Billy Corgan knows what to do when his muse pays him a visit. The guitarist and singer of the Smashing Pumpkins — alternately hailed as a tortured genius and vilified as the bratty voice of entitled suburban youth — turns on a tape recorder. Pretty soon, he has some Smashing Pumpkins songs. Many songs. More than he knows what to do with. Songs that look at otherness from every possible angle. Songs that whine about a lover's insensitivity.
If you've spent any time with the Pumpkins' 1995 double CD, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, you already know about Corgan's prolific tendencies. What you may not realize is how prolific he and the Pumpkins can be. By the time the Pumpkins started touring after the completion of Mellon Collie, they had nearly five albums' worth of material in the can. Some of that stuff saw daylight as the B sides of Mellon Collie's five CD-single releases. The Aeroplane Flies High, packaged in a box that resembles a vintage carrying case for 45-rpm vinyl discs, collects the A and B sides from all five singles and offers a slate of newly recorded cover versions as a bonus — 33 tracks in all.
Aeroplane is the Pumpkins' Anthology 1, a cutting-room-floor companion piece to Mellon Collie that provides insight into Corgan's extraordinary creative outbursts. He has said that Mellon Collie was a transforming experience for the band, and Aeroplane shows how much the Pumpkins are still willing to take chances. And here's the scary part: There is no filler here. These supposedly second-string tracks are keepers. Aeroplane has its indulgent moments; the very exercise of anthologizing this material is megalomaniacal. But the ballads are as gorgeous as anything Corgan has ever written. The box also has small, ruminative pieces that are jarringly thoughtful and blasts of guitar riffage straight outta the corporate-rock '70s.
Many of these 8 sides are as compelling as the songs included on Mellon Collie, if only because they offer contrast and counterpoint to the trademark ballistics and brooding drones of the A sides: "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," "1979," "Zero," "Tonight, Tonight" and "Thirty-three." "The Last Song," which features Corgan's father, Bill Corgan Sr., on guitar, is a good example: Though it echoes the tone and temperament of the rueful ballads on Mellon Collie, "The Last Song" is also a departure — stately and anthemic, blessed with a delicacy and grace that is unlike anything else in the band's catalog.
Indeed, Aeroplane's best moments are the ones that take the Pumpkins into less-familiar territory. "The Boy," one of several compositions by guitarist James Iha, strives for a British dance-pop vibe that is clean, streamlined and uncharacteristically bubbly, while Corgan's acoustic confessional "Blank" tries to bring dignity to the condition of emotional emptiness.
Each of the discs contains at least trace evidence that Corgan and the Pumpkins are pretty much over the snarly postures of alternative rock. The instrumental "Tribute to Johnny" is built around a guitar melody that recalls vintage Aerosmith; the solo section finds the band swerving tellingly close to the hormonal stomp of arena rock. "The Bells" is set in an orchestral swirl that has more to do with Aaron Copland than Sonic Youth. "Ugly" taps the wounded-self-esteem theme of Mellon Collie bus does so in plain, overt language: "And I rot in my skin/As a piece of me dies every day/I know I'm nothing/Because I'm ugly."
While the Pumpkins hit a steamy momentum on the Cars' "You're All I've Got Tonight," the other covers (particularly the versions of Missing Persons' "Destination Unknown" and the Cure's "A Night Like This") are Aeroplane's only serious missteps. The originals — even the 23-minute "Pastichio Medley," a rapid-fire collage of demo and rehearsal pieces — are far more engaging glimpses of a band still in the process of divining its identity. In "Pastichio," Corgan sorts through bite-size excerpts of Pumpkin-y ephemera — skronky guitar melodies, bold Hendrixstyle distortion, crunchy rhythm riffs — to create a compressed diary of songs that might have been. Sometimes he hits on something brilliant; just as often, "Pastichio" feels like a high-school technology project gone awry.
But the jarring transitions in "Pastichio" and throughout Aeroplane communicate something important about this band: The minute that things get too obvious or mundane or insincere, or too much like what's gone before, the Pumpkins have got a hand on the dial, ready to change the station.
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