It was twenty years ago that Smashing Pumpkins released their debut album, Gish. Back before their self-parody in becoming the world’s greatest Pumpkins cover band, they were just like any other young group playing lots of gigs and honing their craft. Initially influenced by The Cure, their first offering would see them graduate and update their sound to reflect Jane’s Addiction and My Bloody Valentine.
Reflecting on the album, the enigmatic zeitgeist and frontman, Billy Corgan described it as one of those weird ones that “Sounds like it came from some guy who crawls up out of the basement holding it in his hands proudly”. It’s filled with self-described “beautiful naiveté” and the group wanted people to sit up and question where it had all come from just as fans had done with Dinosaur Jr.’s Dinosaur.
It’s strange that Corgan reckons there aren’t a lot of great songs to be found here. Instead, he thinks it is more of a dynamic statement showing a band taking chances and producing lots of great ideas. Though this may be true, there’s no denying its impact and resonance because it would be considered by many to be groundbreaking alt-rock and was one of the highest selling independent albums of its time. The fact is it also held its own amongst two other excellent records released in 1991, they being no less than Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten.
Gish was produced with Butch Vig, the man also responsible for the aforementioned Nirvana classic. It sees ten dense and meticulously crafted songs that are laden with guitars, occasionally ones that are heavy while at other moments they are rather silky and lilting. Even then, Corgan was known for his perfectionist tendencies because he would re-record some of James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky’s guitar and bass parts.
This set espouses the Pumpkins’ tendency to marry loud and soft elements in both songs and on record. It means you can have moments full of bold and punchy power chords while at other times things are more like soft and fragile confessions. I Am One kicks things off with guitars that crunch and rumble but whose lyrics were inspired by an article about Desmond Tutu. The first single, it was a touch faster than the previously recorded version of the track and it was designed to be a statement of spiritual unity. Siva may have started with the name of a God but it was – according to Corgan – born from watching humanity walk by dying and was laced with LSD visions of making love while illuminated by a street light. A now mainstay of the band’s set, it is a fireball of power, passion and energy.
Another track to fair well in the longevity stakes is the amazing, Rhinoceros. It is about sentimentalism and idealism and sees lots of pulsing feedback painted with a light and feathery brush. This yin and yang disparateness continues into Crush, one inspired by Curtis Mayfield’s poetry, a stolen riff and music that twinkles away thanks to it’s perfect and glossy production.
Suffer begins life sounding rather sinister before dropping things down a notch to revel in quiet while Crush is the absolute opposite with its screaming guitar riffs. Daydream closes things with some sweet, feminine vocals courtesy of Wretzky. These are a welcome change to Corgan’s tones which at different points can sit anywhere on a scale from a snarl to nasally and whiny, and at their best are like a beguiling and velvety croon.
The reissue of Gish again sees the rough edges of grunge and punk-based guitar riffs packaged as cryptic and melodic pop numbers that can prove at different points to be like claustrophobic walls of sound and sprawling sonic landscapes. This collection is also a wild and frantic one, such that you can hear everyone from Jimi Hendrix to beat poet, Jack Kerouac leaving a mark of influence. But ultimately, Gish (like all Smashing Pumpkins’ records) is Corgan’s baby, a highly personal album that despite its galloping riffs, pummelling drums and reverb-laden feedback is actually gut-wrenching in its melancholy and infinite sadness.
Gish is the first of the band’s reissues and it may see some people dismissing it as a blatant cash cow but the vinyl-loving audiophiles will love the crisp and clear qualities that now punctuate the proceedings. At the very least, Gish shows a unified and supportive band making outsider music that is full of promise. The sounds didn’t yet spell today as being the greatest day but the group’s tomorrow was looking darned bright!
Originally published on 17 January 2012 at the following website: http://sludgefactory.com.au/smashing-pumpkins-gish-cd-review
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