90's Hit Parade #26
So I've been thinking about it (obviously), and I've decided that Smashing Pumpkins are my favorite of the big "alternative rock" bands of the 90's. Nothing against Nirvana, they're a kick ass band, but not really one of my favorites. Don't particularly like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden are OK but a bit too slick and stiff, Red Hot Chili Peppers already had their best days behind them by the time they hit it big, and I think most people would agree that Green Day, Offspring, Alice in Chains, No Doubt, etc. were second-stringers. The real competition would be Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails and Hole. Hole's Live Through This is probably my favorite album of that era, but they never really followed it up with anything as good. Rage are awesome, but let's face it, they make music for 16-year-olds. I like to crank up a few Rage songs now and then and feel 16 again, but it's not like I listen to them a lot. And while NIN probably have the most impressive body of work, I never quite warmed to that goth/industrial sound. So Smashing Pumpkins win by default. (I do prefer Jane's Addiction, but I think of them separately--if I remember correctly, they were already in the process of breaking up when Nevermind was topping the charts.)
Which is a funny conclusion, because while I always liked the band, I've never spent a lot of time thinking about them, and until this year didn't actually own any of their albums (I have since corrected this via iTunes). But their first three (maybe even four) albums form a pretty impressive body of work that represents the era well. When I first heard their first record, I remember thinking they sounded a lot like Jane's Addiction. In fact, that's what everyone thought, which is funny because nobody thinks that anymore. We just think of them as Smashing Pumpkins. But it's a great stoner rock album, veering back and forth between Blue Cheer-style heavy metal mayhem and dreamy, mellow psychedelia all while keeping a steady acid groove. It's repetitive, but I find it enjoyable throughout. They kicked it up a notch on Siamese Dream, keeping the heavy metal stuff but adding a knack for writing great radio-friendly pop songs in the Pixies/Cheap Trick vein, and a note of morose sulking courtesy of The Cure and Depeche Mode. And it all worked together, made a great sound and a really impressive album. And then we get to Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which is not so much an album as a monumental act of hubris.
Melon Collie is, in some ways, the final statement of the "grunge" era, which I always think of as consisting of kids who grew up on 70's classic rock, then got rid of all their old albums when they got into punk, then a few years later remembered that they really did like Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, and began trying to reconcile the two schools. Melon Collie is the final rejection of the idea that one must choose, that if you like The Ramones you have to hate Yes (or whatever). If anything, it rejects the whole punk rock ideology and attempts to one-up Physical Graffiti and Tales from Topographic Oceans. I'm tempted to say that it's impossible to make a good album with 28 songs, but then I remember Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. But what you definitely cannot do is make a great album consisting of 6 different versions of the same 5 songs, which is pretty much what I hear on Melon Collie. So, yeah, the album is WAY too long, but the high points are pretty impressive. (Also, props to Billy and the gang for having the self-control to save the best single, "1979," for the last quarter of the album.)
Right off the bat, they tell you what they're aiming for, starting the album off with an epic instrumental that leads into this sweeping, string-driven power ballad. Then, in case you think they've forgotten how to rock, they pummel your face in with "Jelly Belly," "Zero" and "Bullet With Butterfly Wings." "Bullet," the lead single, is one of those songs that sounds great the first 20 times, and then starts to annoy you and you never want to hear it again, but at least in concept it's an amazing rock song, with a chorus that combines a headbanging rhythm worthy of vintage AC/DC with classic punk lyrics that could be on an old Black Flag album: "Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage." Teenage angst and frustration blasted through the radio waves so succinctly that I'm almost jealous of the kids who heard this when they were 15. And that same attitude is there on "Tonight, Tonight," conjuring an army of Holden Caufields out to "Crucify the insincere." (Sounds like the militant terrorist wing of the cult of The Great Pumpkin!)
Not only is this a beautiful song, but it's got a great video, one that really compliments the song with it's steampunk recreation of George Meilles' A Trip to the Moon. One of my favorite (like, top 5 at least) videos of all time.