With all the looking back to 1991 that’s been going on this year (it’s the 20th anniversary of everything from Lollapalooza to Donnie Wahlberg setting his hotel room on fire while on tour with New Kids on the Block), it’s easy to forget how 1993 was perhaps an even more significant year for alternative album releases. Besides two of the most anticipated follow-ups ever (In Utero by Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s Vs.), 1993 also saw the landmark debut by Radiohead, Pablo Honey, even though they’ve pretty much disowned it in the years since. Also swimming in that sea of awesomeness, and more than keeping its head above water, was the Smashing Pumpkins‘ Siamese Dream. And while it is very tempting to take a chef’s knife and carve into the Pumpkins with 20+ years of hindsight on our side, let’s stick to reviewing the 31-track deluxe edition of their ultimate “rawk” masterpiece.
Despite all the infighting that was going on (including a messy breakup between guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky), mounting drug concerns regarding drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, and guitarist/vocalist Billy Corgan bordering on suicidal depression, this is about as good as alternative rock got in its early ’90s heyday. This edition is supposed to be a remastered take on the classic, but the wannabe audiophile in me can’t hear any discernable differences between this version and the 13 songs on the original CD that I wore out long ago. Together with producer Butch Vig, Corgan arguably crafted the perfect record for its time; “Cherub Rock”, “Today”, “Disarm”, and “Rocket” were four singles seemingly tailor-made to feed the emerging modern rock radio format (Q101 in the Pumpkins’ hometown of Chicago, for example, switched to all alternative, all the time in 1992). You can still taste the bitter, spiteful venom spewing from the album that spoke directly to the disenfranchised youth of Generation X. It’s been too often lumped in with grunge, but some of the things Corgan did sonically on guitar in the Siamese Dream era had direct links to the ’70s stadium rock and ’80s hair metal that grunge was apparently hired to kill off.
Up until “Spaceboy”, the first nine tracks are a prolonged excuse for Corgan to experiment with new ways of reinventing the power chord. Plus, the hair metal influence is fitting, considering this was at a time when Corgan still had hair. Some have argued that’s when he lost his rock god powers, almost Samson-like, when he shaved it off for good in 1995 to coincide with the release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Three of the last four songs on Siamese Dream are distinctly softer and acoustic, which can come across as a little jarring. Not as jarring as “Silverfuck”, though, a nearly nine-minute, slovenly jam that is best experienced live, ideally when they toured as Lollapalooza’s headliner in 1994.
But what’s obviously going to make this package worthy of purchase is the bonus material. That’s not a slam dunk, considering that there is a considerable overgrowth in the “patch” of Pumpkins B-sides and rarities that circulate the web, not the least of which is their Pisces Iscariot compilation, due for a reissue treatment of its own in 2012. What we have here is an interesting hodgepodge of other takes, seven to be exact, from Siamese Dream, as well as some that didn’t quite make the cut, but are well-known to hard-core fans. Corgan was even so kind as to unearth “Moleasskiss” from the hard to find Mashed Potatoes bootlegs.
The biggest surprises are the previously unheard demos “U.S.A.” and “U.S.S.R.”, which sound pretty stellar; in some ways they’re unlike anything the Pumpkins have ever done. But some things are just meant to get lost in the shuffle. It’s especially interesting that the recording abruptly ends on the latter. With ease, you can imagine Corgan saying, “Fuck it, I can do way better than that.” The only real disappointment is the alternate “Disarm” mix. Fans know in their crudely drawn SP hearts that there MUST be a studio version of what Corgan called the “Black Sabbath” version of it, like the one they perform on Viewphoria.
Oh, and before you start to think it’s all about the decibel levels, the gently subdued “Never Let Me Down Again”, a cover of a Depeche Mode tune (from the “Rocket” single), is simply one of the best cover songs ever performed. Period. You can even ask Depeche Mode honcho Dave Gahan himself if you want to. There’s more than enough here to disavow thoughts that this is a needless cash grab by Corgan. The problem for him may be that this particular reissue wins the Smashing Pumpkins some new, younger fans, whose next question will no doubt be, “What the hell happened after this?”
Essential Tracks: “Geek U.S.A.”, “Soma”, “Mayonaise”, “Hello Kitty Kat”, “Siamese Dream”, and “Pissant” (Bonus Material)