Saturday, November 15, 2008

Review: Smashing Pumpkins "If All Goes Wrong" (DVD)

The Smashing Pumpkins, like Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead before them, is an iconic '90s band without a major record label behind them. In other words, they are free to record, release, and promote themselves however they like. In this case, they recently released a two-DVD music documentary/concert video called If All Goes Wrong.

The first disc is the documentary If All Goes Wrong, which chronicles the reconstituted Pumpkins throughout their two residency stints in Asheville, North Carolina, and San Francisco, California. We get to see the two remaining original Pumpkins - Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin - come together with their new bandmates - Jeff Schroeder (guitar), Ginger Reyes (bass/vocals), and Lisa Harriton (keyboards/vocals).

We are also treated to a handful of sequences involving Billy Corgan's relationship with his personal assistant. One of my personal goals in life as of watching this DVD is to hire a personal assistant to "abuse," too.

I don't quite recall much info on the new bass player Ginger Reyes in the doc, but she's definitely closer to Jeff Ament in talent than D'Arcy Wretzky. I got more memorable information when it came to keyboardist Lisa Harriton, as she was a jazz musician who suddenly found herself in the realm of rock and roll - much like her bandmate/employer Jimmy Chamberlin. Jeff "Shredder" Schroeder showed that he's closer to being a second Billy Corgan than merely James Iha's replacement.

Having two Billy Corgans in the band - that is to say, two virtually virtuoso guitarists of a certain style - might ultimately disqualify Schroeder from recording with the band anytime soon. While James Iha compensated his lack of "fluid" skill with more "angular" elements (the Whammy pedal in "Zero," the EBow in "Stand Inside Your Love," and a Laser Tag gun in live performances), we will have to see if Billy Corgan will allow someone else to record something that he himself would do anyway.

That said, Jeff's meltdown and guitar throwing episode was an enjoyable sequence in the documentary.

Returning drummer Jimmy Chamberlin showed that he's been Mr. Consistency ever since returning to Billy Corgan's favor in early 1999. (He was fired from the band for drug abuse the previous two-plus years.) Where once an erratic drug abuser, the sober Chamberlin is the rock of the rock band. It's a shame there isn't more Jimmy in this movie. The Adore album aside, Jimmy has always been second banana to Billy (a close and essential second, mind you) in the recording studio, but has always been portrayed as third or fourth banana in the media (behind James and D'Arcy). With this new band, he's definitely the the band.

Much of the doc's storyline is the progression of Corgan writing songs in his hotel room, wearing a slightly disturbing nightgown (if we weren't talking about Corgan here) and trying them out in concert. There's also a bit of tricky navigating on Corgan, Chamberlin, et al., concerning being a new band with new songs and being a re-constituted old band with classic songs - and what the fans want to hear. Hint: It's the latter.

The best sequence in the documentary involves Billy Corgan openly talking about the songs "Soma" and "Mayonaise," and the songs' co-writer James Iha. Corgan's lament that Iha gets all the credit for those songs and subsequent quasi-tantrum are worth the price of admission alone (about $17). Iha gets the credit because he has so few credits in the Pumpkins' catalog, and he started the chain of events that ultimately led to "Soma" and "Mayonaise." Without Iha's B-E-G progression in "Soma," Corgan couldn't have arranged the Pumpkins' closest attempt to having their own "Stairway to Heaven." Without Iha screwing around with alternate tunings to play uniquely-voiced Bbsus2-Gm-Eb chords, there would be no "Mayonaise." It's causality, Mr. Corgan.

My advice (pardon the pun, if you get the in-joke) to Corgan: Try your damnedest to bury the hatchet with your former bandmates. At the very least, take a hint from your pal Paris Hilton and become James' frenemy and D'Arcy's frenemy and be nicer to second bassist Melissa Auf der Mar. If the Pumpkins are in New York City, invite James Iha on stage for "Soma" or "Mayonaise" or "I Am One" (even if it is Jimmy's song due to the kick ass drum intro) or "Plume" or "Farewell and Goodnight" or even "Bugg Superstar" (RIP Bugg the dog). If the Pumpkins are in Texas or Michigan, track down D'Arcy and do vocals on "Daydream" or "Beautiful" or Blondie's "Dreaming" or "Farewell and Goodnight." You really don't have to let her play the bass again. But be sure to have Melissa Auf der Maur on bass for some Machina-era material in Montreal.

If you do that, Billy, everyone will get off your back. Guaranteed. If you're in the mood to forgive the past's ills, please incorporate the Zwan song "Mary Star of the Sea" to the Pumpkins' repertoire. It's an epic in the league of "Porcelina" and "Starla." Jimmy also gets performance royalties for the song, since he wrote part of it too.

Anyway, the second disc is the concert video The Fillmore Residency. It's a good introduction to the newer songs, some rearrangements of Machina-era songs, and sparse appearances by good oldies. "Starla" is one of the highlights from the compilation:

While the first few minutes of the penultimate song "Gossamer" are awesome, the song drags around the last twenty or so minutes of the jam. The musicians are obviously having fun doing what they're doing - there's even a section where it's only newbies Jeff, Ginger, and Lisa jamming - but I wanted to take a nap during the tedium. After that, however, we are treated with both Billy and Jimmy playing acoustic guitars for the finale "Zeitgeist":

It's good to see a guy named James (in this case, Jimmy) playing guitar alongside Billy.

My complaint of the concert video, other than "Gossamer," is the over-editing of the footage. There's too much reliance on making the performance more like a music video - with shots "enhanced" by post-production effects - than making the performance look like a concert. I'd take a moderately-edited Pearl Jam concert video any day. The rehearsal video bonus feature, "Live from the Floor of the Fillmore," is moderately better in terms of post-production evenhandedness.

Anyway, I wish one of my favorite bands the best of luck in their renewed era. Even with all the reported drama of Billy Corgan antagonizing the audience (and vice versa), which borders on pro wrestling (of which Corgan is a fan), and the reportedly lackluster 20th anniversary shows, I hope to see the new band one day. Unfortunately, in this economy, all I can afford is a two-disc DVD set.

Close enough, for now.

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