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Music Review: Smashing Pumpkins – American Gothic EP

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The history of the Smashing Pumpkins' career is rife with ups and downs, grandeur and upsets. While the band released some of the most ambitious rock albums of the nineties, they spent most of the decade confusing their fans and critics, striking out to new territories when the old ones became tired and overdone.

In 1995, for example, the band released one of the most ambitious and successful concept albums, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, establishing themselves as one of the best alternative rock bands out there. The album was a commercial success as well, and is still one of the most successful double-disc albums of all time. Then, the band adored critics but confused fans with 1998's Adore, leaving many scratching their heads wondering: what is this stuff? (For the record, this music critic happens to think Adore is Smashing Pumpkins' best album and doesn't care that hardly anyone else agrees with him).

Such is the fate of a band that always did whatever they wanted whenever they wanted to, and who cares about the fans or the critics. It was a working formula actually, until Billy Corgan decided to re-form a half-assed version of the band with 2007's Zeitgeist. Promised to be a true return to form, Zeitgeist offered a few excellent gems (such as "That's the Way (My Love Is)" and "Tarantula"), but was mainly a lengthy caricature of their most famous stadium rock anthems. That, along with a poor audio mix and cheesy pseudo-political artwork, Zeitgeist fizzled away just as fast as it jumped into our laps promising Billy Corgan's messianic visions of rock and roll. By the time I got to the end of the year, I had completely forgotten about this album. And that's from the perspective of a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan.

So here we are with a new year, and Billy Corgan is promising more Smashing Pumpkins music. The American Gothic EP was released on iTunes this last week, and offers a departure from the behemoth that is Zeitgeist. For one, Corgan takes what made his acoustic offerings so powerful in the past, and tries to rediscover that edge.

American Gothic kicks off with "Rose March," a ballad that reminds me of the Machina days, and suggests that Corgan is going to be less retrospective on this collection. Indeed, the songs do much more musically that most of Zeitgeist. Songs like "Again, Again, Again (The Crux)" and "Pox," which take up the bulk of this short four-song EP, jump out at you with the subdued melancholy that has distinguished Corgan's better songwriting from the mundane and overdone. You can also hear the band attempting to pick up where they left off, as the songs feel much more in line with their late career albums than the attempt at making Gish II that ultimately ruined Zeitgeist.

If there is any complaint, it's that Corgan's vocals continue to sound strained, like he's outgrown his signature whine but continues to hide behind it, afraid to try something new. Despite his reputation for experimentation and new instrumentation, Corgan has never changed his vocal style, and it's starting to sound annoying. It doesn't help any that American Gothic suffers from the same bad studio mix, making the guitars sound too harsh and the vocals too "tinny" loud, drowning out some of the beautiful drums, organ, and electric guitar work. On "Sunkissed," the EP's last song, it takes several listens before you notice some incredibly complex dueling acoustic guitar riffs, but because of the bad mix, it's hard to hear it.

Overall, American Gothic might signal a different style for the Smashing Pumpkins' next full-length album, and we might see the band return to its more folksy roots. And if there's any advice that I can give the band for their next album, it's this: try something new. Don't forget that that's what ultimately made the Smashing Pumpkins one of the hugest bands of the nineties, and it might help you on your second reunion as well.

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About Kevin Eagan

  • Stephen Bayne

    If I had a dollar for every reviewer who claimed to be a big fan of the Pumpkins before slamming Zeitgeist I’d be as rich as Billy himself. I think it’s these reviewers who should try something new cause it’s getting old.

  • I bone your mom

    If you think Billy has a “signature whine”, you have an odd way of being a huge fan. In fact, his singing has improved so much

  • Michael C

    He’s right about Zeitgeist.. it tries too hard… I like most of it but there are only maybe 3 tracks that i really enjoy. I am a huge Pumpkins fan and its critical to their success that they remember their folk songs on their next album. There is nothing on Zeitgeist that comes close to Soma for example.Its slow melodic build before the explosion. Anyway.. I didnt download the new EP yet….. I’m afraid I really dont want more disappointment…. probably will get it though..

  • noss

    i want to know where all the fans are that hate adore and machina? i have been a pumpkins fan for a very long time, and i enjoy every album as much as the next.

    so called fans that are too closed minded for stylistic changes are whats wrong with bands, not the bands themselves. its you lot that go ‘oh man, why cant the pumpkins make another siamese dream?’ and they’ve come back to a similar style on zeitgeist and you now say the pumpkins are unimaginative!?

    absolute clowns. its a good thing you’re not a radiohead fan, your head would have exploded after ok computer if it hadnt already.

  • Michael

    I am actually a radiohead fan.. and “In Rainbows” is brilliant…. I loved Adore.. but was not fond of Machina…. Machina 2 was better. I have now listened to the EP and the songs are very good.. and if they had been included with Zeitgeist when it was released it would have been a much album for it.. I like Zeitgeist but its not great. Hopefully the next album will include a mix of songs like the oother pumpkin albums did..

  • http://www.visiografix.com Damon Paoli

    I must say that I heartily disagree with the lot of you. I found Zeitgeist to be one of the very best albums that the Pumpkins have ever released. To my ears, it most definitely sounds like the “missing link” in between Siamese Dream and Mellon collie. The only thing that I was disappointed in with Zeitgeist is that the mixing was a little harsh, and Billy & co. seemed to let through too many frequencies that hurt my ears. The vocals, in particular, exhibit this. Sometimes they are almost buried in the mix, and then they jump out and hurt my ears. “Stars” (GREAT song, by the way) is a great example of this.

    Anyhow, back to the point. The songs on Zeitgeist are fantastic, and I feel that they have truly recaptured the spirit of their early work on this album. Not that their later work was bad, mind you. I loved both Adore AND Machina.

    While I do dearly miss D’Arcy and especially James Iha – to call the new lineup “slapped together” or “half-assed” is a bit ignorant, I think. Billy & Jimmy are still obviously capable of dishing out the goods without any additional input. Would I rather see Iha on stage as opposed to Schneider? Of course! But instead of crying foul and slamming the current lineup of Pumpkins, I think that we as fans should be grateful that they are back in any form. I know that I am.

    Now if you’ll excuse me…”Bleeding the Orchid” just popped up on my iPod.

  • http://wp.blogcritics.org/writer/charlie_doherty Charlie

    Kevin, I don’t know where you hear Corgan straining his voice. I just don’t hear it, sorry. And other commenters are right: there is no such thing as a “signature” Corgan whine. Was he whining in “Rhinoceros”? Was he whining on “Zero” or “Tonight Tonight”? Thom Yorke has a MUCH more whiny voice than Corgan, but no one claims its a drawback; they actually LOVE it. Am I wrong?

    Corgan has a natural nasally voice with not much bass in it. That’s not the same as whiny. He does have whiny songs, but they aren’t as numerous as his critics allege, nor a whiny-sounding voice necessarily a bad thing either -it’s never been “emo”-whiny, thank goodness. The guy makes great music on every album, compilation and EP he’s ever put out, with only a few tracks you’d want to skip over on the last couple of SP albums (Zeitgeist, Machina I) and solo releases. [He’s written hundreds of songs the last 19+ years, so they can’t all be great]

    It just amazes me how highly criticized Corgan gets compared to his peers. Maybe people have too high expectations of him, I don’t know. But give the man and his band their due: Pumpkins 2.0 is pretty great, especially considering the crap that’s out there in the rest of the mainstream.

    And they continue that greatness on the American Gothic EP. There’s not one bad song on there and that wouldn’t get stuck in your head at some point. It’s just a shame that they’ve (SP) made yet another marketing mistake by giving it to only iTunes and not having a physical release of it in the U.S. That could have a negative effect on its exposure here – think radio, for whoever still listens to it – unless videos of a couple of the songs are forthcoming.

    Now if only Billy and Jimmy would record and release “Gossamer,” a live favorite from last year’s summer tour (and put it on a soundtrack or something). One can only hope. It’s one of the best and longest tracks they’ve ever done. If you’re a true Pumpkins fan, you know what I’m talking about.

  • Dave

    Amen on Gossamer Charlie!

  • Jessika

    I absolutely agree with you, Charlie. Although Zeitgeist isn’t my favorite Smashing Pumpkins album, it does sound like the Pumpkins, and has its own place in Smashing Pumpkins history. And despite what some may say, it doesn’t suck. It’s just different.
    Every band changes musical stylings sometimes; Pumpkins are no different. I’m tired of hearing people expecting another Mellon Collie or Siamese Dream; it’s like telling Van Gough to paint another Mona Lisa.

  • oliver

    ha just seeing how it worked ok cool. Alright may i start by saying that smashing pumpkins r favourtie band ever-from early demos(not worth asking,bye june,nothing and everything etc) right thruogh to machina two (vanity.try version 1 etc) theyve always delivered.always.and they went out and did there own thing which was great-i agree you kevin adore is spectacular album ((especially the last half (for martha,shame annie-dog). even his solo record has some sublime moments (d.i.a,sorrow,m.o.h,stryz,walking shade).even all their b-sides r great but i have to agree with kevin in that yes his vocals r sounding strained on gothic america and this collection of low key b-sides r still good but lacking in that certain something special- theyve got nothing,absolutely nothing, on the previous mellow b-sides like soothe,sparrow.set the ray,blissed and gone,pennies etc etc i could go on all day. hopefully all song quoting has assured of my love for this band.im not sying the new stuff is bad.its good.but good is shit when put next to what theyve done previuosly-and i havnt the time to listen to good music when there is so much grest music ou there.summing up the pupmkins have always been a cut above other bands of the time until now-i fear they just might slip into just being another good band if they dont do something amazing next release which saddens me.and to all you fans that say ‘oh well your not real fan if you dont like the new stuff’ i say open your ears-you cant just blindly say you love eveything a ban releases-youre not being a fan then youre being a sheep

  • KTM

    “Overall, American Gothic might signal a different style for the Smashing Pumpkins’ next full-length album, and we might see the band return to its more folksy roots.”

    As a fellow writer, and former blogger, myself, I won’t attack the author — at least not outright. Based on the above quote, however, the writer exposes himself as a casual, and not “huge fan” (his words, not mine).

    The Smashing Pumpkins do not have folksy roots. The band started out as a goth/synth rock outfit, complete with NO drummer, instead relying on a drum machine at their first couple of gigs.

    It’s true that from about Siamese Dream on, the band trafficked in acoustic jams and softer, heartfelt almost as often as the harder stuff. Indeed, lost of true Pumpkins fans regard Adore much more highly than the casual listeners do — and I salute the author for that admission.

    But if you’re going to review the album, please, know the whole context. What the EP here represents is merely the slower, quieter moments which would have balanced Zeitgeist, and it’s a great step towards showing that the band is interested in returning to all aspects of its previous sound, and not just the heavier moments.

    That said, to call Billy and Jimmy recruiting two other players and reuniting under the Pumpkins moniker a “half-assed version of the band”, is quite frankly simply ignorant. The two original members who are not participating in the reunion hardly contributed anything to the studio recordings and less to the actual songwriting — the band has almost always been a vehicle for Billy and Jimmy’s collaborations.

    Your history, and therefore, context, are completely inaccurate.

    Between the high moments of Zeitgeist and this EP, I think most longtime listeners who know the story of the band and have always paid close attention to the music will know right off when they hear this EP that the band is truly back to form.

  • http://akira-rae.blogspot.com akira-rae

    “…Billy Corgan decided to re-form a half-assed version of the band…” ??

    I beg your pardon, but Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin ARE the band.

    It is no secret that Billy often records what’s supposed to be D’Arcy and James Iha’s parts himself – he clearly doesn’t need them, except to look pretty in albums and to play live – because unfortunately Billy does not have three pairs of arms.

    so how can you say “half-assed” ? get your band history right. as a critic, it is your job.

    also, can all you critics stop comparing all their albums with MCIS ??

    you guys are never satisfied.

    Scenario 1

    SmashPumps makes an album that is different from MCIS (eg. Adore). you guys will be all like (imagine Paris Hilton’s voice), “omg, urgh, this is sooo not SmashPumps material! why is it so soft, there’re hardly any guitars, yadda yadda yadda…”

    Scenario 2

    SmashPumps makes another album that is similar to MCIS. then you guys will go all, “urgh, i don’t know what has gotten into Billy Corgan, he seems to be losing his creative juices, like, his music sounds like MCIS, yet it is not MCIS, yadda yadda yadda…”

    hello, get over it. bands are supposed to evolve, to experiment.

    despite the band’s constant conflict amongst themselves i really think that it was the critics who caused them to disband.

    you want another album that sounds exactly like MCIS?

    got to the record store and get yourself another copy.