Review : The Smashing Pumpkins - Pisces Iscariot
PitchforkI barely recall having two nickels to rub together at any given time in the 1990s, but between studio albums, video collections, B-side compilations, t-shirts, live bootlegs, and guitar tablature books (even Adore!), I estimate that the Smashing Pumpkins separated me from about $400. And not once did I feel like I was being taken advantage of. Billy Corgan: That guy knew how to give. Obviously, his willingness to personally pen his own liner notes, skewer his poor lil' rich boy image at Hullabalooza, author a column in Guitar World to teach you how to get the right tone for "Geek U.S.A." and lick shots at Steve Lukather weren't entirely altruistic. Corgan's tremendous artistic hot streak was fueled by self-loathing and self-aggrandizement, the equal and opposite manifestations of a whopping ego. But what other multi-platinum rock star was doing this kind of thing back then?
Smashing Pumpkins' reissues have been certainly generous so far, and Pisces Iscariot is no exception. However, Pisces Iscariot was generous to begin with, a stopgap between Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness that was described by Corgan as his attempt to make a mixtape instead of an album. That's pretty much bullshit. He obviously comes from a background that worships the LP form, and Pisces Iscariot is painstakingly sequenced to maintain a concept record's sonic peaks and valleys, favoring stylistic cohesion over protracted diversity. Its ratio of sweet acoustic strummers, barnstorming riff-rockers, and expansive guitar freakouts is balanced almost exactly akin to that of Siamese Dream or Gish. It still works as an album if you want it to, meaning it's not exactly Incesticide or Masterplan as far as alt-rock cash-ins go. This is a compliment Corgan would probably take as a tremendous validation.
In fact, the only concrete way to differentiate this from a typical Smashing Pumpkins album without Corgan's designation are the cover songs, and what's interesting is how uninteresting the selections are. Corgan would align himself with the likes of Queen, Boston, and Black Sabbath as something of a preemptive strike; bands who sold a ton of records and were often reviled for having the wrong kind of ambitions. But on the deluxe version of Pisces Iscariot, you can find live covers of the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs" and Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl", both of which are basically "Livin' on a Prayer" in Canon Karaoke.
The two that made Pisces proper definitely earned their place, though. Who knows what inspiration Corgan took from the beer-barrel-chested belting of Eric Burdon, but their version of the Animals' "A Girl Named Sandoz" is loose and fun, a rare instance where you might imagine Smashing Pumpkins as four people who legitimately enjoyed making music together. More crucial is "Landslide", which works largely because Corgan doesn't go out of his way to make it his. There are no kettle drums, no weeping strings, just a nylon acoustic, a single overdub for the solo, and one of his most sympathetic and tender vocal performances. It's not a hard song to pull off, but this version verges on definitive. And as these things generally worked out at the height of the music industry boom, it allowed Smashing Pumpkins' so-called "mixtape" to go gold and peak at No. 4 on the Billboard chart.
"Landslide" assured the band some career momentum, and it's also the key to understanding what Pisces says about the Smashing Pumpkins in 1994. Corgan may not have been better at making wispy, acoustic love songs than he was at colossal electric odysseys at the time, but it's a side that had been underdeveloped. Siamese Dream had its soft side, obviously, but those songs befitted a heavy, heavy record-- "Disarm", "Spaceboy", and even "Luna" dripped with pathos and Mellotron strings. Conversely, Pisces' delicate bookends, "Soothe" and "Spaced", are every bit what their titles suggest, disarming you with fumbled acoustic picking and found sound (according to the liner notes, you can hear the cars outside Corgan's apartment go by on the former).
Meanwhile, "Obscured" and "Whir" are two of Corgan's most gorgeous songs, period. The chord progressions are almost incapacitating in their beauty, supplemented by gauzy vocals, brushed drumming, and harmonic feedback touched by an early-morning vulnerability that the Pumpkins would never achieve even again, not even on Adore. It was perhaps the one mode in which James Iha could reasonably compete with Corgan, and his contribution, "Blew Away", is indicative of the more country-ish lean of his solo albums. Had Smashing Pumpkins' albums not been such massive undertakings, it would have been interesting to hear what an LP of true-blue love songs might have accomplished.
The lighter touch has a varied effect on Pisces' rock tracks. Many of them are top-shelf: The 11-minute "Starla" is the moonier, flower-child kin of "Silverfuck", and "Hello Kitty Kat" and "Frail & Bedazzled" are groove-heavy glam-rock. While there's no shame in saying nothing here could dislodge a track from Siamese Dream-- one of the best records of its time-- the question is, why are these B-sides? Part of it is tautological. They don't generate the same heft as "Quiet" or "Rocket" because they lack the associative power of being on the actual records. You get an idea of what separates an album cut from a B-side with songs like "Plume" and "Pissant". Corgan has a weakness for this kind of thing-- lyrically regressive ("talk revolution as if it matters now," "my boredom has outshone the sun"), musically blunt, and presented in a relatively "raw" fashion. But it mostly shows him to be completely unconvincing as a punk or a burnout.
For the Smashing Pumpkins, conviction is equivalent to effort, and although Corgan lived to boast of hand-manipulating tape flange and backmasking spoken-word samples, his overcompensation in the studio wasn't about bolstering weak songs. Rather, it was all about bolstering the idea that You, Alienated Teen Listener, shared Corgan's pervasive sense of persecution and that those guitar armies and forthright moping orders provided the necessary ammunition to battle a world that was rigged against you. Nothing on Pisces Iscariot is a dud, but since Corgan puts "mixtape" below the level of "album," you sense he knew something we didn't about "Blue" or "Plume". Perhaps he determined a structural deficiency rendering them incapable of enduring the overdubbing rigor that spawned the thematically similar but exponentially mightier "Bodies", "Fuck You (An Ode to No One)", or, obviously, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings".
Because really, Smashing Pumpkins songs were larger than life and Billy Corgan was not. And he knows it. And the years burn. He never conveyed the political or ethical gravitas of Bono or Eddie Vedder, never was as beautiful and doomed as Kurt Cobain, never stood for musical and technological progress like Thom Yorke. And even if the derision he earned in indie rock was based on outmoded ideals of authenticity, the hatred was real.
Still, even as his first and most intense fans get to rewrite the history of the 90s, Corgan gets left out of the critical pantheon. The music of Pisces Iscariot won't change that, even though it's something close to essential for any self-identifying Pumpkins fan (to these ears, it's more distinctive, sonically diverse, and consistent than the beloved but ultimately threadbare Gish.) But even if most of his musical values are and were derided for celebrating 70s prog/pomp excess, Pisces Iscariot is proof that Corgan might actually be more progressive than he lets on. When you look at how Billy Corgan used the Smashing Pumpkins to interact with the public at the time-- treating liner notes as an exchange between pen pals, doing odd press of his own volition, making "mixtapes" that fused curation with composition-- these are all things that feel awfully commonplace now. Is it any wonder his general attitude nowadays is "no good deed goes unpunished?"...full text
AllmusicAlthough the Smashing Pumpkins had only released two studio albums by 1994 (1991's Gish and 1993's Siamese Dream), they had an overflow of songs that were either relegated to B-sides on European singles or remained unreleased. Billy Corgan proved to be one of rock's most prolific songwriters of the 1990s alt rock movement -- as the quality of these early leftovers were often just as strong as the songs that were officially released. Since nearly all of these songs were never issued domestically, the B-side/rarity collection Pisces Iscariot was issued alongside their first long-form home video, Vieuphoria. The collection proved to be a feast for fans -- it's inexplicable why such exceptional rockers ("Plume," "Hello Kitty Kat," "Frail and Bedazzled," "Blue") and ballads ("Obscured," "La Dolly Vita") weren't featured on albums. Also included is the long and winding, 11-minute epic jam fest "Starla," which proves that Corgan was one of the finest (and most underrated) rock guitarists of the '90s, as well as a pair of unlikely covers -- Fleetwood Mac's gentle "Landslide" and the Animals' psychedelic "Girl Named Sandoz." Also included are insightful liner notes (strewn with typos) from Corgan. While it's not the definitive B-sides collection of pre-Mellon Collie Pumpkins (such tracks as "Bullet Train to Osaka," "Purr Snickety," "Apathy's Last Kiss," "My Dahlia," "Jackie Blue," "Glynis," and others are nowhere to be found), Pisces Iscariot contains some of Corgan and company's finest moments....full text
ConsequenceofsoundEMI is amidst an extensive reissue campaign of The Smashing Pumpkinsí pre-Oceania discography. Last year, Gish and Siamese Dream were re-released in deluxe packages, and on July 17th, Pisces Iscariot will undergo similar treatment.
The deluxe physical package of Pisces Iscariot will include the original album remastered by Bob Ludwig, 17 previously unreleased or alternate versions of Pisces Era songs, 24 previously unreleased live performances, and the bandís first-ever demo reproduced on cassette, along with postcards, watercolor illustrations, photos, liner notes by David Wild, and track-by-track annotations by Billy Corgan.
The set will also be available as both standard and deluxe digital editions, a standard physical edition, and on 180 gram vinyl. Check out the respective tracklists below....full text
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