May 13, 2009

Smashing Pumpkins – Pisces Iscariot (1994, Virgin)

[Another in a series of “Highschool Discs”, albums that defined my teenage years (~'93-'99) and moved me in that deep way that seems unique to that age..] For my generation, Smashing Pumpkins were largely brought to our attention via MTV during the era of grunge and alternative rock in the early to mid '90s. There was a huge promotional push of guitar-oriented rock acts like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Sound Garden, Stone Temple Pilots and other big-name acts that could be found in every teenager's CD binder. In retrospect, I still find a lot of this alternative rock music to be very catchy and often quite experimental and distortion-heavy, particularly in comparison with modern mainstream pop. “Siamese Dream” was Smashing Pumpkins' big break-through record, although they had already made enough of an impression with their debut “Gish” that I had become aware of it at summer camp and happened to buy it just before their massive single “Today” started playing constantly on MTV every day when I got home from school. The album still stands up as a classic of grunge-y alt.-rock, with a fantastic array of guitar distortion pedals. Billy Corgan's unique whiny voice and Butch Vig's production sculpting a euphoric, warm tone. In my memory it seems like an eternity between “Siamese Dream” and the release of “Pisces Iscariot” although I know that they are copyrighted a year apart. The moment I saw the album in my local independent record store, I snatched it up with excitement. The opening tone of the album is quite different from “Siamese Dream”, and it stands in my mind as a classic collection of the Smashing Pumpkins in their more unrefined, experimental mode. Many of the tracks are collected from the b-sides of singles from “Siamese Dream”, making me kick myself now for not buying those 7” singles when I saw them, and there is some unreleased material as well, dipping into an even-more experimental, post-rock territory. All of the material here is catchy and hum-able, sometimes distortion-heavy and driving, alternating with soft, gentle and melody-oriented tracks. My personal preference is the Pumpkins' more melodic, softer side of the spectrum, and the opening track “Soothe” is a perfect example, an intense, minimal and sparse acoustic guitar & vocal demo that I still find stuck in my head to this day. Each track following this has many of the qualities of an album “a-side”, but it is understandable how they wouldn't quite fit on “Siamese Dream”; a relative roughness in the recording quality and slightly unrefined composition creates a unique vibe. The entire “Pisces Iscariot” set has its own flow that makes it sound like an intentionally-structured, if experimental album by the Pumpkins. The band gained even more massive fame and exposure with '95's “Melon Collie And The Infinite Sadness”, but if you missed this early collection, check it out!