The Aeroplane Flies High - ATN - Jan 1997
'...And You Can Use The Packaging As a Cute Li'l Purse!'
By Beth Winegarner
"The world pisses a silver stream to let you know it is there. on the other side of the slipstream of countless thoughtless thoughts. it shatters and divides into a million fragments because life is not a lifestyle choice. we are not a fashion accessory. music is god's bones creaking pleasure, amusement, even occasional approval. we salute you all with a crack of the back, a baseball bat and a smile. god bless us all, for what we think and feel is all we really have."
So writes Billy Corgan in the booklet which accompanies the Smashing Pumpkins' latest burst of ambition, The Aeroplane Flies High, a five-single box set spanning releases from 1995's Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. On its own, the double-album Melon was an impressive tribute to Corgan's prolific nature. But when you consider the 28 brand-new songs and covers which grace the backs of these five singles, you get the idea that this man's life is constructed of guitar riffs, melancholy bursts of poetry, and a close relationship with his mini-cassette recorder.
Not that that's a bad thing. Though a number of b-sides become what they are because they're second-rate material -- outtakes that weren't fit for the final cut -- the songs on Aeroplane are at least as good as the ones heard throughout Melon; some, in their own way, are probably better. Packaging one's singles in this way might seem like a snobbish, or even megalomaniacal notion, but it's probably the only way the band could keep track of so much music -- some of which was only released overseas, if at all.
The first single in the set, "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," is backed with five previously-unheard covers and a new number, "...Said Sadly," a duet between Pumpkins guitarist James Iha and Veruca Salt's Nina Gordon, a clumsy and endearing love song shot through with acoustic and pedal steel guitars.
The covers themselves are a mixed bag -- the Cars' "You're All I've Got Tonight" is turned into a crazy marriage of grunge-noise and '80s-style momentum, while Blondie's "Dreaming" features D'Arcy on vocals amidst a wash of woozy guitars. On "A Night Like This," James Iha tries to cop Robert Smith's low, moody vocal from the Cure's original, but winds up sounding seasick. "Destination Unknown" turns the Missing Persons track into a near-industrial number in its synth-driven attack.
The second CD begins with "1979," which is followed by "Ugly," a sparsely-instrumented track which coveys a mainline of bitterness and self-hatred, then does a complete 180 into "The Boy," a happy-go-lucky number featuring a psychedelically distorted vocal by Iha. Next is the mournful, almost-spooky "Cherry," its disconcerting broken-up sound a fitting backdrop for its wanting lyric: "I need a love to help me find my way/ I need a strength that I cannot betray/ I need a word to say what I can't say/ I need a lover."
Most of the tracks on "Zero" follow in the footsteps of the single. "God" leads straight out of the final notes of "Zero" as if the two songs were always meant to go together, echoing each other's hell-bent anger. On "Mouths of Babes," the Pumpkins begin to reveal some of their roots, with a '70s progressive arena-rock guitar theme and a nod to the power and apathy of youth: "And the mouths of babes sing revolution/ And the mouths of babes scream disillusion/ You can't break what's already broken/ Cause from the mouths of babes comes nothing."
"Tribute to Johnny" follows, an instrumental whose roots in '70s rock is again unmistakable. "Marquis in Spades" returns the listener to a more contemporary sound, its grungy, plodding riff reminiscent of early Soundgarden, circa "Louder than Love." The "Zero" single is capped with the 23-minute "Pastichio Medley," an endless collection of sample riffs, possibilities never fleshed out. While it's interesting to hear these samples, the song (if it can even be called that) is annoying as a piece of work.
The single for "Tonight, Tonight" follows with its collection of soft-driven ballads. "Meladori Magpie," for instance, is a cozy backyard-blues moment a la Pink Floyd's "Seamus," though its rhythm and riff also call to mind the Beatles' "Blackbird." "Rotten Apples" enters next with a gorgeous and moody bluegrass guitar melody fronted by Corgan's longing vocal: "Life just fades away/Purity just begs/Dust to dust we're wired into sadness." Later, "Medellia of the Grey Skies" returns with a bell-like 12-string melody, ethereal (and almost otherworldly) vocals and the ghost of a piano, while the "Tonite Reprise" offers a sweetly sleepy, pared-down reiteration of the original.
"Thirty-Three" caps off the collection, offering first "The Last Song," a nearly-anthemic piece which implies a transition for the band -- though what kind we can only guess. The melody of its verse is that of a late-night lounge pianist, relaxed but restless, while its chorus is drenched in strings reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's "Rain Song."
"The Aeroplane Flies High (Turns Right, Looks Left)" follows, an eight-minute opus which opens with non-sequitur snippets from Corgan talking into his mini-recorder -- including a lyric which made it into the final song. The song as a whole is pensive, haunting, full of rage but restrained in its slow beat. Corgan sings with due anger, "I'll take my secrets to the grave/ Safely held beneath the waves/ Always knew I couldn't save you."
"Transformer" stands out as an uptempo rocker, while "The Bells" winds down with its chiming guitars and harmonized vocals. The box set ends with the wistful and old-worldly "My Blue Heaven," its piano melody (contributed by guest musician Chris Martin) calling to mind those old silent movies, with Charlie Chaplin walking off into the sunset.
Taken as a whole, The Aeroplane Flies High is a worthwhile collection of little gems; some of these songs are nothing more than a guitar and a vocal, but that's all they need. Much of it, too, returns the Pumpkins to the sound they had cultivated for their first major-label release, Gish, with the same rough-hewn guitars and underproduced arrangements. It's nice to hear D'Arcy's voice again -- and the work turned in by Iha is also refreshing. Iha's themes tend toward the sweeter, more optimistic side of romance; his lyrics are too innocent for Corgan's pained, gravelly voice. Though Iha is not a great singer, his voice is simple, honest and perfectly suited to his writing.
The biggest drawback to the box set is its cumbersome packaging -- those who aren't privileged enough to own multi-CD players will have to be diligent in order to listen to the entire set consecutively. But that's a small price to pay in trade for the convenience of these singles, whose b-sides often traversed multiple releases.
"Music is God's bones creaking..." It's a powerful image -- one that places the love of music alongside more well-recognized religions -- and also applauds all the gorgeous noise bring written, recorded and performed throughout the world. It isn't that the Pumpkins are a great band so much as they work constantly, doing their best to give a voice to their emotions. Go on, imagine what the world would be like if bands were given creative freedom to explore, play, create and record from what they felt in their hearts. It's easy if you try.
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