Smashing Pumpkins – Cyr
Smashing Pumpkins was one of my favorite bands of the nineties; Gish and Siamese Dream are still in regular rotation in my listening room and in my car, and are among some of the very best records to come out of that decade. While I eventually came to view Billy Corgan as something of a control freak, I still feel very fondly for that mid-nineties period of the band that featured guitarist James Iha, Darcy on bass, and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. While it wasn’t a particularly great time for the band – Corgan was battling depression, and Chamberlin was spiraling into the depths of heroin addiction – their albums were kick-ass testaments to the power of what the band was capable of. Even though the press generally damned their music with very faint praise, or outright condemned it; record producer Steve Albini once wrote a scathing rebuttal to a favorable record review, calling Smashing Pumpkins no better than a less-talented nineties version of REO Speedwagon.
Despite covering the music industry for almost three decades, I paid very little attention to Smashing Pumpkins beyond the mid-nineties. By 2000, all the original members of the band had gone except for Billy Corgan, and all subsequent Pumpkins albums for me became little more than Corgan solo albums masquerading as band albums. And the band went through a variety of configurations during the 2000’s, along with a period of hiatus. During a March, 2016 show at a small club in Los Angeles, James Iha joined the band onstage for several songs, and a now clean Jimmy Chamberlin had also been brought back into the fold months earlier. There were even rumors that Darcy might rejoin the group, but it appears that through a combination of her troubled personal existence and Billy Corgan’s lack of enthusiasm for her return, it never happened. Anyway, the band had the three original members on board, along with guitarist Jeff Schroeder, and with the release of 2018’s Shiny and Oh So Bright, the Pumpkins found themselves again selling out concert venues just like in the old days.
Their new release and eleventh studio album, Cyr, finds Smashing Pumpkins moving away from the boundaries of the traditional guitar-based rock that has formed the band’s core sound for most of their existence. And filling a generously-proportioned CD and double LP with twenty tunes that mostly resemble eighties-throwback synth pop, that is, regrettably – mostly forgettable. All songs clock in at around three minutes or so – so there’s none of the lengthy, dreamlike jams, with Corgan and Iha’s guitars sparring with each other, that made albums like Gish and Siamese Dream such great listens. About the only tune that held my interest for any length at all was “Anno Satana” [check out the cool animated video link], but Corgan’s trademark, whiny vocals – which served as the perfect counterpoint to the overdriven guitars on earlier albums – now just seem, well, whiny, and extremely irritating. YMMV, but unless you’re a hardcore Pumpkins’ fan, I’d probably pass.
Sumerian Records, CD/2 LPs (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)
David Bowie – ChangesNowBowie
1976 found David Bowie releasing his first greatest hits album, ChangesOneBowie, which became a huge hit with double-platinum sales, and was instantly embraced by all of Bowie’s fandom. The cover was really cool, and the song selection left very little lacking from a fairly concise overview of the Thin White Duke’s early period. With the exception of one song most American record buyers had never heard, “John, I’m Only Dancing,” which was a single that the record company decided not to release in the US, because of what they perceived as relationship subject matter that was “outside the mainstream.” Regardless, both fans and newbies bought the album in droves, securing its place as a classic in Bowie’s catalog.
How would Bowie manage to duplicate that feat? With 1981’s ChangesTwoBowie – with an equally cool cover shot of Bowie having a drag on a cigarette. The compilation covered the four albums released since ChangesOne, along with some noteworthy songs from the earlier period that were overlooked – or more likely left on the cutting floor because of the LP’s space limitations back in the day. And ChangesTwoBowie included an updated version of “John, I’m Only Dancing (again),” which was a funked-up, disco-reimagining of the earlier single. Bowie’s relationship with RCA Records had become somewhat strained near the end of his contract, and ChangesTwoBowie essentially fulfilled a contractual obligation. It was issued without his involvement, and was his last album for the label. Despite all that, it has become one of his most sought-after LPs by record collectors, and the two Changes LPs (or CDs) provide a pretty thrilling compendium of Bowie’s early and mid-period best work.
So how does one add to the Changes legacy? The answer began in January 1997, when Bowie was about to hit the stage at Madison Square Garden in a gala celebration of his fiftieth birthday. In attendance would be Lou Reed, Robert Smith, Sonic Youth, and Frank Black, among others – it would be a concert for the ages, and on stage, Bowie was feeling very much the elder statesman of the current rock generation. Two months prior to the date, Bowie convened with a small group of musicians including guitarist Reeves Gabrels, bassist Gail Ann Dorsey (who was part of Bowie’s touring ensemble from 1995 on), and keyboardist Mark Plati, where the ensemble rehearsed all the material planned for the MSG event. Everything was recorded by the BBC, along with extensive interviews with David Bowie, who waxed poetically and philosophically about his long career. The entire package was broadcast on interviewer Mary Anne Hobbs’ BBC One show titled ChangesNowBowie on January 8th, 1997 – a day prior to the MSG event. Quite a few bootlegs of the broadcast saw the light of day, but there was never an official release of the material.
Until now! Originally slated to be a special Record Store Day release in April of this year – until, of course, the global pandemic happened – and RSD was postponed until June. And then again, until it finally happened on Black Friday [November 27] when ChangesNowBowie hit the shelves of indie record stores as a limited edition LP release. An international CD version is available, and is quite spendy as CDs go (about $40), but I understand a US version may be in the works. Good luck finding an LP, unless you were in line early on RSD. Fortunately, the nine tracks of music have been made available for streaming, and are available on all the major services including Spotify, Tidal, and Qobuz.
The original BBC broadcast was around an hour in length, but for the LP/CD and streaming, the interview portions have been deleted, leaving about 32 minutes of music. Which isn’t a lot, but trust me, there’s nothing like this anywhere in Bowie’s extensive catalog. The songs span his career, and include some of his biggest hits along with some well-chosen deep tracks, like “The Supermen” from The Man Who Sold The World and “Repetition” from the Lodger album. And a notable cover: Bowie’s take on Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” (which he sang with Lou Reed at the live MSG event), as well as the track “Shopping For Girls” from Tin Machine’s second album.
While there are moments of sheer intensity (check out guitarist Gabrels’ searing solo on “White Light/White Heat”!), what makes this album so desirable is that it’s essentially the Bowie equivalent of an MTV Unplugged session. The recordings are relaxed, but show an artist at his peak – who was extremely comfortable with revisiting his legacy but perhaps still struggling to embrace the changing world of contemporary pop and rock. The Qobuz streaming tracks are superb, and do take a listen, but if you stumble across one of the RSD limited LPs, grab it. Essential listening for Bowie fans, and very highly recommended.
Rhino/Parlophone, CD/Limited Edition LP (download/streaming [16/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Seasick Steve – Blues In Mono
Steven Gene Wold, aka Seasick Steve, is an American blues and roots player whose songs typically chronicle the hard life of a common working man – which is essentially a biographical process for him, where he mostly details his life experiences through his songs. He traveled across the USA, working gigs as a circus carney, sometimes as a cowboy, and often as a migrant farm worker. While in today’s terminology, he’d probably be referred to as mostly homeless, Steve refers to himself and to his time on the road in the early sixties as a “hobo” – which wasn’t that uncommon for a free-spirited individual at the time. Although his age is listed as 69, there are some who seem to think that his actual birth year probably really predates that by a number of years. When he first turned to the music profession in the late sixties, he worked for a while in recording studios, and eventually became a musician himself. His commercial breakthrough came in late 2006, while touring through the UK.
Regardless of how old he may actually be, his clear but rough-hewn singing voice and ridiculously good flat-picking on the acoustic guitar present a musician who has lived the life, and is authentically drenched in the blues. I actually clicked on this in Qobuz mostly out of curiosity, but immediately was drawn into his genuine originality, and the intimacy of the performances. Blues In Mono is his eleventh studio album, and like so much of the music born in this year of the great pandemic, it was created not only out of a lack of performance opportunities, but also a deeply felt desire to continue to create new music. Regardless of the limited resources available to him in the current live entertainment environment.
Blues In Mono is truly presented as it’s billed: it was recorded in mono with a 1940s vintage single-point microphone, live and direct to a vintage reel tape machine. Steve’s experience in the studio environment has obviously benefitted him greatly, and he offered the following about the recording process: “It’s just me and an acoustic guitar, playing old country blues. I always wanted to do it but never felt worthy, but then I realized that I better hurry up and do it ‘cos I ain’t never gonna feel worthy! I tried to make it so that if you was listening you’d think I was sitting with you in your house.” He’s not lying; Blues In Mono has an immediacy that grabs your attention from the first few notes! And while it’s definitely a true mono recording, it’s that kind of classically wide mono that was typical of the forties and fifties that sounds so much bigger over your stereo than you’d ever imagine possible.
Seasick Steve toured for years playing a six-string GHI hollow-body guitar that only had three strings on it; he seems to constantly riff on variations of the actual story surrounding the guitar that he refers to as his “Three String Trance Wonder.” For Blues In Mono, however, I’m pretty sure he’s just playing a more traditional six-string acoustic (seen in most current photos of him), and Steve has culled songs from many of his favorite blues artists, from the likes of Willie Dixon, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Charlie Patton and Mississippi Fred McDowell. As well as introducing four new original songs; the album kicks off with Steve’s “Well, Well, Well,” which strikes me as a very clever reworking of Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More.” The stripped down performances here feature only Steve and his acoustic guitar; on a couple of tunes, he plays with a slide, and on “Golden Spun,” he picks a pretty mean banjo. The raw power of the blues has never been more evident for me than on this intensely authoritative album; its bare bones authenticity makes an otherwise great album like Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer seem like overproduced bombast.
The sound quality here – while definitely mono – is breathtakingly good, and you get a really startling impression of Seasick Steve and his instrument live in your listening room. There’s currently no information for the availability of any physical media for the release, either on CD or LP, but it’s thankfully available on all the major streaming services. I did all my listening on Qobuz’s 24/44.1 stream – and it was excellent, but I just found out that it’s also available on Tidal as an MQA Tidal Master choice. So if that’s your particular flavor of the streaming experience, it could possibly be a very good thing. I don’t have an MQA-capable DAC on hand other than an AudioQuest DragonFly, but I definitely intend to take another listen with it in place in my system, and soon. Regardless, Blues In Mono is very highly recommended!
There’s A Dead Skunk Records, (download/streaming [24/44.1 – MQA via Tidal] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)