Reevaluating SMASHING PUMPKINS: Part 2 – Siamese Dream

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Smashing Pumpkins’ second studio album, Siamese Dream was released in July of 1993. It debuted at #10 on the Billboard charts and went on to sell over 6 million copies worldwide. It has been certified four times Platinum in the both the United States and Canada.

Mark: I’m on the record as being a person who isn’t especially fond of Billiam Corgan’s music. I didn’t own any Smashing Pumpkins albums when I was younger and I don’t currently have any of the music bookmarked on streaming services. When I witness the devotion that this band has garnered from some of its more fervent fans, I find myself at a bit of a loss. The fact of the matter is, though, that this band was (and is) a big, big deal. There’s a good chance that I’ve perhaps been missing something, which makes a good case for reevaluating the Pumpkins’ material in the first place.

When I reviewed Gish, I found it to be a relatively solid but very generic early 90s alt-rock album. I was impressed that I didn’t absolutely hate it, but I wasn’t exactly moved to listen to it again. Now I’m facing down the prospect of having to take a listen to what may be BCorg’s most revered work (perhaps only surpassed by the double album that was released a few years later). When I was a teenager, it seemed as though everybody had this album except for me. It seemed to be a totally ubiquitous album cover to come across while flipping through a stack of CDs at just about anyone’s house. Surely all of those folks just bought it for the singles, though. Right?

I’d like to give Siamese Dream a fair shake and I’ll do my best to be open-minded about what Rolling Stone considers to be the 362nd best album of all time. Truthfully, though, I’m prone to knee-jerk dismissals and I may miss out on what makes this such a beloved album. This being the case, I’ve decided to reach outside of the Fraudster’s Almanac and seek the assistance of one of the experts.

Shaunna Quin collects her excellent writings over at dietcoke4breakfast.com and is the creator and host of the Pop & Down podcast. She also knows more about Smashing Pumpkins than anyone I have ever met in my life. If anybody is going to help me understand this band, it’s her.

Thank you for agreeing to act as my tour guide through Pumpkinville, Shaunna!

Shaunna: Hey, Mark! Thanks for letting me in on your re-evaluation of SP!

To give a bit of background, I’m was (am?) a “fan is short for fanatic” type for the Pumpkins, and Siamese Dream changed everything for me. Once Siamese Dream was in my hands, it was goodbye to Color Me Badd, En Vogue and Mariah Carey! I traded my Digable Planets CD for the Singles soundtrack. Nowadays, I still enjoy all of the music I mentioned, but Siamese Dream remains my favorite album of all-time.

Look, I was a pretty emo tween. The songs spoke to me; the themes of not belonging, fraught parental relationships, being heartbroken, and just wanting to be yourself in a world that tells you that you suck. Billy Corgan wrote lyrics with flowery, pretentious language that made it seem all that more “deep” and “meaningful” and therefore, special to this young gal.

Billco sang with a feminine vulnerability, which contrasted to the sausage party that alt-rock seemed to represent (my town was too small for me to know what a riot grrl was and Hole hadn’t yet released Live Through This). I loved that there was a woman in the band. Bassist, D’Arcy, was a trendsetter. She was all red lips, platinum hair and overplucked eyebrows, sparkly shirts, horizontal stripes and ripped jeans. And in the music video for “Today,” guitarist, James Iha, was wearing a dress. His willingness to play up his androgyny made me feel less alone, too. As a burgeoning young queer, SP had a queer sensibility that I gravitated towards. James and D’Arcy were my immediate fashion icons and crushes.

Anyways, mayonaise (see what I did there?), I feel like 362 is an incredibly low position for Siamese Dream, but who cares about arbitrary listicles?! I was one of the many who bought it after liking “Today” and “Disarm.” Sure, lots of folks liked those two songs and skipped the rest. But for me, Siamese Dream was my first real album that I loved from front-to-back and resonated with me on an emotional level. And still does!

Let’s do this, Mark!

Cherub Rock
Mark: Alright, this is a rock solid jammer and I love it. The central guitar riff is terrific and doesn’t sound like anything that the other big alt bands of the time were doing. I feel as though the style became aped to the point of ubiquity just a few years later. The guitar solo is also just a huge pile of discordant gold.

The video is early 90s to the point where I start smelling a mildew-y old thrift store just by watching it.

This song is crunchy and catchy in the way that the best 90s rock music dreams of being. A tremendous way to start and album and probably one of their best songs (that I’ve heard). Great job, Punpins!

Shaunna: That opening snare roll is iconic. It clearly states, “This is not a grunge song,” the same way Gish’s opener, “I Am One,” does. But while “I Am One” is “Welcome To the Jungle”-via-Jane’s-Addiction, “Cherub Rock” is Cheap Trick’s “Oo La La La” and Rush’s “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” with a sprinkle of shoegaze and, well, actual pop perfection! I thought becoming a Pumpkinhead was me saying goodbye to pop for my teenhood, but this is a great pop song, as well as a great rock song, and one of my favorites of their singles . It’s my favorite all-time opening track. I promise I won’t slobber this much over every song, but c’mon! Cherub Rock rules!

Quiet
Mark: “Quiet” feels a lot more like a boilerplate “grunge rock” song than the song that precedes it. A fairly tuneless procession of riffs that is brightened up only by a pretty bonkers guitar solo and a change-up in the time signature late in the track. I can’t believe that this is the second track on this album. It isn’t great!

Shaunna: Now, this one I won’t slobber over. I like how the prettiness of Billy’s voice contrasts the “rockin’ness,” and the solo is kickass. But “Quiet” has never been a favorite. I never saw it live, and I feel like if I had, I’d be excited at first but if I was seeing multiple shows, I’d get real sick of it. It’s probably for the best that I don’t think they played it much outside the Siamese Dream tour.

Today
Mark: Everybody knows this song and most people who know it love it. Including me. So there’s not much point in talking about it. Let’s talk about the video instead!

Am I alone in feeling like Barney Coriander from the early 90s when he had hair is a completely different person from cartoon supervillain DarkLord Billy Corgan that exists today? It’s like the hair humanizes him or something. Which is really bad news for me!

This video just radiates the kind of weird nostalgic pining for innocence that seemed to underpin so much of Gen X’s artistic expression. It feels like an independent film of the era and there’s something really comforting about it. The costumes and the colours are just terrific.

I like this!

Shaunna: Okay Mark, the differences in Cilly Borgan can definitely be categorized by his hair (or lack thereof). Gish = long hair = DRUGS. Siamese Dream = short hair = … I guess human is a good word! Again, this song is pop perfection, and it’s pretty wild that this song came out of his suicidal ideation at the time.

Like I mentioned before, “Today” was my first time seeing or hearing SP and I was immediately struck. The four of them, painting an ice cream truck and their faces seemed so damn cool. And then all of the horny teenagers making out in the desert. I couldn’t wait to do both of those things. I’ve never painted an ice cream truck, though, and I can live with that.

Hummer
Mark: The disintegrating guitar figure into bass groove into smooth guitar buzz works really well in “Hummer”. The central jam riff and the quiet-loud-quiet formula work for me as well. I find the chorus to be a somewhat lifeless string of chords without a great hook, but this seems like a solid album track to me overall. This album has a number of really great guitar solo sections so far!

The mellowed-out closing section is nicely performed but makes the track a little too lengthy for my tastes. Tighten up, Bill!

Shaunna: Mark, I was worried about this one! I’ve had at least three different favorite SP songs, and “Hummer” has been at the top for awhile. In fact… its appearance on the setlist for the last tour is what convinced me to purchase (secondary market, less than face value) tickets for the Toronto show! Being too young for Lollapalooza 1994 (I was in Toronto that weekend and begged my parents to drive me to Barrie, but that was a hard no), I’d never had the chance to experience “Hummer” or “Soma” live!

This song is fucking pretty in a luxurious way, with the solos and the glittery strums and Belly’s angelic-to-growly voice all working hand in hand.  I’m too old to really care about lyrics, but “when you/decide/that your live/is a prize/renew/revive/it’s all right, honey” and “happiness will make you wonder/will I feel okay?” still resonate (and might even more so with live experience).

I’m glad you like it, cuz this is a great example of SP at their best.

Rocket
Mark: Unlike “Today” which featured a song and video that were roughly equivalent in greatness, “Rocket” is a very great video that has been created to accompany a song that I find mostly very boring. The four-chord chorus churns along sounding like a much less inspired version of “Cherub Rock”. Outside of a few neat guitar noodles, this song is kind of a stinker.

But the video’s colourful suburban portrayal of kids playing make-believe and the pumpkins turning into old people at the end (roughly what they look like now, tbh), is completely charming and well-made.

Shaunna: Wow, my first “How dare you!” If “Rocket” stinks, then call me Pepe LePew! I never get tired of “Rocket!” The guitars are crunchy, it’s got a funky bassline and it’s got some cool imagery in the lyrics. Speaking of imagery, “Rocket” was the Pumpkins’ first music video collaboration with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who’d go on to direct some multiple MTV VMA-winning videos for them, as well as films like Little Miss Sunshine and Battle of the Sexes. The video is cool, the kids are cute, I love the glittery space suits, they’re all wearing eye makeup and D’Arcy’s hair looks cool.

And, wow! That last sentence is rude to Jimmy and James, they both look great! And it’s too kind to Bill!

Disarm
Mark: I’m sure that “Disarm” was an effective ballad when it was released, but I’ve spent 20 years or so making fun of it and shouting “THE KILLER IN MEEEEE IS THE KILLER IN YOUUUUUUU” at people when I’m being drunk and obnoxious. So I have a very hard time taking this one seriously, and I get the impression that Bilbo expects that this song be taken very seriously.

Or maybe not. I find it really hard to believe that anyone would put over-the-top bells into their song and not be doing it for jokes. Maybe this song is just for lulz!

Regardless, we all know this song and you probably know whether or not you like it already. I think that it is a very silly song, but it is a very silly song that I will never change the channel on when it comes on satellite radio in a rental car. Whatever that’s worth.

Shaunna: I can’t bother to “how dare you!” you on this, but I’ll just smashsplain “Disarm,” from my point of view!

“Disarm” came on the radio in spring of 1994, and was on Rick Dees’ top 40 and everything. It was orchestral and over the top and pretty. It was a ballad, but it didn’t make me roll my eyes like Boyz II Men and All-4-One did.

I feel like with “Disarm,” the Pumpkins were able to showcase something that no other pop, R&B, hip hop or rock band was able to on the radio at the time; male sensitivity and vulnerability on a song that isn’t a love song. Billy was open about his childhood trauma before it was something men in rock really did, and I’ll give him props for that.

Soma
Mark: This song is based around a perfect chord progression and I could listen to the intro section looped for hours without getting tired of it. The band gets absurd mileage out of the progression, as it simmers and builds toward its inevitable rock-out climax. “Soma” is certainly one of my favourite Smushy Punkins songs and if you don’t think that it’s one of the best tracks on this album, I don’t even know what to say to you.

Shaunna: “Soma” is one of the greatest classic SP tracks of all-time. It’s E*MO*TION, pre-Carly Rae. It’s pretty and sad, angry and petty. It’s spacey, hypnotic and dreamy and the old quiet-loud-quiet thing is masterful. The guitar solo on this one is, like, a total mood. The vocals are crystalline. And my favorite R.E.M. member, Mike Mills, plays piano on it!

James Iha co-wrote “Soma,” so that should tell you something about the dude’s skillz in creating the best of the Pumpkins’ sound.

Geek USA
Mark: “Geek USA” has the sound of a song that was written by a band jamming out in their practice space. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it leads the vibe of the track to be more memorable than any individual turn of songwriting on display. It just chugs and chugs until the very silly tempo shift into the bridge and subsequent shift back up to “fastest song at the high school battle of the bands” territory. Props are deserved for the half-time breakdown that caps the song off, though.

I feel like Silverchair ripped this song off in at least a half-dozen was and did a shittier job of it. So… good job, Punkins?

Shaunna: We’re kind of opposites here on why we like this song. For me, the tempo change is the best part, as well as the breakdown. “Geek USA” is the first instance of loud-quiet-loud, as opposed to quiet-loud-quiet on SD, so that’s probably why I’d put it down a few pegs after “Hummer” and “Soma.” Its sensitive bits are in the middle, with its cock-rock tendencies front and center.

Also I bet B0lly would hate to know that I’ve parodied a lyric from this. “Emojis can’t define what I feel inside who needs them?”

Mayonaise
Mark: You can sing “Apparitions” by Matthew Good to the intro of this song! Give it a try.

“Mayonaise” is a tuneful little slice of alt-rock that edges close to shoegaze territory. It’s a mode that suits the band pretty well, and results in a very listenable tune. The guitars fuzz and feedback in a really pleasing way. This is a great track. Of all of the songs on this record that I hadn’t heard before, this may be the best.

Shaunna: Wow, rude to bring Matt Good into this, Mark!

“Mayonaise” is not just a fan favorite among hardcore fans, but for casual fans, too! Why is it called “Mayonaise”? Bill used to have this analogy about writing a song about a chandelier which emits red which you can’t wear around bulls so you name the song cow. IDK about that, but the song has always just sounded so creamy and dreamy to me. This song is just so… pure to me? It’s just such singalong goodness, and I’ve had those everywhere with “Mayonaise” from bible camp to the last show I went to in August. Also, I prefer mayonnaise on my french fries to ketchup, so mayon(n)aise rules!

James Iha also co-wrote “Mayonaise,” which proves that Billy and him should’ve co-written together a lot more often, but of course they couldn’t because of Billy’s narcissism.

Spaceboy
Mark: I’m not going to say “no” to any track that wants to heavily feature a mellotron, although I do find the solo-Billy sections to be fairly cringe-worthy. The fully arranged sections are okay, but I find them to be kind of unremarkable. “Spaceboy” being buried in the back half of the record makes a lot of sense to me.

Shaunna: I love the mellotron and strings on this one. And the “I want to go home” refrain has stuck with me from then on, whether I was at school, at work, at a family gathering, whatever I wanted to escape! “Spaceboy” is a cute song and there’s a sweet melancholy to the closing strings. Billy wrote this one for his little brother, Jesse, whom he’s described as “he’s like a Rain Man type of character. He’s got certain things probably greater than someone else and he’s lacking in a few things that most of us just take for granted.”

Silverfuck
Mark: The beat that this tune arrives on wasn’t something that I was expecting and has a fun off-kilter churn to it. This is the first time that I’ve thought that this drummer hasn’t been completely mediocre and a minute or so in, “Silverfuck” has a good, spirited bop going on.

Wait… this song is almost nine minutes long? Fuck you, Smarching Pungiuns.

My interested waned entirely by minute four. You’re not The Doors, Billy Corgan. (The Doors are also terrible)

Shaunna: Okay, first off JIMMY MF’IN CHAMBERLIN IS A TRAINED JAZZ DRUMMER HOW DARE YOU!

“Silverfuck” is a loud-quiet-loud rock epic that a lot of SPeeps herald as the gold standard and want all of their shows to end with 30-minute extended jams of it. For me, I only really have the patience for it because of history. I’m less enthusiastic about this one than most fans, but I still have love for it.

Sweet Sweet
Mark: This minute and a half long tune almost makes up for “Silverfuck” being so completely and pointlessly bloated. It kind of lives up to its name in a way that feels a little too on the nose, but it’s a nice little ditty. I… I’m getting pretty tired of Billy’s voice.

Shaunna: “Sweet, Sweet” is absolutely nobody’s favorite Smashing Pumpkins song, and probably no one’s favorite on Siamese Dream, but I’ve never encountered anyone who actively disliked it. Like Mark said, it’s a nice little ditty and it’s the perfect little transition between “Silverfuck” and “Luna.”

Luna
Mark: I think that “Luna” is a legitimately well-constructed song and works very well as an album-closer. It brings strings back into the mix in a way that feels a little more effective and a little less overwrought than “Disarm”. The guitars sound pretty terrific as they shimmer and plunk away at genuinely pretty chord progressions, and this is one of the songs where Billy’s breathy vocal delivery actually works with the song instead of kind of clashing with it. No complaints about “Luna”.

Shaunna: If “Silverfuck” is the gold standard of “rawk” SP, “Luna” is the gold standard of ballad SP. This was my favorite song when I was a teenager and the one that made me fall in love with them forever. This song is special. The strings and guitar are lush and the sitar is the magic ingredient for making “Luna” the stellar ballad that it is.  It’s a love song, and it’s a relatively happy one about head-in-the-clouds love. You don’t get much of these from Billco. Perfect album closer. Try singing this moon song to your new baby sometime, Mark!

The Verdict
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Mark: Well, surprisingly enough, we found a lot of common ground on this record. Perhaps it is unsurprising, given how generally well thought of Siamese Dream is. I really can’t argue with the fact that this is a pretty solid album and a great example of alternative rock in the early 90s. You can see this album’s fingerprints all over the place in the work of other artists.

As I’d never heard the whole record, I was even able to find a few songs on here that I had never heard before that I liked quite a bit. Loads of great guitar work on this album as well. There are really only a few total stinkers to be found, which is a pretty good hit-miss ratio even for bands that I truly love.

One thing that bothers me though: One of my favourite moments on Gish came when Billy ceded lead vocal duties to D’arcy for a track. That doesn’t happen here and I think that’s a bummer.

Good album, though. I’d be preeeeetty surprised to find out that they’ve got a better one, especially given that the next album is a… (*gag*)… double-album.

Shaunna! I appreciate your smashsplaining and good delivery of context to help me wrap my head around the Billyverse! There were really only a few “How dare you!” moments, and for that I am very glad. Thank you!

Shaunna: It’s pretty neat to me how polarizing ol’ SP are, even within the fan community. Most folks prefer the rawk, folks like me prefer the soft and lush and then there’s a whole group of sycophants who’d call BC’s belly rumbles brilliant and demand them on limited-edition chartreuse vinyl. Since I consider Mark to be a metal guy and I’m a pop gal, I figured we’d have a lot less in common than we do with Siamese Dream!

IMHO, Siamese Dream’s influence is best represented on The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s second album, Belong (2011), which was recorded at Stratosphere Sound (formerly co-owned by James Iha) and, funny enough, produced by Flood and Alan Moulder– who actually produced Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness! We haven’t yet mentioned that SD was produced by King Butch Vig, and I think it’s his greatest achievement, don’t @ me, Nirvana fans!

I like your point about the D’Arcy vocals, Mark! She provides backup, but maybe if “Sweet, Sweet” was sung by her, or a duet, that would’ve added a little something extra special to the album.

Mark, it’s been genuinely fun to read your perspective and give my “expert” two cents. I’m sorry to say that the Pumpkins don’t have a better album than Siamese Dream! Nevertheless, I can’t wait to sludge through Mellon Collie with you and I wonder if the songs we love/don’t love will match up!

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Author: markmeeks

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