Thursday, March 6, 2008

Smashing Pumpkins - MACHINA II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music

Smashing Pumpkins - MACHINA II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music
by Dave Toropov



I look out into cyberspace and can see the eyes rolling already. Billy Corgan & Co. have certainly taken a nosedive in street credibility in the past year or so, what with a ham-fisted Corgan gravedigging his old band from the burial grounds of rock’s retired and respected veterans. When finally unearthed, the body of his legacy turned out to be crippled and sans a limb or two (James Iha and D’arcy Wretzky), but Corgan decided to Frankenstein the group back together anyway with another token girl bassist and a quiet, compliant guitarist, tour the world, and release Zeitgeist in fan-manipulative fashion, with more exclusive and special editions than Terminator 2. It’s odd then to think back to the year 2000 and the single-finger salute to the record company establishment that is Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music.

For however heinously Zeitgeist’s release was executed by Corgan, Machina II’s deployment into the alternative community’s consciousness was honorable and a significant precursor to Radiohead’s In Rainbows digital release commotion. Without the record company’s confidence that they could sell Machina/The Machines of God as a double album a la Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness in the twilight of the Pumpkins’ popularity, Corgan, in frustration, benevolence, or some concoction of the two, independently released Machina II on his own Constantinople Records, limiting the pressing to a strict count of 25 vinyl copies of the double LP release, with a collection of three 10-inch EPs to accompany it. Corgan then mailed the records to significant members of the Smashing Pumpkins fan community and told them to distribute digital copies of the album on the Internet for free.

What a fantastic story – nevermind that the album itself is one of the best things the band ever released. It’s a shame that 99.9% of the world will never know this album exists, because you would be hard pressed to find a more transcendent song in the Pumpkins’ catalogue than “Home,” a better Iha contribution than “Go,” or a moment that the group sounded more excited to rock out than the first ten seconds of “Dross.”

In the interest of not getting ahead of ourselves, this is not the Pumpkins best album. They never shattered skulls with the ease of Siamese Dream again, but Machina II is definitely their most intimate and charming hour. The Pumpkins have always been like a lion at your local zoo – an impressive, toned, beautiful animal that you could never be close to. Whether its because of the subtle clicks and pops of the endearing lo-fi distortion of the vinyl source or the audible studio banter between tracks, Machina II removes that veil, and as such the music within seems just a little bit more honest than that which came before it.

There is no doubt in my mind that even fans will skip a couple of the release’s combined 25 tracks – “White Spyder” sounds like a half-finished and formulaic chug-rocker and “Heavy Metal Machine” is pretty much a droning, self-indulgent mess. As a result, I defy anyone to get through the entire hour and a half of this effort in one sitting without at least considering putting something else on, but I also am positive that Billy Corgan wouldn’t be offended. Machina II is, more than anything, a love letter to fans, and the few duds present on the Pumpkins’ swan song are there in the interest of getting as much music out as possible before calling it a day. If anything, the group sounds liberated and confident without the pressure to produce a commercial record.

“Let Me Give the World to You” was apparently the album's intended single, and it shows all the hallmarks of a standard Pumpkins hit, with dreamy post-shoegaze chord progressions, whiny, yet oddly charming sighs and a chorus that sticks in your head despite sounding like every “1979”-esque Pumpkins chorus that came before it. However, the underground classic here is “Home.” For whatever “Let Me Give the World to You” achieves formulaically, “Home,” by contrast, sounds honest and touching, drawing from an aching, inevitable line like “Love is everything I want” repeated throughout. In its simplicity, “Try, Try, Try,” a track also released on the original Machina sounds exceptional in this context. While the alternate version of “Cash Car Star” that is provided sounds incomplete and bare in comparison to the final take, this version of “Try” benefits from less studio sheen, more acoustic guitars, and allows fantastic lyrics which Corgan unfortunately changed in the final version to shine.

For all it’s worth, it’s a shame that Billy Corgan couldn’t leave his band’s legacy well enough alone, because there’s no better way to walk out into the sunset than this album. It might not be their most important or influential record, but given the proper chance, it’s easily their most lovable, and at its heart Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music showcases the Smashing Pumpkins at the very top of their game with some of the best songs they ever recorded. And it’s fucking free, for God’s sake.

Dave Toropov is currently a student at Bard College and a staff writer for Lost at Sea.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have very little interest in Pumpkins, but I enjoyed this entry, and it did make me curious to hear the album--which I didn't know existed.

March 7, 2008 at 8:11 AM  

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