“Are you with us, or against us tonight?”
That sentence makes up the chorus of the new Smashing Pumpkins song “The Fellowship”, which leads off the second of eleven 4-song EPs underneath the “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope” series. Billy Corgan and his band of faceless strangers officially started the whole 44-song project this past May, when they unleashed the first volume subtitled “Songs For A Sailor”. To be perfectly clear though, the band has been steadily releasing songs, one at a time, in the months preceeding each EP, but it’s only when a four song cycle is completed that everything gets packaged together and sold in a limited edition set with all sorts of little trinkets and goodies. Really that’s stuff for the hardcore fans, and those of us simply wanting to hear and/or own the music can go digital and download the songs for free via the band’s website. In other words, at absolutely no cost to you, turning down new music from The Smashing Pumpkins could be considered foolish, unless of course you really hate the band. Lord knows they’ve done plenty to attract the wrong kind of attention these last few years since Corgan recruited a bunch of randoms to replace the great musicians that helped create classic records like “Gish” and “Siamese Dream”. The official “return” of the band came in the form of the record “Zeitgeist”, which was something of a left turn into a more prog-rock territory with long form compositions rather than easy-on-the-ears singles. Corgan claimed he could write those in his sleep and was consciously choosing not to. Then came the angry rants at live shows after fans would get angry over the lack of old material being played. Controversy follows The Smashing Pumpkins around like a lost puppy. But to say the least, this “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope” project has been interesting thus far, and the first batch of songs wasn’t half bad, even if they could often feel scattershot or random in their placement together. The new volume is subtitled “The Solstice Bare”, and it physically went on sale earlier this week in very limited quantities.
At nearly 4 minutes long, “The Fellowship” follows a pretty standard verse-chorus-verse structure. Synths and keyboards take an early lead on the track, but electric guitars swoop in and take over the mic soon enough to surge ahead and bring the track the anthemic quality it needs to succeed. This is the sort of song the band can get away with playing to start their shows – one that’s catchy single-bait and with enough energy to get fists pumping and crowds “on their side”. It’s a surprisingly decent song from the band, that is, in comparison to the rest of the “new school” Smashing Pumpkins and not the “classic” one. The official first single and one that’s actually earned the band radio airplay recently is “Freak”, a crunchy, fuzz-riddled guitar song in desperate need of a James Iha solo. Despite this, it’s another surprisingly good track that works on multiple levels while simultaneously making a strong case for why the very young drummer Mike Byrne could just be a suitable replacement for Jimmy Chamberlain. Acoustic guitars, drum machines and synths start “Tom Tom”, but are quickly tossed aside for live drum work and electric guitars. Mid-way through the song though, there’s a small gap of silence before the whole process starts over again. Once again you get what amounts to a pretty normal-sounding Pumpkins song, but in this case not a whole lot happens in general. Once you get the build up to the first chorus, only the bridge veers off course and even then not very much. No guitar solos, nothing really noteworthy about the song at all, which ultimately makes it a bit bland. Bland doesn’t necessarily equal weak though, inoffensive and standard are two similar words to use that make about the same amount of sense. If “Tom Tom” were playing in the car or in another situation where I’d have the option of turning it off, 9 times out of 10 it’d stay on with little complaint. The keyboard gets set to “harpsichord” at the start of closing track “Spangled”, but once the electric guitars come in the setting changes to “organ”. There’s something that resembles a string section in the background during portions of the song too, there’s just so much else going on higher in the mix that it’s tough to tell. In the case of this 2.5 minute song, it remans instrumentally interesting from start to finish, but lacks the easier catchiness of the other songs. That “problem” become easier to accept given how brief the track is, and that it closes out the EP. There are very few artists that save their best for last.
As this “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope” series progresses, it appears more and more like Billy Corgan is learning a whole lot from past mistakes. When he “reunited” the Pumpkins a few years ago, Corgan very much retained his dictator-type personality that drove his bandmates off in the first place. Jimmy Chamberlain, perhaps his greatest and best friend, stood by him through it all. At some point after the touring cycle for “Zeitgeist” though, he finally had enough and abandoned ship. Not saying there was a straw that broke the camel’s back, but after remaining so defiant and in defense of every piece of music he’s ever released, Corgan now seems to be okay with looking backwards to a time when the masses loved him despite his perceived faults. It was a generation of kids that grew up listening to the band and fully identifying with the sheer angst and outright honesty that Corgan was throwing in their direction. Those fans have grown up now, yet Corgan seemed to be steadfast in his finger pointing and generalized anger. Starting with the first entry in this 44-song project, “Songs For A Sailor” was a small shift in direction for the Pumpkins, retaining just a little bit of that prog-rock from the maligned “Zeitgeist” while showing faint hints of a classic-but-new progression towards a normal rock song. Anger is much less on the menu these days, and in its place are songs about having an imaginary son and Corgan’s own take on spirituality. There’s also hooks, which had been taking a back seat for awhile in an effort to do something different. The Billy Corgan we hear on “The Solstice Bare” is a more adult, mature and aware Billy Corgan than we’ve heard in a long time. He’s starting to come around and is meeting fans old and new somewhere in the middle. It’s the smart move to make, and one can hope it may eventually result in a true rebirth of The Smashing Pumpkins that may someday rival the classic stuff. Both the last EP and this new one are beginning to carve out a new legacy, slowly but surely. We’ve got 9 EPs and a few years left in this “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope” project, but if each successive set of 4 songs continues to improve on the one before it, this could be a real great and meaningful thing once it’s finally wrapped up.