Billy Corgan's bombast was mother's milk | Music Feature | Indy Week

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Billy Corgan's bombast was mother's milk

The future's embrace


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In a recent interview with the Independent, the Annuals/ Sunfold songwriting team of Adam Baker and Kenny Florence outlined the bands that helped shape their sound. While critics have mostly likened Raleigh's Annuals to hipper, younger acts like Arcade Fire and Animal Collective, Baker and Florence listed the prime selections of BMG Music Club, circa 1996: Foo Fighters, Weezer, Beck, Mike Patton, The Flaming Lips, The Smashing Pumpkins.

If one of the biggest "indie" bands of recent years, especially one from North Carolina, didn't need the old standbys (once more, with feeling: Pavement, Archers of Loaf, Superchunk, Neutral Milk Hotel) to get going, is old indie rock still relevant to today's indie rock youngsters? Sure, acts like the Pixies-baiting Tapes N Tapes might suggest business as usual, and a large swathe of current bands (look in our own backyard) cull from the standard bearers of the underground.

But, more and more, they feel like exceptions.

Given the rise of "mainstream indie rock," the typical reference points are getting elbowed out in favor of other, broader touchstones. Indie's move away from indie influences is little but the result of the collective memory of today's 20-somethings, a group that came of age with a radio dial retooled by the rise of Nirvana. After all, with The Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan has gone platinum 18 times. His 1995 double-disc giant, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, has sat on the brink of diamond status since 2001. How many records did Neutral Milk Hotel sell?

The Smashing Pumpkins deserve special attention in this new caste, mostly because Corgan has always needed an editor so badly. That's not an entirely damning flaw. Some of the finest songwriters in rock history are only the finest because someone stood up and said "Hey, dude, bad idea." Or they had the wherewithal to pocket their bullshit. But Corgan was/is the Pumpkins' captain, crew, sail and sea. He's long done what he wants.

Still, his labyrinthine catalog of alt.gaze, goth-metal and smarty-pants rock has produced several undeniable classics, including the bloated body of Mellon Collie. At well over two hours, its appeal is its sprawling, try-it-before-you-buy-it eclecticism, the sort of kitchen sink approach implemented today by bands like Baker and Florence's Annuals or Minneapolis pop spastics Cloud Cult. But a taste for dabbling here and there was never Corgan's problem: Adore has its trippy electronic high-points, just as much as Siamese Dream has its winning thick-toned space rock. No, where Corgan crested and eventually fell was in his heavy-handed studio wizardry, his unabashed confidence in his own over-the-top vision, his 30 overdubs, his build-the-bull willingness. Those strategies produced less tunes like "Cherub Rock" than ...  oh, hell, what was that song called? Just witness the dewy home stretch of Mellon Collie's second disc: It's a run of bad studio sketches covered in Corgan's high-end, highly stylized production. If these terrible songs had been surrounded by anything less, Twilight to Starlight, as it's called, would have spent eternity as a shiny coaster.

With hours of tape, a stillborn footnote side project called Zwan and a perspective-refocusing new Pumpkins album sadly named Zeitgeist at his back, Corgan resembles a lightning bottler, a chancer with an ear of gold that rewards and betrays him. But plenty have forgiven Billy his overindulgence from the start, and it shows in today's indie rock neophytes. Corgan is interesting because he was able to do with Mellon Collie what few other rock artists in the mid-'90s could do: Shrug off the simple but effective three-minutes-and-out schematic Nirvana enforced through Nevermind.

When Cobain and company rocketed their brand of stinking punk agro-ness into the mainstream, it was a siren scream proclaiming that the excesses of the '70s and '80s were done. The new way to work was to sweat, scream and keep it super simple. Corgan found a way to buck all that without losing face. Released about a year and a half after the Nirvana frontman took his own life, Mellon Collie was the beginning of a new, "acceptable" era of excess. After Mellon Collie, Radiohead would stretch itself with the indispensable, incredibly dense OK Computer. Trent Reznor would go overly oblique on The Fragile. Pearl Jam would signal their descent into indulgence on No Code. These sounds birthed bands like Annuals, who flood less-than-perfect songs with whatever sound you can fancy. These bands share Corgan's principal flaws—over-indulgence, a lack of critical perspective, records that are too long and noticeably lacking in focus. But they also share some of his strong points, too: When they're good, they're rich and rewarding in their denseness. Hyperactive collagists Evangelicals, the grandiose pop crew of Manchester Orchestra, Oxford, Miss.'s Colour Revolt, and our very own Annuals might not champion the sonic value of the Pumpkins, but they most certainly appreciate the aesthetic. Indeed, the shadow of Corgan still looms, convincing an entire generation, with the world at their keyboard tips, and weaned on Dawn, Dusk, Twilight and Starlight, to just fucking go for it. For better, or for worse. 

The Smashing Pumpkins—Corgan with Jimmy Chamberlin, Jeff Schroeder, Ginger Reyes, Lisa Harriton—plays Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium Sunday, Aug. 17, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $36-$46.


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