Tuesday, March 25, 2008

American Gothic EP - The Smashing Pumpkins

American Gothic EP

The Smashing Pumpkins
Reprise Records.

SCQ Rating: 74%

Venues selling out in minutes, ‘Tarantula’ on alt-rock rotation every half hour, the shroud of mystery over whether James and Darcy would show up, and that hideous Statue of Liberty drowning on posters all over city walkways; yes, the summer of 2007 will stand in the Fanboy Book of 90s Idols as the terrifically-hyped return of the Smashing Pumpkins. Yet despite such ardent Zeitgeist profiteering, the palpable storm of media attention backfired: the record was underwhelming by Pumpkin standards and by the end of August, a summers-worth of expectation had thinned embarrassingly. So less than a year later, it seems that the infamously narcissistic Billy Corgan may be eating some humble pie with the fresh and subdued American Gothic EP.

Contrary to the smothering promotional efforts of Zeitgeist, I discovered this new release carelessly filed in the Elliott Smith section. Likewise, I’ve found few reviews or reference-points to this EP online (perhaps this is because American Gothic is unavailable to the USA in physical format). Whatever the reason is for this under-the-rug release method, it’s as wisely unassuming as the material itself; American Gothic is, despite its 17 minute running length, a sprawling open-strum of backyard guitar odes that answer the call of many fans who berated Zeitgeist for lacking a sensitive side. From the opening acoustic tumble of ‘The Rose Parade’, we’re reunited with a strain of Billy Corgan songwriting that hasn’t been heard since Zwan’s Mary Star of the Sea, or in the SP catalogue, Adore; a melancholic, folk that chastises the needless effects that Corgan is known to submerge songs in. When he asks “Can’t you see me at all?”, it’s sung honestly, without the whiny bellyache that sunk much of a certain solo album. ‘Again, Again, Again’ follows, proudly-paced by Chamberlain’s unmistakable drum-work, and builds into a restrained but addictive chorus that manages to evoke a passion and romanticism out of Billy that has been long absent.

When American Gothic debuted on I-Tunes in January, Corgan spoke lovingly of these song’s origins (most of which written before or during Zeitgeist) and how he opted to record them during a tour-break in the fall of 2007. His decision, at first, sounds misguided when you consider how badly their last album could’ve used these songs to loosen that Sabbath noose and offer a greater range of songcraft. The more I listen to American Gothic, however, the more I understand Corgan’s choice to keep each release focused; difference is, where Zeitgeist’s focal point proved its undoing, the lack of variety here works (in fact, the more aggressive ‘Pox’ is the least affecting here).

If the purposefully garish arena-rock of the last Pumpkins album felt too cumbersome, I urge all waning fans to seek out its opposite; a curving song-cycle of romantic notions that are as rustic and bare as the railroad-stitched plains that adorn the EP’s sleeves. Although these songs pale in comparison to the best of the Pumpkins’ softer material (Mellon Collie...’s second half, the Tonight, Tonight EP), American Gothic is the best SP material I’ve heard since the 90s and a modest redemption for those of us who were ready to walk away.

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