In the year 2000, the Smashing Pumpkins gave away what was then their final album before breaking up – the impressive 25-track Machina II – for free on the Internet as both a thank you to longtime fans and an F-bomb to the record label business. This was years before Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and some lesser known artists would make it cool to give away their music for little to nothing.
Four years after reforming (with only one original member left), three years removed from its comeback album Zeitgeist (2007), and two years after releasing the little noticed and underrated American Gothic EP, Billy Corgan and co. are writing and recording a mega 44-song album entitled Teargarden By Kaleidyscope, its most ambitious project of new music since its classic 1995 2-CD masterpiece Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness.
Starting last December, the 44 tracks are being released as free downloads one song per month or so at a time via the band's website smashingpumpkins.com. But in the current year and who knows how long beyond that, there will also be 11 collectible four-song EPs packaged with extra/newer material for purchase.
So far, four cuts from the album have been recorded and released since December (with assistance from producer Kerry Brown), and they all appear together on TBK Volume 1: Songs For A Sailor, which came out May 25 on Martha's Music/Rocket Science Ventures as a box set with new, exclusive material on CD and vinyl. This review focuses on the main four songs on the EP.
Going back to first Pumpkins album Gish and even as recently as the Zeitgeist disc, Corgan has never shied away from showing off his 70s classic rock influences. On "Astral Planes" one can hear vintage psychedelic traces of Queen and Led Zeppelin in the flange-aided big-sounding guitars. The song's only issue is Corgan's vocals, which leaves some truly authentic emotion to be desired.
The Pumpkins are pushing radio to play the most radio-ready song on here, "Widow Wake My Mind." However, longtime SP fans may do a double-take on all the generic and frankly un-Pumpkins-like "oh-oh" vocals Corgan sings, and not really feel the generic "love will shine" lyrics. But the Hammond organ/piano entry late in the song does add a welcome and lasting impression to the ears.
Bright electronics, Corgan's sitar, and heavy acoustic guitar strumming carries the day on the excellent and delicate ditty "A Stitch In Time." And the epic six-minute closer "A Song For A Son" harkens back to minor-keyed classics like "Angie"-era Rolling Stones and "Stairway To Heaven." With new drummer Mike Byrne (replacing founding member Jimmy Chamberlin) and Mark Tulin of the Virgin Prunes on bass, Corgan highlights it by letting those big, left-handed fingers fly all over the fretboard for a couple of glorious, wailing guitar solos. He then sings of a son, a sailor who "sailed without a map" to finish off this song and EP.
Who knows if that sailor ever knew or was comfortable with the direction he was going. As far as the Pumpkins and its Songs For A Sailor EP is concerned, it goes in four directions: nostalgic psychedelic guitar rock; pretty acoustic-based music; an epic ballad coupled with searing guitar; and (generic) pop rock.
It doesn't all work, as I've outlined above, but by the singer/songwriter's own admission, the best material is yet to come. In fact, the always prolific Billy Corgan has already written 53 songs for TBK, which he said recently recaptures the "psychedelic roots" of the Pumpkins, defined by him as "atmospheric, melodic, heavy, and pretty." Sounds promising, but let's hope the next EP does indeed recapture that Pumpkins' magic. This one is a fine first try but falls a little short of a strong SP release.