Review: Smashing Pumpkins, “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope 1″

 

Still bald after all these years.

I understand that nobody likes or listens to this band anymore. Indulge me… Notes: songs ordered by release date, not CD/vinyl tracklisting. Also, for the three of you that read this and like it, check out the awesomely snarky Hipstersunited.com for your daily fix of Pumpkins news and deadpan commentary. I’ve plowed through 40 HU podcasts in three weeks. Figured they deserve a shoutout. Note rant over.

It’s hard to love Billy Corgan. It’s always been hard to love Billy Corgan. Thankfully, his music more often than not compensates for his oversized persona and snarky putdowns, for the confrontational live shows and for his general assholeishness. Hell, at one point, the music made all the pretentious sideshows something to admire. Billy Corgan was saving rock ‘n roll. And nobody likes a humble messiah.

The obvious problem with this incarnation of the Smashing Pumpkins, then, is not the rotating cast of musicians (none of whom, sans-Corgan, were in the original band). It’s that the songs haven’t been so hot. Consequently, the Alpha Pumpkin’s one-time legion of adoring fans has over time crystallized into a tiny, but ravenous cult following… Of which yours truly is still self-loathingly a part. Sorry, I can’t help myself.

So quick refresher before we dive into SP’s new four-song EP. Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin revived the Pumpkins’ moniker around 2005 after the ugly breakup of their spectacular but short-lived supergroup, Zwan. The two sequestered themselves in a studio for several months and eventually came out with the largely hard-rock oriented “Zeitgeist.” Though it sold pretty well (Billboard #2), the album received mixed reviews, drove away most of what was left of the old fanbase and, predictably, suffered the wrath of the indie blogosphere, which considered it something of an ego-driven affront to the band’s legacy. I kind of liked it. Sue me.

Anyway, BFF Chamberlin left and Corgan’s since turned the band into a collective of no-names, newbies, alt-rock vets and psych pioneers… Which brings us to “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope 1: Songs for a Sailor,” the first installment in a 44-song, free-for-download concept album that you can essentially hear as it’s being made.

Title/artwork = biggest barrier to entry

So far, the formula’s gone like this: write sh*t-ton of songs, play songs live, choose choice songs to record one at a time, post four-song EP to website. Should Billy go the distance, he’ll ultimately crank out 11 EPs comprising this massive, multi-year project based on hokey New Age concepts and Tarot cards. AWESOME! It’s kind of convoluted, kind of cool. And it doesn’t cost you a dime. So there’s no downside to giving it a try.

And you should, because it doesn’t suck.

“A Song for a Son” is the kind of statement opener you’d expect from a man so preposterously ambitious. It’s big, majestic, occasionally bombastic and laced with Corgan’s signature searing fretwork. The sparse melodicism of the acoustic piano intro recalls the mysticism of some of the great classic rock epics of yore, building “Stairway”-style before exploding into back-to-back guitar freakouts 2:50 in.

“A Song for a Son” MP3

It’s a tune that you’ll swear you’ve heard before, that’s played on loop with all the other ’70s rock staples, and that’s totally devoid of any traditional Pumpkins hallmarks, save Corgan’s fuzzed guitar and distinctive vocals. That’s the catch with this album – it sounds almost nothing at all like the band whose name it carries. And given that Chamberlin’s force-of-god pounding isn’t part of the mix anymore, it’s safe to assume that SP will never again attain the punishing heaviness of “Zeitgeist,” let alone the sonic grandeur of “Siamese Dream” or “Mellon Collie.”

Not that Corgan’s trying. Or that this is necessarily a bad thing.

“Widow Wake My Mind” won’t win any converts, though. Unless my mom is listening. Pegged for radio and performed on Leno with a cringe-inducing children’s choir, it’s a perfectly melodic pop song made impotent by its syrupy delivery, adult contemporary lyrical themes and dearth of rock power. “I’m looking for a love that shines”? Gag me.

It’s a dollop of Cool Whip that wastes its super-catchy, chicka-chicka riff and oh-oh hook on wishy-washy balladry and a vocal mix from hell – his voice is in your freaking earhole. I’m not against happy songs. I’m against happy songs that suck. Yani probably sets his alarm to this crap.

“Widow Wake My Mind” MP3

Of course, I’m only this unabashedly critical because the subsequent release is so damn great. “A Stitch In Time’s” chiming, psych-folk propulsion and groovy sitar twang are evidence enough that carousing with stoner dudes from The Electric Prunes and Strawberry Alarm Clock totally works wonders for you inner flower child. Great headphone listening, especially when that subtle layer of synth buzz kicks in around 2:00.

“A Stitch In Time” MP3

Corgan kills the vocal melody, too – those yearning ooooh-oh, yeah-eah‘s are ace – and the lyrics get off on a palpably defiant, stick-this-in-your-pipe-and-smoke-it vibe. “Don’t let them lay the trips on you.” Translation: you people can kiss my ass. I like this one a lot (despite it’s similarity to Zwan’s irritating “Heartsong”). It’s a lush, textured tapestry of San Fran, mindtripping awesomeness that suggests Billy still has his fastball.

“Show me whimsy, Billy!”

Unfortunately there’s another song. “Astral Planes” does a fantastic job at reminding you of two things: 1) Jimmy’s not in the band 2) Corgan’s no wordsmith. The heavy guitar assault kicks loads of ass, but it’s got a whole lot of nothing to work with. Lyrically, the song consists almost entirely of the mantra, “Everyone gather, warm your soul.” And the drumming, courtesy of 20-year-old fanboy/former burger-flipper Mike Byrne, does little to lift this from the scrap heap of derivative rock noise. Maybe Chamberlin wouldn’t have helped… Adding Pirellis to a Camry just gives you a Camry with Pirellis. The fuzzed buildups at the end of each “verse” are kind of cool, though.

“Astral Planes” MP3

So there you go. Two outta four ain’t bad. And just because I say “Widow” is the turd in the punchbowl doesn’t make it an objective fact. You might like it (if you have no balls). “A Stitch In Time” pretty much guarantees that I’ll review the next “Teargarden” entry, and since you’re going to be waiting with baited breath anyway, you might as well give the tunes a shot in the interim. Like I said, they’re free. Unless you want the physical copy. It’s $22, and comes with an obelisk!

– Robbie

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