Well, hello there! Before we get to the matter at hand, I should probably apologize for having posted nothing new here for a full year. In case you’ve just been idly refreshing the home-page every day [Ed. No one has been doing this] you should probably know that I do most of my word-tossing elsewhere these days. Mostly at Last Rites, periodically at Backlit Zine, and, as of a week or two ago, at Invisible Oranges, too.
The reason for this (sure-to-be-short-lived) Spinal Tapdance renaissance, however, is a challenge. Fellow wordsmith and all-around exuberantly verbose music chap Ian Chainey and I were talking on Twitter the other day (him at @flahFBL, me at @spinaltapdance) about the creaky, overstuffed 1995 Smashing Pumpkins double album, Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness.
The challenge: take the two-hour-plus, 28-song double album and whittle it down to ten tracks, resequenced for optimum impact.
Ian, being the word wizard that he is, has already launched his opening salvo in this challenge. Please wander over to his Rubiconcerto post and check out his song selections (& justifications), and then report back.
Still with us? Great.
So, at Ian’s request, the first step is to critique his choices.
Well, the cool thing about cutting 28 songs down to 10 is that it allows for almost endless permutations. Maybe that’s a cop-out way of saying “Oh, gee, everybody did such a great job today!”–a very anti-grunge sentiment, I suppose–but I digress. I like the choice of opening with “Muzzle,” because it has that big, juicy, power-chord feeling that might remind the listener a bit of “Today” from Siamese Dream. It opens the album with a nod to the band’s past, instead of with a tandem piano instrumental and theatrical ballad/jam (“Tonight Tonight”).
After that, Ian’s A-side still flits around, but mostly nestles in a soft(ish) spot. “1979″ is the only of the album’s actual singles to survive the cull (as it–SPOILER–will be with my list), but “Here is No Why” and “Stumbleine” are interesting back-to-backers. Closing out the side with “Thru the Eyes of a Ruby” is also a smart move, and it puts the spotlight on one of Mellon Collie’s weirder and frequently overlooked rockers. (Did you remember that trippy midsection that sounds like it’s about to bust out a sitar solo? Me neither.)
I also love opening the B-side with the revved-up aggro of “Jellybelly.” From there, though, Ian’s second half gets loopy. Makes sense, of course, because the second disc of Mellon Collie proper is a weird, dense slog that refuses to give you anything heavy past “X.Y.U.,” meaning that the double album’s final twenty minutes are a bit of a sleepwalk. I chose to do things a little differently with my picks, as we’ll soon see. Turns out Ian and I both put “Porcelina” in the penultimate spot, but he follows it up (and thus closes out the “album”) with “Cupid de Locke,” which is a harp-drenched peculiarity. I like putting it at the close because it reminds me of Kid A‘s closer “Motion Picture Soundtrack.”
Ultimately, I agree with Ian’s self-assessment that these ten tracks make up a pretty cool cross-section of the album, but focus on the snappier, power pop cuts, leaving aside nearly all of the original album’s fundamental angst. I’m curious to hear whether that’s what Ian wanted the album to be at the time, or if it’s mostly what he thinks the best editorial choices would be given the current state of his musical interests now.
Time to both put up and shut up, though. Here’s my ten-track Mellon Collie reimagining:
I love this song to open an album, because beneath the aggro feint and squall of its opening, it’s still a great pop song, just buried under an aggression that’s been kicked up several notches from Siamese Dream.
As before, but harder, meaner, angrier. Plus, I never could get enough of that a cappela “coil my tongue around a bumblebee mouth” absurdity, and how it dips into a quick chamber piece before revving back up.
Angriest the band’s ever been, right? (At least on record.) Corgan’s vocals are so distorted here, it’s still a bit of a shock after, what, eighteen years?
This was the closest the Pumpkins ever got to the Melvins, and I think that’s swell.
Alright, so here’s where I start narrating my choices for real. I love the idea of starting the album with that 1-2-3-4 count of spiteful, loud stuff, because 1) we all need to remember that Billy Corgan is pretty fucking good at the guitar, and that the Smashing Pumpkins were (are? I honestly haven’t heard any of their albums post-Machina. S.O.R.R.Y.) a pretty fucking good rock band that enjoyed making people hear loud guitars playing interesting things. That was apparently a point of some cultural contention at the time? I don’t know, man, I’m mostly into heavy metal and I don’t really care to dive into grunge/Gen X politics.
Anyway, I like the notion that the album could have started with this wall-to-wall noise, but that eventually it would have to burn itself out. “1979″ is a brilliant, if somewhat transparent, attempt to bottle up nostalgia. (If you haven’t watched the music video in a while, please do, because it drives the point home ever harder.) Regardless, it feels like a nice transition piece. “Hey, why am I so angry all the time? Remember what it was like growing up, feeling young and desperate but also hopeful?”
He’s talking about growing up in suburban Chicagoland, but he’s really talking about growing up anywhere. Or just growing up. It’s a neat hinge to spring into a second half which plunges yet again into a different sort of angst.
So, I read this alternate B-side arrangement as a progression of love. Despite the fact that the music to “Lily” is mostly sweet, I’ve always found it a bit creepy and unsettling, that simple drum shuffle like the scraping of a menacing footfall. The lyrical turn here is brilliant, too. Perhaps it’s just me, but I’d like to think that Corgan is leaving the lyrics intentionally vague. There are two key lyrics: “Cause I’m hanging in this tree,” and “Cause as they’re dragging me away.” Because of the mid-song inclusion of the line “an officer is knocking at my door,” I think it makes more sense to read these lyrics as about someone spying on an infatuation while perched in a tree outside her window. However, reading these as an 11/12-year old, and then into more full-throated, goth-moping teenager-dom, I certainly imagined the narrator had hanged himself from a tree outside her window, and that at the end of the song, they were dragging his body away, not arresting him.
Either way, it’s a sweet song that rings a bit dangerously, which leads to…
I said it yesterday, too, but “Bodies” was a wicked song to put into the hands of a desperate teenager such as myself. (Side note: Simple as they are, those opening chords give me the same chills as Megadeth’s “Hangar 18.”) I suppose for this song to make sense after “Lily,” we have to think that the narrator hasn’t actually killed himself, but is instead driven to even further desperation. That chorus, though, man: “Love is suicide.” Easy to shrug it off as teenaged foolishness, but do you remember the time in your life when songs like this, and overblown melodramatic thoughts like this were just the realest damn thing ever?
Hush your mouth if you just said no; we don’t need your lying condescension.
“Galapogos” is another meditation on the desperation of love, but here the desperation is in the perfect satisfaction of being with someone you’re meant to be with for all time: “And if we died right now, this fool you love somehow is here with you.” It’s basically the same desperation of “Bodies,” but expressed in the context of a relationship.
“Porcelina” is just a great goddamn song. That should be all the reasoning necessary. But really, it’s also one of the Pumpkins’ most complete songs. Heavy riffs, proggy textured verses, slow build, obscure but affecting lyrics, and a perfect sense of pacing. I like sequencing it here with this B-side selection because when in “Porcelina,” Corgan sings “On a distant shoreline, she waves her arms to me,” it feels like that wave is a beckoning comfort. It’s the brief happy bits of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s a direct contrast to the final line of “Lily”: “As they’re dragging me away, I swear I saw her raise her hand and wave (goodbye).”
Love grows, and people grow with it, and “Porcelina,” for all its proggy, Floyd-y spaciousness and world-crushing happy-riffing, feels like a reflection of a deep inner calm. I like opposing that to the grind and crush of those opening four songs.
So, this is probably just me being a too-clever dick, but I think it speaks to the strength of this simple piano theme that it could work effectively as either an opener or closer. Just a lovely, lilting tune. Of course, it’s impossible to listen to it now and not expect the string cascade of “Tonight Tonight,” but we’re doing our best at musical counterfactuals here.
Phew, that was a lot of words. Okay, Ian, how far up my own ass did I jump with that Mellon Collie edit?
Anyone else out there feel like suggesting a ten-song reimagining of this album that, the more I think about it, is almost the most perfectly emblematic representation of mainstream rock music in the 1990s?