Billy Corgan doesn’t care what you think. No, he’s going to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, lovers and haters be damned. He felt it right to officially dissolve The Smashing Pumpkins when James Iha left, and that led to an unproductive and synth-laden solo record called “The Future Embrace”. Plenty of fans abandoned their support for him after that album, though in hindsight it should have been expected he’d pull a rabbit like that out of his hat. Considering that solo effort’s failure, Corgan seemed to see it coming after all, publishing a full page ad the day of the album’s release announcing he would reform the Pumpkins. The claim was that he’d ask former members of the band if they’d like to rejoin him, be it ex-bassists D’Arcy Wretzky and Melissa Auf Der Maur or guitarist James Iha. Corgan would claim that none of them wanted to come back, but they also all publicly spoke out saying that they were never asked in the first place. Former drummer and longtime friend Jimmy Chamberlain did agree to rejoin the Pumpkins, and two other “hired hands” were brought in to play guitar and bass, respectively. The return of The Smashing Pumpkins came officially in 2007, when the new album “Zeitgeist” was released. Reviews for that record were mixed, with some proclaiming it the start of a bold new era for the band and others claiming it fell far short of the legacy Corgan originally left behind. The band’s live shows became equally divisive and often included sections in which Corgan would berate the audience. They would also largely avoid past Pumpkins hits in favor of new material with extended, ego-indulgent guitar solos.
The latest goings-on from The Smashing Pumpkins camp are again wrought with oddities. Jimmy Chamberlain finally left the band, so now Corgan is the only original member, and he held auditions for a replacement before settling on 20-year-old Mike Byrne. Earlier this spring, bassist Ginger Pooley quit the band and she has since been replaced by Nicole Fiorentino. Corgan also announced last fall that The Smashing Pumpkins were embarking on a wild concept record known as “Teargarden By Kaleidyscope”, a 44-song album that would be digitally released one song at a time for free, with each batch of four songs forming a limited edition physical EP box set available for sale in stores. Each wooden box is silk screened and contains the EP on CD, a 7 inch vinyl with a brand new song plus b-side, and a hand-carved leopard stone obelisk. Tomorrow sees the release of the first of those EPs, this one subtitled “Vol. 1: Songs for a Sailor”.
Believe it or not, “Songs for a Sailor” isn’t horrible. It’s also not great. Halfway decent is probably the phrase best applied to this four song collection, and given that you can download every song for free it makes everything that much more bearable. Starting with the six minute “Song For A Son”, the Pumpkins shoot for something exciting and epic in a similar vein to 70’s classic rock, but miss the mark by a little bit. The lack of brute force behind the drum kit thanks to the absence of Chamberlain is really what hurts not only that song, but the entire set of songs in general. It’s not that Mike Byrne is a poor drummer, rather it’s that Chamberlain was so good and played against Corgan so well, any other drummer by comparison is weak. Outside of the drumming though, this EP does have its strengths and weaknesses. “Astral Planes” is the most propulsive and loud thing here, and complete with rollicking solos and distortion, it seems like it’s headed towards something huge but never quite gets there. There’s lots of build up but never a pay off. That Corgan chose to largely ignore crafting lyrics that were anywhere near good and a chorus almost altogether are what really hurt the song in the end. First single “Widow Wake My Mind” is a slice of upbeat pop rock that’s far more reminiscent of Corgan’s first Pumpkins side project Zwan. That band wasn’t particularly bad, and this song isn’t either, serving as a reminder that Corgan can still write a light and breezy song with a decent hook when he works at it. “A Stitch In Time” finishes the EP, and it returns to the 70’s for inspiration but derives its sound more from the lighter pop fare at the time. Light organ and an acoustic guitar lead the way while a sitar floats through to create added mysticism. Drums are also completely absent here, and the suggestion is that you focus more on Corgan’s voice and the guitar in this briskly paced ballad. The lyrics are again not the best, repeating plenty of phrases over and over while appearing to wax poetic about time travel. The melody, relatively catchy chorus and overall performance are what hold the track together in the end, rescuing it from being called dull and uninspired.
For the die-hard Smashing Pumpkins fan who has been worried about the band’s output of late, “Songs for a Sailor” should come as something of a relief. It’s not nearly the best thing Corgan has ever done, particularly when taking most of the 90’s into account, but there’s enough here to give you hope for the future of not only this lengthy 44-song series, but for The Smashing Pumpkins in general. Compared to the crass anti-commercial, psychedelic journey that “Zeitgeist” was, this EP feels like an exploration of potential roads the band could possibly head down. Here’s the deal though – the Pumpkins were always best when they ignored expectations and influences and chose to go their own way. You couldn’t easily label the early stuff from the band as anything other than “Smashing Pumpkins style”, and given that at least half this EP sounds like it has roots in 70’s classic rock, the lack of true originality continues to be bothersome. Whether or not Corgan and company can reclaim that spark remains to be seen, but we’ve got 40 more songs coming our way in which to find out.