Monday, December 31, 2007

[014] Siamese Dream

Album: Siamese Dream
Artist: Smashing Pumpkins
Release Date: June 1993
Label: Virgin
Producers: Butch Vig & Billy Corgan

“And those moonsongs
That you sing your babies
Will be the songs to see you through”
- from “Luna”

Back when I was in my early 20’s, through my last year of college, and then during my first year at the record store, it seemed like all the girls I was dating or fooling around with were Smashing Pumpkins super-fans. It was more than CDs and t-shirts though; they raised their fandom to zealotry, all but worshipping at the feet of Billy Corgan and his shiny noggin, and I really think that losing themselves to the music made them a little more psychotic in the rest of everyday life. I didn’t understand this at all, because at the time I wasn’t into the Pumpkins. It wasn’t until later, after the band was no longer vital, and all the crazed Corganites were out of my life, that I got myself Siamese Dream and discovered what all the fuss was about, although I was swallowed by the massive enveloping sound of the album, while my various girlfriends were swayed, I guess, by Corgan’s prose. Is it irony that now I consider Siamese Dream a masterpiece, where I scoffed at it when my acceptance of it could have smoothed the bumps in my romance road…I don’t know, maybe, but it doesn’t matter now – what matters is I get to enjoy the album on its own terms.

You see, there are many different permutations of many bands – like we talked about the old and new Weezer, or the difference between the Dre-endorsed Snoop Doggy Dogg and the legally neutered Snoop Dogg, or QOTSA with and without Nick Oliveri, or Metallica pre-haircut and post, etc etc – and the Pumpkins are no exception. I, for one, fully support the Billy Corgan with hair, which would be 1991-1994, the first two albums and the Pisces Iscariot b-sides collection. Somewhere between the caged rat and that glorious house party, his hair disappeared and his ego blew up and super-sized the next album. Now, Corgan has spent the last decade descending into Pro-Tooled self-parody and pretension of the highest order, pissing away any of our faith he had gained from Siamese Dream, retroactively painted as a stroke of grand, colorful art rock genius released in the middle of Rock’s gray and plaid period. At the time, the Smashing Pumpkins seemed like part of the pack – Butch Vig behind the boards, a song on the Singles soundtrack, etc. – but looking back now Corgan and co. couldn’t be more different, with a distinct lack of the outward working class gruffness that the Seattle mutts clung to, however endearingly; in place of their flannel, Corgan and the Pumpkins wore thrift-store paisley. It was more like Prince, circa “Raspberry Beret”. And what was really great about the Smashing Pumpkins at that time was that the sounds that Corgan and Vig sculpted in the studio echoed the psychedelic swirl of their image, especially on the debut Gish; with Siamese Dream, they streamlined their attack. The guitars are fat as hell, but diamond sharp – I’m not a guitar player, but if I was, I’d find out what effects pedals Billy Corgan used on this album, and I’d buy them all.

I’ve been waiting to write about Siamese Dream since I started this list, but I didn’t expect it to end up so high; when I suddenly left you following Beck’s appearance, I was in the process of writing this for #21, but I couldn’t help the fact that every time I would listen to it, it got better. This may be because I turned up the volume each time. For my money, three-quarters of Siamese Dream is the best music to blast at eardrum-shredding volume of these past twenty years, sounding equally good whether booming in your car or in your earbuds, or of course over the P.A. of an arena; that fourth quarter is elegant, sweeping balladry. To be fair though, this is an album about rocking, and so I want to quickly touch on those few quiet numbers so we can get down to business afterward. You all know “Disarm”, the third single released from the album, and it’s a strong piece of orchestral Goth-Pop; the reason it was a wise choice for a single is the same reason why it doesn’t fit on the album: because the sound, mood, vibe, feel is completely different from the rest of Siamese Dream. To put it bluntly, it is not dreamy; it’s more akin to a Disney production gone down the wrong fork of the road through the haunted forest. Despite its acoustic guitar and swelling strings, it’s the most grungy thing here because of its rain-cloud demeanor; it’s no wonder why the music video is in black & white, cuz that’s how it feels. Admittedly, I have no idea what Billy’s on about, with the ‘killer in me, killer in you’ stuff, but it’s kind of disturbing and oddly reminiscent of Metallica’s “Unforgiven” from their Black Album. The other three ballads, all corralled onto the second side, fly in the opposite direction of “Disarm”, sailing through puffy clouds. “Spaceboy”, Corgan’s tribute to his ailing brother, is a nocturnal wonder drenched in mellotron waves, a Milky Way waking life, flying higher than Lucy over strawberry fields and walruses sitting on cornflakes. The guitar lines of the bouncy folk tune “Sweet Sweet” and lullaby closer “Luna” shine like the stars on a clear night, and the 2-piece string section floats like the clouds passing by. That’s three cloud references in one paragraph – beat that – and that’s because they definitely fit these moments of peace, as well as the Billy Corgan of old.

The rest of the album – some of the most exhilarating Rock & Roll ever produced – feels like the Rock & Roll daydreams of Corgan’s childhood come true, and he gets to play the star, the cosmic love child of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Ace Frehley’s Space Man. If the legends are true, and at this point I think we can say that they are, Corgan played pretty much everything on the album except Jimmy Chamberlin’s drums and the beautiful piano on “Soma”, contributed by R.E.M.’s Mike Mills. Despite the fact that the impression of a band statement is presented, I have no problem treating Siamese Dream like the triumph of a tyrannical mad scientist and his hulking henchman (which is essentially what the reunited band is now). There’s a certain pendulous momentum that Corgan’s riffs have on this album, coupled with a slippery ease, squirming and bending with his tall frame; listen to the colossal opener “Cherub Rock” and you can hear the guitars slithering around the drums, with Corgan cooing his record industry rant at the eye of the storm. Corgan was still singing back then instead of the shriek he unleashes nowadays, and Chamberlin’s precise, mathematical percussive display makes him sound like an octopus in MENSA. One of my favorite aspects of Siamese Dream is that as great as “Cherub Rock” is, easily one of the best album openers of all-time, there is still much more next-level music to come on the rest of the album; it’s only an appetizer.

There are at least half a dozen of these songs that I would rank alongside the all-time classics of hard rock from all the usual suspects you can think of, but Corgan ups the effect by releasing pressurized lyrics addressing the frustrations of an artiste struggling for freedom in a narrow-minded business. He has said many times that after the promising success of Gish and opening slots for Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Pumpkins’ record company was pushing hard for the band to be the next Nirvana. Of course, Corgan isn’t exactly Kurt Cobain – he craves arena spectacle more – but he is still an artist in an accountant’s world, and the weight of the situation sent him into a deep depression. Consequently, the lyrics on Siamese Dream are Corgan pushing back at the world in various fashions. “Today” is his obvious grasp at mental equilibrium, laying his troubles out for the world, with “pink ribbon scars that never forget” somewhere on his person. It was the song that exposed the Smashing Pumpkins to the masses, and at the time it came off a bit precious, a little too easy a sentiment to dole out to the waiting mosh pits. But in retrospect, there’s something there in Corgan’s voice, a relief that can be missed; his peeling a song like “Today” off of his soul turns his stature as a songwriter – at least for this album – into a more flattering light. It made him vulnerable in an identifiable way, more human somehow.

A song like “Quiet”, obtuse in its lyrics possibly about the generational divide but acute in its full-force instrumental attack, is so irrepressible that you can’t help but bang your head; Chamberlin never ceases to amaze throughout the album, but “Quiet” is one of the few highlights from a drumming standpoint. Likewise, songs like the introspective “Hummer”, the anthemic “Rocket”, and the renewed outlook of “Mayonaise” all reveal the attention that Corgan and Vig paid to the tone and texture of the guitars; the sound they seem to be shooting for is the midpoint between My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and Kiss’ Alive, a massive sonic boom simultaneously fuzzy and smooth, aided by an all-encompassing low end that is rare on hard rock records. I had the great pleasure of meeting Butch Vig once, while he was drumming for Garbage and he remains the nicest “Rock star” I’ve ever met - I think he was a surprised that I wanted to talk to him about his work on Siamese Dream and not Nirvana’s Nevermind. We talked about the techniques he and Billy used to record the guitars, and they included things like running two tapes of the same part at different speeds, or Billy playing parts backwards, then reversing the recording to get a warped feeling, or simple things like recording dozens of tracks and just layering them on top of each other to create a guitar army. The numb disconnect of the 9-minute epic “Silverfuck” presents the gamut of sounds, darting back and forth between whispers of trace hum and tidal waves of squall and tribal drum patterns, with Corgan and Chamberlin rushing so fast towards the finish line that they can barely hold on to their instruments.

The triumphs of Siamese Dream though are the flip sides in the middle, the two-part centerpiece representing the absolute peak of the Smashing Pumpkins’ career. “Soma” and “Geek U.S.A.” are so phenomenal that I fear this entry could go long because I could write at such length about them. “Soma” – a sister in separation, a brother in breaking up, to the endpoint in “Silverfuck” – is quite simply the greatest piece of baroque Art Rock that Queen never recorded, as if ripped from the heart of A Night At The Opera. It is the royal son of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but instead of choruses of Freddie Mercury swirling around you, it’s Billy Corgan’s guitar channeling Brian May better than anyone could hope for. His first solo is a silky marvel massaging your brain that then turns around and shoots you in the face with a shotgun; “The Hit” at the center of the song was what sold me on this album. An old friend explained to me that it was the kind of physical experience of sound that only happened live, in concert, and for a band to be able to capture it on an album was an incredible feat. And the song only escalates, climaxing with the second solo, one of the greatest pieces of lyrical guitar playing ever recorded, Corgan channeling his pain through the six strings, strangling the neck with all his might. Where “Soma” is feminine and gorgeous, “Geek U.S.A.” is masculine and aggressive. Beyond the serrated riffs, it contains Chamberlin’s best, among the greatest examples of Rock & Roll drumming I’ve ever encountered; it is his best playing on an album packed with what can be considered one of the best performances of all time. He moves so fast that by the end he has to stop for a moment just so Corgan, no slouch ripping yet another jaw-dropping solo, can catch up. Jimmy Chamberlin’s drums on “Geek U.S.A.” are like Jimi Hendrix playing guitar or John Coltrane playing saxophone. His sublime playing is almost hypnotizing in the way that he crams so many polyrhythms and varied styles into these five minutes, past the point where the drums merely guide the song, to where they are the central instrument dictating the melody. And it’s rapturous musical flashes like this that I guess would invite devotion the level of those girls I knew way back when. The Pumpkins had a less than stellar live reputation back in the day, but what I see on the videos below is a band, especially its frontman lost in the brutal bliss of the wall of noise he himself is creating. It's that passion that carries this album; I can say that the mind-blowing awe and immense satisfaction I get from listening to Siamese Dream lets me understand why anyone would have such faith in Billy Corgan and his band to begin with. In some ways – the ways which are majestic, the ways that make teenage girls scream – that’s a huge part of what Rock & Roll is about.

01. “Cherub Rock”
02. “Quiet”
03. “Today”
04. “Hummer”
05. “Rocket”
06. “Disarm”
07. “Soma”
08. “Geek U.S.A.”
09. “Mayonaise”
10. “Spaceboy”
11. “Silverfuck”
12. “Sweet Sweet”
13. “Luna”

"Cherub Rock" [live on Saturday Night Live, 1993]

"Soma" [live in London, 1994]

"Geek USA" [live in Munich 09.03]

"Silverfuck" [live at the 1994 Pinkpop Festival]

- BONUS: "Cherub Rock" [live in Munich 09.03]
- BONUS: "Quiet" [live in Atlanta, 1993]
- BONUS: "Today" [video]
- BONUS: "Today" [live in Chicago, 1993]
- BONUS: "Today" [live on Saturday Night Live]
- BONUS: "Hummer" [live at the 1994 Pinkpop Festival]
- BONUS: "Rocket" [video]
- BONUS: "Disarm" [video]
- BONUS: "Disarm" [heavy version - live at the 1994 VMA's]
- BONUS: "Geek U.S.A." [live, 1993]
the infamous clown clip, included on the Greatest Hits DVD
- BONUS: "Mayonaise" [live, 1993]
- BONUS: "Mayonaise" [live & acoustic in London, 1993]
- BONUS: "Spaceboy" [live in Chicago, 08.93]
- BONUS: "Silverfuck" [live in Chicago, 07.92]
- BONUS: "Sweet Sweet" [live, 1992]
- BONUS: "Luna" [live, 1993]
- BONUS: "Luna" [audio]

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