 2002 article about the Smashing Pumpkins for Guitar World, Greg Kot described the album as a “nocturnal folk album dressed up with touches of electronic texture”). Yet the band still entices in their new style, for the album is a quietly haunting, graceful, and generally beautiful affair that sees Corgan’s subdued, breathy vocals telling typically angsty but surprisingly poetic tales. Indeed, Corgan's more mature lyrics take a leap up in quality on Adore, whose minor problems musically are in its lack of variety, a somewhat sterile sound, and an overly long running time of 73 minutes (ironically I never felt that way about Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness despite it being almost twice as long). However, Corgan remains a highly accomplished songwriter with consistently appealing melodies, though the album admittedly lacks the edgy excitement of its predecessors. This cost the band big time at the box office, and they never fully recovered their fickle mid-'90s fan base, but those willing to give it a chance will discover that Adore delivers consistent quality. Plus, there are several songs that separate themselves from the pack, including "To Sheila," the lovely, lullaby-like opener, "Ava Adore," the album's unrepresentative hit single which delivers throbbing, intense electronic rock (remember, at the time this album was incorrectly expected to be their “electronica” album, which thankfully proved to be false), "Perfect," which recalls "1979" and is almost as (dare I say it?) perfect, the hypnotic, Cure-like “Daphne Descends” (which my friend Doug says “sounds like the love child between “Fascination Street” and “Lullaby”!), the dramatic, darker "Tear," notable for its memorable orchestral punctuations, the enticingly danceable if poorly spelled “Appels and Oranjes,” "The Tale of Dusty and Pistol Pete," with its gorgeously airy harmonized chorus, the awfully titled but musically terrific "Behold! The Night Mare," whose dreamy atmospherics are worthy of Mellon Collie at its elaborate best, and especially "For Martha," a tearjerking 8-minute tribute to Corgan's deceased mom that's wonderful in every way, starting with impossibly moving lyrics like "If you have to go don't say goodbye, If you have to go don't you cry, If you have to go I will get by, Someday I'll follow you and see you on the other side." Having named the songs that most stand out to me, I’ll reiterate that this is a consistent album (ask me next week and I could probably replace at least a couple of songs named above with others; I've belatedly come to really like "Once Upon A Time" and "Shame," for example) that’s more about the overall mood it conveys than having great individual highlights. With any ties to grunge long gone (that ship had sailed anyway), and being largely comprised of dreamy, at times dreary but often beautiful music, Adore was a victim of high expectations and more modest ambitions, but the album will likely one day be reappraised as “an underrated gem.”
Machina/The Machines Of God (Virgin ’00) Rating: B+
With Chamberlin apparently forgiven and back on board, the big brutish guitars of “The Everlasting Gaze” immediately lets listeners know that the Smashing Pumpkins are back to rocking out. (I really enjoy the song despite it being an obvious rewrite of "Zero," even including an awful a capella section, primarily due to its great surging yet atmospheric chorus, on which Chamberlin makes his presence felt and is at his absolute best.) Next comes the lush, dreamy, danceable electro-pop of “Raindrops + Sunshowers,” as the band immediately delivers the two types of songs that they do best. Later on, “Try, Try, Try,” “This Time,” and “With Every Light” are arguably even better examples of the Pumpkins’ airy, summery pop side, featuring Billy Corgan’s breathy vocals and the band’s beautifully layered guitar melodies. What’s interesting about these songs, and harder hitting, intensely building tracks such as the anthemic “Stand Inside Your Love” (arguably the album's best song and its most successful single) and “I Of The Mourning” (Billy's atmospheric, catchy ode to radio), are that their soaring guitar melodies owe as much to the less critically hip likes of Journey as to their much commented upon grunge connection. Elsewhere, “The Sacred And Profane” shows that the Pumpkins haven't lost their knack for successfully building up a song to epic proportions, “Wound” is another solidly melodic winner, and closer “Age Of Innocence” provides another earworm-worthy album highlight. But the album is far too long at over 73 minutes, as its second side in particular gets bogged down by bloated, long-winded dirges such as "The Crying Tree Of Mercury," “Blue Skies Bring Tears,” and especially the 10-minute “Glass And The Ghost Children” (which actually starts out promisingly but eventually completely loses the plot). The album also gets major demerits for the grating, headache inducing "Heavy Metal Machine," a big, ugly, overproduced mess; people who say "I can't stand his voice" tend to point to tracks such as this one. Fortunately, this album’s plusses (most of side one is pretty great) still outweigh its minuses (many feel that the album is "overproduced" and I agree with that assessment, as it completely sucks the power out of “The Imploding Voice,” for example, which could’ve been much better than it is), and it was good to see the band turning up the amps again. Unfortunately, the mellow Adore had alienated the band’s fan base, and this inconsistent but still highly worthwhile and decidedly grungier release likewise failed to stir the masses as Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie had done.
Machina II/The Friends & Enemies Of Modern Music (Constantanople ’00) Rating: B
Originally I didn’t review this album because it wasn’t “officially” available, but that was before Internet-only releases became commonplace. And while we’re still waiting for an official CD release of this album, and I’ve heard rumors that it will happen eventually, I’ve decided to belatedly review this album because Billy Corgan wanted it to be released and considered it a proper Smashing Pumpkins studio album. Of course, his record company disagreed about the album’s merits and its commercial viability after the disappointing performance of the first Machina album, which caused Billy to make it available independently only to Internet-savvy consumers (and there were a lot less such consumers back then than later when Radiohead shocked everyone with their In Rainbows move). That backstory out of the way, let’s talk about this 14-track album (which was also accompanied by three EPs of b-sides totaling 11 tracks, though I’m going to focus on the 14), shall we? Obviously comparisons to the first Machina album are inevitable, so I’ll note that this album is harder rocking and more psychedelic on the whole, and that the arrangements are less cluttered and less over-produced, which is certainly a plus. On the downside, aside from "Dross" (whose massive churning riffs hit like a sledgehammer), by and large the heavy rockers aren’t the best songs on the album, and even more than the first Machina release this one suffers from far too much filler. “Glass,” “Cash Car Star,” “Blues Skies Bring Tears (Version Electrique),” “White Spyder,” and “Le Deux Machina” all fall into the filler bin for me, some more than others, and that’s almost half the album right there. Fortunately, there’s plenty of good stuff here, too, only you wouldn’t know it since people seem to focus on the filler rather than the good stuff, maybe because the filler can be really grating rather than just being pleasantly forgettable and therefore more forgivable. As for the good stuff, “Real Love” was later good enough to be deemed a “greatest hit,” “Go” is another good James Iha song (I generally like his laid-back changes of pace though I suspect that I’d be bored by a whole album’s worth of his songs), “Let Me Give The World To You,” with its classic soaring melody, could’ve been a hit had it been given a proper single release, “Innosense” is poorly spelled but is another simple, melodic winner, “Home” is alluringly atmospheric and epic, “In My Body” is also atmospheric and hypnotic despite not doing all that much for almost 7 minutes, “If There Is A God” has God awful lyrics but the good music makes up for it, and “Atom Bomb” ends the album with another strong poppy melody (again the atmospheric and poppy songs easily eclipse the hard rockers which are rarely memorable). On the whole, I think that the first Machina album is clearly superior but in hindsight obviously the best way to go would’ve been to better edit both albums, whether releasing them separately or as a single double album (Corgan's preference). However, given that quality control wasn’t exactly Corgan’s strong suit during this period, it’s hard to think that he would’ve made the right choices when shortening either or both albums. After all, even for Machina II he saved some of the best songs ("Slow Dawn," "Lucky 13," "Vanity") for the EPs rather than the album proper (though several of those 11 songs are forgettable, redundant, or worse). Really, why would Corgan include a reworking of a song that was a weak link on Machina (“Blues Skies Bring Tears (Version Electrique)”) in place of these? It’s a head scratcher, but if you focus on the good then both Machina albums are better than their poor reputations would have you believe. In fact, if you’re willing to buy both albums and take the time to create your own judiciously edited playlist, what you’ll end up with may very well be the third best Smashing Pumpkins album.
Greatest Hits (Rotten Apples/Judas O) (Virgin ’01) Rating: A-
Despite a history of uneven live performances, an often-obnoxious frontman, and a sound that could be downright grating, the Smashing Pumpkins were still one the best bands of the past ten years (1991-2000). With a combustible chemistry as unique as Jane's Addiction and a songwriter as brilliant as Kurt Cobain, Smashing Pumpkins briefly ruled alternative rock in the mid-90s, peaking with Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness. However, the underrated, much-misunderstood Adore and the fine if meandering finale Machina/The Machines Of God were major commercial disappointments by comparison, and the band broke up earlier this year rather than continue to fight a losing battle against today’s mediocre chart toppers. All the proof that one needs of the band’s greatness is on this compilation’s first cd (subtitled Rotten Apples), which plucks songs from each of the band’s previous albums and collects most of the bands biggest hits in chronological order. If you don’t like this disc, which contains heavy hard rockers (“Cherub Rock,” “Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Zero”), pretty ballads (“Disarm,” "Landslide," “Tonight Tonight,” “Perfect”) and many other high points in between (the perfect pop of “1979;” the edgy electronic rock of “Ava Adore”), then chances are that you don’t like the Smashing Pumpkins. In addition, the disc contains the excellent psychedelic epic “Drown,” which was previously only available on the Singles soundtrack (and which is here significantly edited down), and “Eye,” their atmospheric electronica-heavy contribution to David Lynch’s Lost Highway film. Two enjoyable lesser known tracks also appear in the form of the melodic, dreamily layered electro-pop of “Real Love,” (previously available on the Internet-only release Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music) and the previously unreleased “Untitled,” whose upbeat “to feel love all around” message is a far cry from the Gen-X angst that’s typically associated with the band. For fans that already have most of the songs on the first disc, a second disc of b-sides (some previously available on Machina II or the band’s box set collection of Mellon Collie-era singles The Aeroplane Flies High) and previously unreleased tracks (the majority of them) was also included subtitled Judas O (actually this “bonus disc” is only available in a limited number of pressings, but this review and rating are for this package which I recommend getting). A case could be made that this disc is overly generous, as it contains several sub par offerings and at least one cringe inducing misstep with their awful cover of David Essex’s “Rock On"; they should've included the terrific "The End Is The Beginning Is The End" instead, a stray single that appeared on the Batman & Robin soundtrack. However, much like the even better Pisces Iscariot, their previous fill in the gaps compilation, this album of songs that were deemed unworthy of their original albums is still better than 90% of most “real albums” out there. Huge sounding, angry rockers such as “Lucky 13,” the intense epic “Aeroplane Flies High” (actually edited down to 7:53) and the utterly ferocious “Marquis In Spades” are well worth checking out, as are delicate ballads such as “My Mistake,” “Set The Ray To Jerry,” “Winterlong,” and Iha’s “Believe.” The winningly pretty and atmospheric “Slow Dawn” (dig those soaring guitar solos too), the groovy mid-tempo rocker “Here’s To The Atom Bomb” (a much different version than “Atom Bomb” on Machina II) and the pretty electro pop of “Waiting” are other really good songs that have rightfully been rescued from obscurity. Given the band’s diminishing success, and the fact that they likely had already released their definitive statements with Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie, a case could be made that the band broke up at the right time. After all, though somewhat shaken their reputation remained largely intact, and this 2-cd compilation serves as a fitting goodbye that further enhances the band’s back catalogue.
Zeitgeist (Reprise ’07) Rating: B
Well I guess I spoke too soon at the end of the last review, huh? After the artistically successful (in my opinion; I seem to rate it much higher than most) but commercially disappointing Zwan project and 2005's all-around disappointing solo album The Future Embrace, Billy Corgan decided to resurrect the Smashing Pumpkins brand name, if not his actual band, for Zeitgeist. Frankly, given how well the band embodied the '90s (while also standing out from everyone else), and given that neither Iha, D'Arcy, or Melissa Auf der Maur (who had replaced D'Arcy on bass and sex appeal duties for the band's "farewell" tour) rejoined Billy, I feel that he should've kept the band name retired. Then again, let's not forget that Corgan and Chamberlin pretty much recorded Siamese Dream by themselves (with Butch Vig's help, of course), so you could make a case that they were the Smashing Pumpkins in the first place, at least on record. In any event, what's done is done so let's talk about this album, shall we? Frankly, given its negative reception I had low expectations, and while it doesn't really add much to the band's legacy it doesn't detract from it too badly, either. This is the band's most consistently hard rocking album, and "real band" or not both of these guys play their asses off; Corgan is still a capable guitar hero, and Chamberlin is still one of the best drummers ever, period. However, while the layered guitars and riffs aggressively churn impressively, and Corgan's much multi-tracked vocals are generally interesting as well (tellingly, ex-Queen knob twiddler Roy Thomas Baker co-produced), there's simply little in the way of hooks or memorable melodies, certainly not when compared to what Corgan has delivered in the past. Previous Pumpkins' classics kicked serious ass but also delivered their fair share of beauty and variety, and this album largely lacks the latter two traits. Fortunately, I still enjoy it, even if its flaws (memo to Billy: ditch the political lyrics) and overall inconsistency makes it their least compelling album to date. Among the songs that stand out from the pack are the Alice In Chains influenced "Bleeding The Orchid," which is atmospheric, emotional, and rocking, "That's The Way (My Love Is)," which recalls the good mellower Machina stuff and has a great soaring guitar solo, "Tarantula," the explosive first single that’s most notable for its ferocious chugging guitars, and "Neverlost," a rare showcase for Corgan's more melodic side whose non-standard instrumentation (marimba, anyone?) takes it beyond your standard Pumpkins fare. But really, I at least like something about the majority of these songs; the hard-hitting guitars and overall energy of the album opening duo “Doomsday Clock” and "7 Shades Of Black," the simplistic yet catchy glam vocals and inventive percussion on "Starz," the reappearance of happy Billy on the Zwan-like "Bring The Light," the overall tunefulness and wicked guitar playing on "(Come On) Let's Go!," the atypical nature of “For God And Country” (it’s sort of like “Neverlost” in this regard even if it’s not as good), and even "Pomp and Circumstances," a rare mellower and experimental excursion that I disliked at first but whose airy charms I now find strangely pleasurable. This album on the whole has slowly grown on me (repeat listens are mandatory), as even "United States" has a potent guitar grind and drum groove going for it, even if it's musically repetitive and lyrically clumsy (not to mention seriously over-long at 9:53). Zeitgeist may not deliver anything especially new to Smashing Pumpkins fans, but there's nothing wrong with a let's get back to basics (if overdubbing 100 guitars can be considered "basics") and rock out sort of summit between two talented musicians. Whether or not they are a "real band," or whether new members Jeff Schroeder (guitar), Ginger Reyes (bass), and Lisa Harriton (keyboards) will be embraced by the band's diminished fanbase (this album was the band's third disappointing seller in a row) remains to be seen, but for now I don't mind simply breaking out my air guitar (and air drums) while rocking out to this extremely flawed but often-enjoyable album. Hopefully the next time out, with the Pumpkins or not, Corgan will write some memorable songs as well.
Oceania (Martha's Music ’12) Rating: B+
This improved effort from the latest incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins (in addition to Corgan there's Jeff Schroeder on guitar, Nicole Fiorentino on bass and backing vocals, and Mike Byrne replacing the great Jimmy Chamberlin on drums and also adding backing vocals) was the latest release within their ambitious ongoing 44-song concept album, Teargarden by Kaleidyscope (the first 10 songs had been released on two EPs and a single; this album comprises songs 11-23 but it works as a self-contained release as well). As Corgan told the NME: "it is the first time where you actually hear me escape the old band. I'm not reacting against it or for it or in the shadow of it." As critic Darryl Sterdan noted, "with Billy Corgan, bigger is better...this ‘album-within-an-album’ bears all the classic Pumpkins hallmarks: searing guitars and busy drums, epic songs and complex arrangements, wistful romanticism and bombastic grandeur. His best work in years." I don't necessarily disagree, and oddly enough the prior Corgan album that this one most reminds me of is the underrated, brightly upbeat Zwan album. I'd say that this album has more acoustic guitars and keyboards than usual, and that Corgan's vocals are uncommonly restrained for the most part, while the drumming is good but not jaw-droppingly great like it was with Chamberlin at his best. The first half of the album is mostly excellent (the first two singles, "Violet Rays" and "Panopticon," in particular are two of their best tracks in ages) but the songwriting on side two isn't always memorable, and I wouldn't have minded a bit more rocking out. Still, there are plenty of other potential highlights (like the epic 9-minute title track, which climaxes with an incredible extended guitar solo), and had the album been trimmed down a bit I'd really be raving about it. As it is, these spacey, dreamy pop rock tunes make for a very good album that's worthy of the Smashing Pumpkins name and adds to their overall legacy, even if this is a very different band than the one who made their twin masterworks in the mid-'90s.