Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
There he is: Billy Corgan. The Baby Huey of modern rock. The Pillsbury Dough Boy with chops. The pudgy-faced 800-pound gorilla who can sit anywhere he damn well wants. Corgan and his band, Smashing Pumpkins, are currently squatting atop the heap of postalternative modern rock by virtue of their ambitious double-CD project Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, an impressive, 28-song collection that has the depth to keep Corgan and his Pumpkin pals affixed to their perch for some time.
Smashing Pumpkins is huge. Get used to it.
Corgan's not exactly the most beloved man-child in rock 'n' roll. He's widely perceived as a conceited control freak, a Pumpkin-head who's monopolized his band. That perception was cemented when it came to light that Corgan played almost all the instruments on the Pumpkins' 1993 LP Siamese Dream, sending guitarist James Iha and bassist D'arcy Wretzky to the bench with ham-fisted charm.
The Pumpkin front man is also targeted by critics for his whining vocals and sophomoric mood swings. And several fellow alterna-rockers have made it a point to go after the guy. Pavement's song "Range Life," for example, features the line, "Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins ... they don't have no function."
But still there's Corgan, bobbing and weaving through all the barbs and shaking his fleshy fists at his critics and rivals by taking everything that everyone can't stand about his music and pushing it to epic proportions on a double CD.
Mellon Collie's grandeur begins quietly. The first disc, subtitled "Dawn to Dusk," starts off with a piano instrumental that has a John Lennon touch of, well, melancholy. This innocuous opening is followed by "Tonight, Tonight," a restrained, symphonic platform for Corgan's vocals, which make their first, strained appearance on the disc. It's immediately clear that Corgan's strangled vocal style has hardly developed since the band's 1991 debut album, Gish.
"Tonight" also serves notice that Corgan's lyrics still hover around the emotional maturity level of a hypersensitive 15-year-old: "You can never leave without leaving a piece of youth," he screams on the song, then goes on to prove his point by littering the rest of the double-disc set with candy wrappers of teeny-angst. "Living makes me sick/So sick I wish I'd die," he bellyaches on "Jellybelly"; "I sensed my loss even before I learned to talk," we learn on "To Forgive"; and, ever the postadolescent nihilist, Corgan waxes Nietzschean on "Zero": "Emptiness is loneliness, and loneliness is cleanliness/And cleanliness is godliness and god is empty just like me/... I'm in love with my sadness."
There's a whole lotta anxiety going on. And that's just the opening disc.
Corgan's fractured muse may be hard to take seriously, but it's based on real pain. He's the product of divorced and uninterested parents, and suffered severe depression and a nervous breakdown just prior to recording Siamese Dream. Nevertheless, his poetics come off as undergrad at best. But what saves the songs, and ultimately keeps the impact of the lyrics intact, is how the sentiments are presented: Corgan's an accomplished songwriter and a monster guitarist. And while lines like "Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage" may cause even the palest of poets to blanch, Corgan's crunching chords and pop-metal hooks make that particular song, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," a convincing winner. Same goes for the sonics of the aforementioned "Zero," as well as the first two songs on the second disc, "Where Boys Fear to Tread" and "Bodies," both Sabbathlike stompers that make Corgan a little easier to take when he informs us that "love is suicide," among other revelations.
That the Pumpkins' harder-edged approach works well is no surprise. Corgan has always seemed most confident with the distortion turned up. But on Mellon Collie, Corgan's at his most interesting when he extends his reach, as he does literally and figuratively with the CD's two longest cuts: "Through the Eyes of Ruby," a seven-plus-minute ballad mixed with anthemic moments, and "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans," a momentous effort that clocks in at just under nine minutes but never seems to drag.
The mythic mindset of "Porcelina" starts slowly, then builds as Crogan's oceanic imagery ebbs and floods with soft vocals and hard guitars. It's a sweet indication of the Great Pumpkin's growth as a songwriter.
Indeed, it's the evidence of Corgan's accelerating artistic evolution that gives Mellon Collie its sense of weight. By the end of the second disc, subtitled "Twilight to Starlight," Corgan replaces the Pumpkins' strong but familiar metal bluster with a curious mix of oddball tunes, starting with the almost Curelike pop of "1979," and including such disparate efforts as a zither 'n' bongo workout ("We Only Come Out at Night"), a fleshy take on white-face soul ("Beautiful") and "Farewell and Goodnight," a gentle, lolling lullaby co-written by Iha, one of only two of the tracks on Mellon Collie not penned solely by Corgan.
"Farewell and Goodnight" closes the two-disc set with Corgan, Iha, Wretzky and drummer Jimmy Chamberlain singing "Goodnight, my love, to every hour in every day/Goodnight, always, to all that's pure that's in your heart." It's an unabashedly sentimental song, willfully innocent and naive, and all the better for it.
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is likely the last full-length release of new Pumpkin material for at least two years, and quite likely forever. Virgin Records is reportedly planning to keep pushing the double album well into 1997, and, in a recent interview, Corgan said he plans to change the name of his band to match a new, "extremely experimental" sound. Considering Corgan's psychological profile, that could spell trouble. But judging by the ultimate artistic success of Mellon Collie, Corgan's capable of reaching anything he cares to grab, whether the guys in Pavement like it or not.--Ted Simons
The Beatles Anthology, Vol. 1
Think twice before you buy into the backlash at the Beatles Anthology CD set and its TV-special counterpart. What's the big turnoff here? That Capitol/Apple and ABC-TV's respective publicity machines have been pouring it on thick for more than a month now? Aren't the Beatles--the guys who single-handedly changed the face of pop music and saved you from drowning in a sea of Fabians--worth a little going overboard for? Yeah, yeah, yeah, they are!
Maybe if I was twentysomething and had to endure hearing what Tim Allen and Joan Lunden's favorite Fab tunes are, I'd stay light-years away from this moptop revival. The current tsunami of mass-marketed Beatlemania must seem like one interminable, hype-saturated infomercial to a Gen Xer who has no cultural bench marks to compare the Beatles to. But those with firsthand recollections certainly remember how the world stopped every time the Beatles put out a new recording, how deejays would play a "Hey Jude" or a "Strawberry Fields Forever" six times in a row the minute they got their hot little hands on it. No matter how much Billy Corgan talks about reinventing pop music, he'll never match that kind of impact and probably will already have relinquished his top double-album status to "England's Phenomenal Pop Combo" by the time you read this.
Capitol claims that nearly 20 percent of the people who bought last year's Live at the BBC were younger than 25. This first Anthology volume, even with the catch of a brand-new Beatle recording, will be a harder sell to casual buyers. Immediately following "Free As a Bird" are five crude Quarrymen recordings. There are also nine Pete Best performances before you even get a drum roll from Ringo Starr. The narration helps keep things moving by pointing out the historical importance of the tracks, but you won't be hearing any of these low-fi selections blasting at a Best Buy store near you.
It's the EMI studio outtakes, which have been selling briskly under the counter for the last six or seven years, that are the real point of interest here. Bootleggers will hardly lose sleep over Anthology, since it only contains, say, one take of "A Hard Day's Night." Yet even those naughty among us who bought Beatle bootlegs will find a few items here that haven't turned up before, such as a long-lost demo of George Harrison's second composition, "You'll Know What to Do," and early takes of "Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me" that had been misfiled and were believed destroyed. The former hails from the Beatles' 1962 Parlophone audition, giving us the voyeuristic pleasure of hearing what George Martin did that first tryout. Listening to it, you'll also understand why he insisted on securing a session drummer ASAP: Pete Best was a wildly inconsistent drummer! Listen to how the tempo fluctuates on "Love Me Do"--not exactly the Moby Dick of the Sixties.
Although Anthology contains material that was passed over for release the first time around, such was the embarrassment of riches in the Beatles' canon that they could afford to not issue a ferocious John Lennon cover of "Leave My Kitten Alone." Early swipes at "Eight Days a Week," "And I Love Her" and "Can't Buy Me Love" reveal the speed in which the Fabs hammered out revisions. "And I Love Her" had a heavy backbeat and a 12-string electric-guitar solo on the early take included here. Just two days later, it was remade as the version we all know and love--an acoustic ballad with a scintillating bridge that was nonexistent on the first take.
The Twilight Zone sensation of hearing familiar Beatle tunes twisted into a pretzel by the Beatles themselves is no more apparent than on the first take for "I'll Be Back," which Lennon wrote as a waltz (the song proved impossible to sing that way).
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Perhaps the most heartwarming thing about these outtakes is hearing how much fun the Beatles seem to be having in the studio on any given day. These aren't some phony bloopers being staged for an MTV "rockumentary"--the Beatles couldn't have had any idea we'd be eavesdropping on their workday some 30 years later. In this way, John, Paul, George and Ringo come through the speakers sounding like long-lost friends who haven't phoned in a painfully long time.
It's hardly worth nit-picking about the merits of "Free As a Bird." It's the next best thing to being the Beatles and, even if it's three live callers and one answering machine, it still feels damn nice hearing from them again.
It's a shame, but people don't put on new records anymore because they need a friend. More likely, they put on records because they want somebody else to blame their troubles on--modern rock is overladen with self-involved cynics. Listen carefully to whatever's listed right below Anthology on this week's album chart and you'll realize that, in truth, you need all the friends you can get.--Serene Dominic