The Soft Parade
By: David Fricke
The performance is simple and tender - just Billy Corgan crooning in his pinched tenor over the solitary shimmer of his acoustic guitar. Circular in it's chord patterns, straightforward, at least on the surface, in it's romantic sentiment, "Let Me Give the World to You" is the last song to be recorded for the Smashing Pumpkins forthcoming album, "Adore." But for all the naked clarity of this first take, the singer and guitarist senses deeper, stranger possibilities in the tune as he listens to a playback, his white, shaved head bent deep in thought in Studio A at Sound City in Van Nuys, California - the same room, coincidentally, where Nirvana recorded "Nevermind."
"I can see where this is going," Corgan says sharply as the tape ends; he turns to producer Rick Rubin: "It's a nice Pumpkins pop song. But I can see it somewhere else, breaking up into something different." Corgan illustrates his point by swining his arms to one side, as if he's throwing pieces of the song around the control room.
"Do you have any idea what that something is?" Rubin asks. "We can do something basic, just you and a click track. Then you can add and subtract ideas." Rubin has been invited by Corgan, who produced the other tracks on "Adore," to take the reins for this final number.
And Rubin does so with sunny patience, gently prodding the chief Pumpkin to be more explict about his ambitions for "Let Me Give the World to You."
Corgan, dressed in black from neck to toe, fishes for a reference point and comes up with the Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever." "It's a pop song," he says, "but then all this strange stuff is going on in it, things dropping in and out. I know what we have can be a good pop song. I want to see how fucked- up it can be." This has been the Pumpkins' modus operandi for the past year. Since their first round of demo sessions for "Adore" back in February '97, Corgan, guitarist James Iha and bassist D'arcy have sorely tested their own sanity as a band and the promise and durability of Corgan's material: more than thirty new originals were whittled down to about fourteen for the album, which is set to be released at the end of May.
They've used multiple drummers and scrapped weeks of inconclusive work, including sessions held last fall in Chicago with producer Brad Wood. They've cut some songs live in the studio and built others on tape, overdub by overdub. They've gone the unplugged route and jammed with drum machines. In short, the Pumpkins have made "Adore" the hard way - by trial and error.
So it is with "Let Me Give the World to You." It takes three hours of going nowhere fast - including Corgan's aborted passes at the song on piano and unsuccessful experiments with tape speed and echo - to persuade
Corgan, Iha, and D'arcy to try the obvious: playing together in real time. As Iha threads the melody with ethereal fills on a Hammond organ and guest drummer Joey Waronker, from
Beck's band, hits a tight tribal pulse, "Let Me Give the World to You" quickly ripens into something special. The spooky pneumatic tension of the group's attack fleshes out the melancholy and irony lacing Corgan's lyrics.
One night and fifty-eight takes later, the Pumpkins decide they've played the song to near perfection; they end up editing a composite track from the best perofrmances. But Rubin figures the initial false starts were worth the trouble. "If you have a great song you can make twenty different records out of it," he says, smiling through his long, thick beard. "This is one of the things I told
Billy about the rest of the album. The songs are so good that there isn't necessarily a right way to do them. There is no quintessential version, just the one you're in the mood to make." "It could have been more of an acoustic record," Iha says of "Adore." "It could have been more electronic. Or it could have been done live, with more of a band sound. This album is just an amalgamation of those things."
"I explored every possible avenue one could explore," Corgan declares, taking a breather one night before tackling vocal overdubs. "But it all adds up in your resolve and your understanding of what you're trying to accomplish.
"What's amazing about James and D'arcy," he notes with bona fide pride, "is that they almost never question what I want to do.. I don't think there's one song on the album I've been questioned about. In fact, the questions usually come about the songs that I don't want to put out. There are three songs that
D'arcy really likes that probably won't make the album. She really thinks I'm a fucking idiot for not putting them out." Even in the rough mix form, "Adore" is a bold kiss-off to the guitar-overload extremes of 1993's "Siamese Dream" and the 1995 double-CD beast "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness," combining New Wave-style electronics and intimate Beatlesque pop in varied, startling measure. The understated guitars, nightmood keyboards and machine-generated beats in "To Shelia," "Ava Adore" and "Apples and Oranges" suggest "1979" the Pumpkins' synth-pop hit from "Mellon Collie," crossed with the art-folk radiance of R.E.M.'s "Out of Time." Even "Tear" - dense, stormy, and drenched in Mellotron - and the mantralike "Shame," the two songs on "Adore" closest to outright rock, don't need monster-guiatr breaks to be heavy. Corgan attributes much of "Adore's" color and character to the Pumpkins' prolonged difficulty in adjusting to the absence of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, who was fired in July 1996 for his repeated drug use and for his part in the fatal heroin overdose of keyboard player Jonathan Melvoin. Chamberlin's touring replacement, Matt Walker, was let go during the Chicago sessions last year; ex-Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron played on several songs but appears on only one album track, "For Martha." "It took letting go of the concept of bass, two guitars and drums to actually move forward," claims Corgan. "We're literally back to where we started, which was me, James, D'arcy and a drum machine. We played gigs like that. The strangest thing was, as soon as we stopped playing with Matt [Walker] and started playing with a drum machine, we started to play like ourselves again." Iha points out that one song, "Pug," was initially recorded with Cameron as "a minor-key-blues death march. Then Billy put it up on the computer, got a good drum- machine program going, put on the synths, and I did maybe three guitar overdubs on it. It doesn't sound like anything you can quite put your finger on. It just sounds cool." "Shame" also features a drum machine but was actually recorded live. "I was feeling sad one morning," Corgan explains. "I got up, wrote the song. We went in that day and did it in three hours. What you're hearing is what I felt that day." Strangely enough, Corgan says a pivotal, if unlikely inspiration for the sound and quirky immediacy of "Adore" was the early-1950's Sun recordings of Howlin' Wolf: "I was really blown away by the visceral energy. There's other things I was listening to: Son House, Muddy Waters. But I wasn't attracted to the song per se. I was attracted to the spirit of the music. It seemed more rock & roll to me than any other rock & roll I could listen to." Corgan was so taken with the notions of a roots 'n' groove Pumpkins album that at one point he talked to both Daniel Lanois and T-Bone Burnett about producing "Adore."
"If I played all these songs for you on the piano or on acoustic guitar, it would make more sense," Corgan continues. "But I didn't feel comfortable in that skin. I wasn't offering anything new until I took in into my own space and colored it with my own crayons." The Pumpkins are just starting to confront the issue of touring as a trio, especially behind an album as offbeat as "Adore." There is talk of limiting road work to two months - the band did fourteen months on behalf of "Mellon Collie" - and of using extra musicians in lieu of tapes and samplers. Corgan says he also wants to do a solo acoustic tour this year as an outlet for all the new songs that didn't make "Adore: "I'm not going to even release them as B-sides. The idea is to start working on a solo record over time." But, Corgan insists, "the energy around the new record is going to dictate what happens. Fuck, everybody might hate it. I don't know. I'd be lying if I said, 'The record company hates it, the fans hate it - right, I'm going to go out on tour.' I'll just stay home."
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