Sunday, May 27, 2012

Dig On The Smashing Pumpkins' "Siamese Dream"

P&B brings you the "Dig On" Classic Album Series. We'll delve into our vaults to discuss the records that have profoundly impacted our musical tastes. The albums we present are considered essential to anyone's record collection. In the end, you can't understand the present (or future) until you "Dig On" the past.

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"And it's a chance I'll have to take.
And it's a chance I'll have to break."
-Lyrics from The Smashing Pumpkins' "Luna"

Like many others, I associate music to specific memories and times in my life. There are albums that I can't even listen to anymore because I get blasted with some serious post traumatic stress (Sarah McLachlan's Surfacing). And other albums bring me to an amazing, happy place. "Siamese Dream" is one of those special records that uncannily make me calm and remind me of what it feels like to be swept away by a collection of incredible songs.

The Smashing Pumpkins formed in Chicago in the late 80's by polarized band leader Billy Corgan. He started out on the local scene by himself armed with a drum machine. He met James Iha while working in a record store and the foundation of the band came to be. D'Arcy Wretzky and Jimmy Chamberlain soon joined to form the original lineup that would last a (somewhat) productive 12 years. According to Corgan, the Pumpkins sound came together when jazz trained percussionist Chamberlain added his aggressive and precise flavour to the mix. Their first release "Gish" was well received and laid the groundwork for their major release after signing with Virgin Records. 

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Conflict is a catalyst for amazing work and this was the case for "Siamese Dream". Corgan brought back Butch Vig, know for his work with bands like Nirvana and Garbage, who was the producer on "Gish". Armed with a big budget and high expectations, The Pumpkins decided to record this new album in Georgia so that they could mitigate the distractions brought on by friends and their hometown of Chicago. But the main reason was to get Chamberlain away from his drug dealers since he was addicted to heroin. He was know to disappear for days on end during the recording of "Dream" while they feared that he would never come back due to an overdose. Corgan also added his own drama to the process. He laid down the majority of the guitar and bass parts, to the dismay of Iha and Wrtezky. This obviously caused some friction within the group, alienating the supporting cast members. Corgan claims that he did most of the work since he could record the parts more efficiently, in fewer takes. Surprisingly, Vig was on board with this dictatorial method. Along with Chamberlain, Iha and Wretzky were often missing from the studio while Corgan and Vig put in long hours. After 4 months of recording and mastering (thanks to Alan Moulder) and coming in 250K over budget, "Siamese Dream" was released in the summer of 93 to fairly positive reviews. It has sold a total of 4 million copies (not including the reissues) and peaked at number 10 on the Billboard 200.

The instant attraction to "Siamese Dream" for me was the overall sound. At that point in time, I was listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, who had a simpler sound in terms of production. Corgan and Vig accomplished such a massive sonic assault that was not present on their peers' albums and helped to separate them from the "grunge" bunch. The "Wall of Guitar" robustly gave depth to the signature songs on the album. Tracks like "Geek U.S.A." and "Silverfuck" are guitar driven rockers, which are heavily overdubed for that grandiose effect. Vig claims that "as many as 100 guitar parts were compressed into a single song" and Corgan has gone on record saying that "Soma", the epic middle song of the set, has 40 different guitar parts. As a guitarist, I've tried countless times to recreated the Pumpkins sound with various guitar pedals and sound processors, with little to no success. Corgan was all about keeping the overdub sound organic without the use of heavy guitar effects to get the sound he wanted. Chamberlain also contributed to the Pumpkins overall feel with his jazzy approach. His work on "Dream" is not as ambitious as "Gish" (seriously, there are some insane fills on that albums. Note to you: listen to "Gish" first, then move on to "Dream") but he does bring his unique touch which helps distinguish them from the pack.

I fell hard for the guitar solos found on "Dream". There was a void within alternative music in the early 90s and Corgan filled that hole with authority. The solos weren't flashy by any means. They brought the songs to a new level without being too busy or "show stealers". I love how they are unconventional and innovative at the same time. If you've ever experienced Corgan's guitar skill set, you know that he can shred with the best of them. Shockingly, he checked his guitar solo "ego" at the door and inserted tasteful leads that elevated the songs.

"Today", the second single from the album, put the Pumpkins on the map. It cracked the top 10 worldwide, instantly recognizable thanks to the opening riff (which I jammed the hell out of back in the day). The irony behind the song is that it's about suicide, or contemplating the act of suicide. Everybody and their mother loved the song, singing along to the lyrics unaware of the sombre message within the poppy and bright chord progression. "Hummer" is one of my faves on the record. I love the contrast found within the song. The tone of the clean guitar during the verse is dreamingly beautiful and soothing. "Mayonaise" is also on top of my very crowded essential songs list. But that can be said for most (if not all) of the tracks on "Dream".

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From top to bottom, "Siamese Dream" is a masterpiece that fused so many different rock genres (pschycledic, shoe gazer, arena, and alternative to name a few) into a new style that can be called "Corgan Rock". Their influence is undeniable, as their sound can be heard in music by bands like Silversun Pickups and My Chemical Romance. Corgan never shook the totalitarian tag that was pinned to his "Zero" t-shirt after all of these years. It was later underlined with testimonies from the dearly departed bandmates who confirmed that he was a complete control freak. But I will say that the man had a vision and delivered it, despite his band mates. Corgan gave us some of the most memorable music from the 90s single handedly. Ego aside, no one can question his ability to write an amazing pop song with a heavy rock edge.

This album will forever remind me of me of winter, particularly the 93-94 edition of the season. I listened to it non-stop, virtually on repeat for daylight saved days. "Siamese Dream" became the soundtrack for my teenage angst for that period and gave me comfort while I escaped my "problems". Problems that were ridiculous in retrospect. Even though they might have seemed insurpassable back then, they passed without issue. I did mention that "Siamese Dream" reminds me of happy times, which is contradictory after writing this last piece. Corgan and Co brought me joy in those difficult times. And when music has the ability to do so, it puts a smile on my face.

Dig On These Tracks:
- Quiet
- Hummer
- Mayonaise
- Luna
- Geek U.S.A



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