Tag Archives: Adore

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness at 25

After last week’s little round-up of Morrissey-related discussion and analysis, here are my thoughts on a work by another of my generation’s problematic favourites: Billy Corgan and his band, the Smashing Pumpkins.

In fairness, I should say that I don’t see Billy Corgan and Morrissey as being in the same category of problematic fave. As far as I know, Corgan has an obsession with New World Order-style conspiracy theories that are at least adjacent to the fashy right, and he’s got some very conservative views on healthcare and climate change, but I’ve never heard him traffic in the same kind of bigotry you get from much of the conspiratorial right, some of whom have moved from anti-government, libertarian positions into more or less open fascism in the last seven or eight years. That said, I’m by no means keeping up with what he says or does; I just see when something he does makes it on to those websites that aggregate music-related news.

None of which changes a note of the music he made in the 1990s, although if there are former fans who don’t want to listen to it anymore because Corgan hangs out with Alex Jones and opposes universal healthcare, I do understand and sympathise. There’s no moral imperative to separate the art from the artist. The reverse is not necessarily true either, although again I sympathise with anyone who won’t listen to Ryan Adams, Mark Kozelek or Michael Jackson now (to take three examples of musicians whose work has meant a lot to me and who I find I just don’t want to listen anymore).

So, Smashing Pumpkins, then.

When Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness came out in 1995, I was 13 and a newly converted fan of alternative rock music – open to anything with a big drum sound, heavy guitars, gloomy lyrics and a good tune. I was knew and liked Today from Siamese Dream, and so was keen to hear more by this band with the silly name. A guitar magazine I bought in October 1995 contained a long interview with Corgan where he talked about recording the album, went through the guitars and amps he used, and explained and demonstrated some of the songs’ riffs. It was super interesting, and he came over very well. Corgan was a great interview back in the 1990s; garrulous and full of himself, sure, but analytical and reflective about the state of rock music and his place in it, and full of creative ideas. I duly got a copy of the record from the library and dove in.

Melon Collie is, obviously, far too long and baggy as anything. The Pumpkins were always a maximalist band, and for me they are – and remain – a difficult band to listen to at double-album length. Corgan’s voice, which emanates entirely from the throat and head and so has little warmth and resonance, is not necessarily a problem on Gish, Siamese Dream and Adore, as on the former two he is sunk quite low in the mix, and on the latter is mostly singing more softly. On Melon Collie, though, he’s mixed more prominently and he made some questionable choices with his delivery, particularly on Tonight, Tonight, where he’s all over the place – sometimes sneering and declamatory, sometimes soft and intimate, sometimes both within the same line. There’s no emotional throughline to the vocal; it sounds carelessly comped from a set of takes with wildly different timbres and moods, although perhaps he just sang it that way. Either way, it ruins the song for me. He’s also pretty hard to take on Zero and Bullet with Butterfly Wings, but I think more intentionally so; one may cringe at a line like “God is empty – just like me!”, but at least his sneering delivery supports the juvenile sentiment.

OK, so now I’ve trashed half of the album’s best-known songs, is there anything I do like? Actually, quite a lot – at least half of it. Jellybelly is one of Corgan’s most crunching riffs, and Jimmy Chamberlin is on fire on that one. Here is No Why – Corgan’s affectionate tribute to a teenage goth, who may or may not be himself – is monstrously anthemic, with a fantastic guitar solo. To Forgive and Galapagos are two of his best ballads. An Ode to No One commits entirely to its bratty premise, with another great drum performance from Chamberlin. Muzzle sees Corgan at his most outward looking and has a gorgeously chunky rhythm guitar sound (might be James Iha rather than Corgan – it’s quite organic sounding in a medium-gain Les Paul/Marshall-y way, in contrast to the usual Corgan rhythm tone, which is very high gain with a suprising amount of low end from a Strat, suggesting some extensive EQ use).

On disc two, highlights for me include the opening one-two punch of Where Boys Fear to Tread and Bodies, which both have great riffs, the gentle In the Arms of Sleep and the very-much-not-gentle Tales of a Scorched Earth, which has a riff somewhat similar to Jellybelly and a heavily distorted vocal. The high-gain treatment essentially turns his voice into an aggressive texture in the mix rather than the focal point of the song, which actually works quite well. The epic Thru the Eyes of Ruby is perhaps not much of a song to spread over seven and a half minutes, but the main riff is enjoyably preposterous – even Queen might have felt it just a bit too grand and pompous – and I can’t help but smile at the audacity of it.

Which just leaves Corgan’s masterwork, 1979. The way it was put together, blending loops and samples with live, organic performances, was indicative of the path Corgan would follow on Adore (which is my favourite Pumpkins album, though again, it’s half an hour too long), but it works brilliantly on Mellon Collie, not sounding out of place at all; more than that, it’s the very heart of the album. For all that Mellon Collie was Corgan laying to rest his own teenage years, 1979 remains so indelible because of how it universalises the coming-of-age experience. I never rode around the Chicago suburbs, bored and looking for some kind of adventure, but I feel like I lived every moment of that song. Managing to evoke your own fondly remembered but highly personal lost adolescence and make it resonate with everyone listening, making them feel that they went through it all too, is a hell of a thing for a writer to pull off. Corgan’s acted like a terrible brat at times in his career, but he gets forgiven a lot. 1979 is a big reason why.

Twenty-five years on from its release, I’m inclined to look indulgently on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness‘s flaws – its grand ambitions, lyrical missteps and musical over-reaches. Nevertheless, it’s for me – far more so than the White Album – the archetypal double album that would be better as a single. So here’s my 12-song, single-album tracklisting.

  1. Tonight, Tonight (but I’d force Corgan to redo the vocal)
  2. Jellybelly
  3. Here is No Why
  4. To Forgive
  5. Muzzle
  6. Galapagos
  7. Where Boys Fear to Tread
  8. Bodies
  9. In the Arms of Sleep
  10. Tales of a Scorched Earth
  11. 1979
  12. Thru the Eyes of Ruby
The increasingly goth Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan newly shorn. 1995, I guess.

Note: I’ve not said very much about James Iha or D’arcy Wretzky in this piece, and frankly, that’s because I’ve no idea how much of a role they played. It’s well documented that Siamese Dream was basically played entirely by Corgan and Chamberlin (producer Butch Vig has confirmed as much). Mellon Collie seems to have been a more collaborative affair, with Wretzky playing bass on most, if not all, the basic tracks, and Iha credited with rhythm and lead. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Corgan took the lion’s share of the solos, and safe to assume most of the flashiest ones (for example, that glorious solo on Here is No Why) are Corgan’s work.

Judith – Heather Duby

Let’s fast-forward 10 years from the heyday of the Pixies.

More cynical souls than me might deny that there ever was such a thing as an alternative rock movement, but if it ever did exist, by the late nineties it was done, and its signifiers – dirty guitars; long hair; a general, to quote Jack Endino, ‘loud intent’ – had been put to bed. Distorted guitars were now the preserve of nu-metal bands. Pointy guitars with Floyd Rose vibrato units were back. 7-string guitars were selling in thitherto unknown quantities. Light-grunge records still did pretty good business, but Pearl Jam aside, the big beasts of a few years before were all defunct.

Artists with one foot in singer-songwriter world and another in the world of alternative rock music who might, a few years ago, have looked to dirty up their music with a Les Paul and a Marshall, now looked to other means to add a bit of edge. And there are always other means. Dirty basslines and thumping drum loops were one way, some electronic flourishes, different textures. A little bit of what Soul Coughing were doing. A little bit like what Folk Implosion were doing. I don’t know who had the thought first, but suddenly these arrangemental ideas started turning up in all kinds of places. PJ Harvey’s A Perfect Day Elise and Smashing Pumpkins’ Ava Adore, for example, were pretty successful singles demonstrating a lot of these production tics, but they were far from alone. Electronica and big beat were big business, and presumed by rock writers to be much more forward-looking than the heavy guitars of a few years before, which were just updated Black Sabbath.

In 1998, then, ambient noises on top of a dirty groove seemed like alternative rock’s future, and it came about partly as a function of fashion, partly out of a development in technology. The year before, Digidesign had released the first 24-bit, 48-track iteration of their digital audio workstation (DAW), Pro Tools. Pro Tools had begun life in the late 1980s as Sound Tools, and at that time was only capable of handling a mono or stereo signal, but Digidesign’s ambitions for it had always involved it becoming a multitrack recording environment. The limitations of the era’s computers and audio convertors simply didn’t allow it yet. This new version of Pro Tools not only allowed direct-to-disk multitrack recording, but in-the-box mixing as well. As a fully fledged production environment, it was expensive – beyond the means of any home recordist who didn’t work as a Wall Street trader – but seemed to many pro musicians an obvious road to go down. And this started affecting the nature of the music you heard on the radio pretty quickly. Loops and samples started to replace live drum tracks on records at a rate of knots. After some years of frankly undanceable music, this wasn’t unwelcome.

Steve Fisk was Washington-based engineer, producer and musician. He’d been a producer on Soul Coughing’s second album, Irresistible Bliss and his own project Pigeonhed was in the same sonic ballpark. But he’d been active during the grunge boom years, too, engineering Nirvana’s Blew EP sessions, the Fopp EP by Soundgarden and much of the Screaming Trees’ SST-era output, as well as records by Girl Trouble, Negativland and Beat Happening. He had, in other words, been around a while and was a respected figure in the Seattle music scene.

So when he expressed an interest in working with Heather Duby, a young songwriter, still at college in Olympia, this was a significant break for her. It guaranteed her that influential local figures would hear the results, and pretty much ensured the record would get at least an indie-label release. When it did, it was on Sub Pop, a label trying hard to shake off its past and establish a new identity for itself.

Her first single was a song called Judith, and it exemplified almost all the trends we’d identified above: programmed drums, augmented by live drums for the choruses, spacey keyboards, soft, high-register vocals (the sort almost always described as ‘ethereal’ by hack writers) and a huge bass line, in this case an enormous, surging synth part in the choruses, double tracked and panned hard left and right, placing you right in the middle of it. It’s a pretty amazing moment the first time you hear it on a good pair of headphones.

The sonic world the parent album exists in – Post to Wire – is a weird mix of stuff that still sounds really cool and stuff that sounds very much of its time; the faux-fi crackle effect on A Healthy Fear of Monsters, for instance, is pretty risible, an example of what could be achieved very quickly with a couple of cheesy filter plug-ins, but would have been better off not achieved at all. You Loved Me’s low-register grind and lo-fi drum loop, however, sounds vital today, and For Jeffrey’s mix of eastern-sounding vocal harmonies, harmonium-style drones and tablas is still ear-grabbing.

The more gothic aspects of her music would recede over time and by the time of the Latency EP of January 2011, her music was a lot drier and closer, more organic-sounding and built on what seem to be live-band basic tracks. Judith remains an awesome single, and the moment when Duby’s songwriting approach meshed most seamlessly with Fisk’s production.

Sadly, Duby was involved in a bike accident in 2011 that seriously damaged both her hands and left her unable to play music. It could apparently have been a lot worse; her doctors were at one stage considering amputation. A benefit was held in Seattle to raise funds for treatment and physical therapy, but what information I could get online suggests she hasn’t yet been able to return to making music. Let’s pray that in time she can.

Update (23 January, 2017): The year after I wrote this, she did! Duby was credited with both piano and vocals, so it seems her injuries were repaired well enough to give her good use of her hands. Great news.

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Heather Duby, 1999