I’m not going to lie to you. I’m going to cheat a little this week.
This column, the one before the big year-end extravaganza begins, is generally reserved for catching up with the stragglers, records released in November and December that just barely sneak in. That was the plan this year as well, and I had a few I was going to discuss – Cracker’s new double album Berkeley to Bakersfield, for example, which is the first Cracker album I’ve bought in years. Wu-Tang Clan’s A Better Tomorrow, their umpteenth comeback. She and Him’s new Classics, the first one without a volume number. Live records from Coldplay and Leonard Cohen.
And then a funny thing happened. I didn’t find time to listen to any of them.
They’re all sitting right over there, in a nice neat stack, along with the new Celldweller and Donnie Vie CDs. Just sitting there. It’s been a ridiculously busy time for me, as it often is with year’s end looming, and time has kept on ticking away. So this grand plan I had to round up all of these year-end releases in one mega-column before the top 10 list isn’t going to happen. But don’t fret, because I did listen to one of the new releases, and in my mind, it’s the most important of them. (Your mileage may, and probably will, vary.)
It’s Monuments to an Elegy, by the Smashing Pumpkins.
Of course, the Smashing Pumpkins is kind of a misnomer these days, unless you agree with Billy Corgan that his voice and vision were the only things that ever mattered. I’ve never felt that way – the Pumpkins were a band at the beginning, despite the fact that the Big Giant Head called all the shots, and James Iha, Jimmy Chamberlin and D’arcy Wretzky contributed quite a bit to the sound of that band. I always enjoyed and appreciated Corgan’s ambition, though – when he decided to create a 30-song double album in 1995, and then pulled it off with some of his very best compositions, I was ecstatic. I even loved Adore, the pullback record that found Corgan working with drum machines and synths, but losing none of that grandiosity.
But ever since the Pumpkins turned into a Corgan vanity project (well, more of one), it’s been hard to know what to do with them. Corgan keeps on using the band name, despite the fact that he’s the only original member left and he keeps swapping out other contributors. And his pretension has only grown – the band’s last album, Oceania, formed the middle part of a box-set-in-progress called Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, which is honest-to-Christ its real name. Between that and stories about Corgan staging eight-hour performances based on Siddhartha and feuding with journalists and comparing himself to Kurt Cobain, well, it’s been difficult to get on board his train.
As I understand it, Monuments to an Elegy and its still-to-come successor, Day for Night, will conclude the Smashing Pumpkins project. Before I heard Monuments, I would have said that it’s not a moment too soon. But here’s the crazy thing – Monuments is every bit a Corgan solo project posing as a band record, but it’s pretty damn good. Better, in fact, than just about anything he’s released since Adore. Granted, that says more about the dismal quality of Corgan’s output since the 1990s than anything else, but faint praise is still praise, and I come to praise Monuments, not bury it.
Why does this one work? A couple reasons I can think of. First of all, it’s short – nine songs in about 33 minutes. That makes it by far the briefest Pumpkins album ever, and only one of these songs tops four minutes. It turns out that Corgan thrives in this format – he states his ideas quickly, and then backs off and makes room for what he has up his sleeve next. None of these songs are amazing, but all of them are tight and compact and alive. I enjoy the odd nine-minute epic as much as anyone, but Monuments is all the better for not including any.
Another reason, against all odds, is Tommy Lee. The Motley Crue drummer plays on all of these songs, and while one might miss Chamberlin’s more technical style, Lee pounds the skins with a force that has rarely been heard on a Pumpkins album. Even the sleepier pieces, like “Being Beige,” benefit from the life Lee pumps into them. It’s Lee who allows a stomper like “Anaise” to not only exist on this album, but to not be embarrassing. I never would have guessed that the missing element would be the guy who played on Shout at the Devil, but there you go.
And I have to give some credit to Corgan himself, I guess. He wrote some pretty good songs for this record, most notably “Drum and Fife,” probably the best Pumpkins tune in more than a decade. Corgan also figured out how to use his synths here, more effectively than he ever has – this isn’t some TheFutureEmbrace new-wave stumble, this is snaking synthesizer lines sitting nicely next to the walls of guitar noise Corgan and Jeff Schroeder bang out, like an integral part of the sound. For those of us hoping since Adore that Corgan would get here, this record’s a treat. The man’s voice is still a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, and it’s grown weaker with age, but you know what you’re in for when you buy a Pumpkins album. And he reins himself in here pretty well.
I would never suggest that Monuments to an Elegy is in the same league with early Pumpkins classics like Siamese Dream. But for latter-day Corgan, this thing is pretty good. One more like this and he may be able to go out on a high note. (Or at least something close to the note… nah, too mean.) And if he’s serious about his line in “Drum and Fife” about banging the drum until his dying day, well, this is a step in the right direction, and I wouldn’t mind hearing a few more. The fact that I’m saying that is as big a surprise to me as it probably is to you.
Next week, the year-end-apalooza starts in earnest with my (damn long) list of honorable mentions. Then the top 10 list, then Fifty Second Week, and we’re calling it a year. Thanks so much for sticking with me. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am, and Twitter at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.