Smashing Pumpkins rerelease burst of alt-rock nostalgia

Robert Starr

In the realm of ’90s alternative rock, few bands stand on the same tier as the Smashing Pumpkins. Led by guitarist and vocalist Billy Corgan, they produced a body of work epic in scope, focusing more on albums than individual singles. Songs range from slow to fast, quiet to loud, but all managed to fit thematically on the same disc, taking the listener on an emotional journey that can’t be contained in a three-minute single.

However, where Corgan and the Pumpkins deserve the most recognition is that in a time of Generation X cynicism, they produced material with a bold vision that could easily be dismissed as pretentious. Maybe it is, sometimes, but a group willing to take chances is always more interesting than one playing it safe.

And when those chances pay off, as is more often than not in the case of the Pumpkins, the result is something very special. The early albums from the Pumpkins, Gish and Siamese Dream, now available in remastered sets, introduced listeners to the band’s distinct sound while they were in the middle of discovering it, which turned the hard and dirty rock of the early ’90s into something unexpectedly beautiful.

The recording of said albums was not always so beautiful. During the Siamese Dream sessions, Corgan suffered from extreme writer’s block and feelings of inadequacy, not to mention drug abuse, forcing himself to work harder than any mortal should and dragging the rest of the band along with him. And while the ends may not quite justify the masochistic means, it’s tough to argue with the results — Siamese Dream is one of the few true alternative rock masterpieces.

EMI is re-releasing all of the Smashing Pumpkins’ albums over the next couple of years, with remastered sound and a ton of goodies for the fans in multiple formats. The question isn’t whether or not you should buy them, but which package is right for you. They’re starting out with the band’s first two albums, Gish and Siamese Dream, and, so far, EMI has gone all-out, producing something that no fan should overlook.

The re-releases come in digital download form, available from the usual sources (Amazon and iTunes), though audiophiles may want to get the lossless downloads from the official Smashing Pumpkins website. These digital downloads come in normal and deluxe varieties, with the latter featuring a bunch of extra demos and previously unreleased recordings.

Devoted fans will probably want to order the deluxe edition CDs, which sound fantastic and include liner notes, photographs and DVDs of live performances as well as gorgeous packaging. These are more than worth the extra money, even in a time when physical media seems to be dying out. The liner notes are especially worthwhile, featuring interviews of Corgan by journalist David Wild, which provide some insight into the madness that went on behind the scenes.

There’s also the vinyl releases, which may feature even better sound quality than the CDs. However, with these, you lose the convenience of being able to listen to them on your iPod and you’re also missing out on most of the really cool extras that come in the deluxe set. It might be a bit pricey to do so, but for the fan devoted enough to buy the vinyl editions, it’s probably a good idea to order the deluxe CDs as well.

The remastering sounds fantastic and the albums deserve to be listened to with good headphones. Even Gish, which came out 20 years ago and was produced independent of any major record company, sounds crystal clear. And though the assorted bonus tracks included are of varying quality, there’s nothing that sounds bad at all. The home demos sound much better than we’ve come to expect from such material, with minimal hiss and distortion.

Ultimately, there’s not much one needs to say about these releases. The albums were remastered with care and treated with respect. The goodies included with the deluxe edition aren’t essential, but they’re definitely worth listening to and the DVDs are a great way of seeing the band in its prime, though the video quality isn’t anywhere near what DVD is capable of.

Gish and Siamese Dream are both classic albums and have gotten the re-release they deserve. Fans owe it to themselves to update their dusty old copies and, for those who aren’t familiar with them, these releases provide a perfect opportunity to acquaint themselves. 

Printed on Tuesday, December 6, 2011 as: Early Pumpkins digitally remastered