I remember reading a desert-island-albums list by Billy Corgan in 1993 that was so scarily like my own musical arc-- pop/prog/metal nerd discovers goth, Jane's Addiction, and My Bloody Valentine-- that I couldn't have been more designed for Smashing Pumpkins hyperfandom if I tried. Like no one before him, Corgan made those influences work. As Canadian writer Jennifer Nine once put it in Melody Maker, you got a sense that he was the kind of guy who worked out every last transcription from Guitar Player in the 1980s and then actually did something with it. It helped that the rest of the band had their own skills, especially in the case of Jimmy Chamberlin, a jazz/hard-rock drum freak let loose on alt-rock radio.
Alt-rock radio, at its height of commercial trendsetting, enabled the Pumpkins to not merely survive but thrive. There, Corgan could have his cake and eat it too, daring people to get annoyed at his starlust and reacting in kind while further building up his ambitions. He got his band signed to a major label and used the fig leaf of a corporate indie release for Gish, scored a prime spot on the Seattle-focused Singles soundtrack with "Drown", essentially went "Haters gonna hate" with Siamese Dream's first single "Cherub Rock", and got petulant when any other acts or writers accused him of protesting too much. And not just Pavement, either: "You hurt me deeply in my heart," he once infamously pouted to Kim Thayil before a 1994 Australian concert, following which the Pumpkins went on "to play the best set anybody has ever heard them play."
All of which goes some distance toward explaining why both reissues of Gish and Siamese Dream-- appropriately loaded with rarities, DVD bonuses, fancy packaging, and often-impressionistic song-for-song liner notes by Corgan-- remain remarkable thoughout unequal listens. Even in 1991, Gish felt like something that started off well with songs like "Siva" and"Rhinoceros" but meandered a bit toward the end. Corgan's voice never sounded as lost in his music as it does here, and most of the emphasis is on the band's collective performance: Chamberlin's powerful, fluid drumming, Darcy Wretzky's strong basslines, and that thick, chunky glaze of guitars.
The rarities disc contains a few never-before-heard numbers, a few that have long circulated among fanatics (the Corgan-sung version of "Daydream" is a keeper), and a handful of remixed selections (including their best full-on rock epic, "Starla") that first surfaced on a full-length release via the odds-and-ends release Pisces Iscariot. These tracks do a better job of showcasing the band's various sonic sides than Gish itself. The DVD, a multi-camera cut from a live show at the Metro in Chicago almost a year prior to Gish's release, shows that the band already had their exact arrangements pretty well down, as well as a worshipping fanbase. The highlights include Corgan and James Iha's heavily long hair, curious fashion choices all around, and set-closing covers of Steppenwolf and Blue Öyster Cult; the video quality is pretty good and the sound mix, if heavily favoring the vocals, beats out most bootlegs of the time.
In contrast to Gish's steady flow, Siamese Dream crashes out of the gate. "Cherub Rock" remains an absolutely stellar opener with a sense of pure sonic melodrama, thanks to Chamberlin's circus-act drum introduction, a tight clip of guitars quickly matched by equally nimble bass, a volcanic blast of a guitar lead, and then a shift to a woozy, still-building sprawl. And all this before the first verse even starts. Throw in everything that followed-- the overt MBV worship of "Hummer", the country-rock-tinged wanderlust of "Mayonaise", "Soma"'s update of Prince's "The Beautiful Ones" for a new decade, and inevitably the MTV/radio hits"Today", "Disarm", and "Rocket"-- and no matter your take on its mastermind or his divisive whining/sighing vocals, it's an embarrassment of musical riches.
There's also the fact that the album's studio personnel was as essentially stripped down as the White Stripes; Corgan, frantically taking charge in the midst of band dysfunction, recorded nearly everything himself aside from the drums, and he'd probably have handled those too if he could. Siamese Dream's songs don't blend into each other, but some transitions exist; each stands out in a brilliant sequence, forming perhaps the best concept album they ever made.
One of the main things people complained about was exactly what made the band click even further. If Corgan's early lyrics were classic self-centered/self-righteous/self-pitying teenagerdom run amock, he always had an ear for hooks, metaphors, and deft summaries (thus, on "Mayonaise": "Fool enough to almost be it/ Cool enough to not quite see it"). It's catnip for when you have it bad, no matter how minuscule your problems might really be, and any number of later bands (My Chemical Romance most obviously, and the Pains of Being Pure at Heart most recently) took plenty of notice.
As for the many rarities, more Pisces Iscariot remixes and other demos and alternate versions take a bow, including a six-minute version of "Siamese Dream" itself (the original B-side version was a shorter and murkier take that ran under three minutes) and twin instrumentals "U.S.A." and "U.S.S.R.". The DVD is the most worthwhile addition of either reissue; taken from another Metro show a couple of weeks after Siamese Dream's release, it vividly illustrates how far the band had come in the three years since Gish: It showcases their more varied sound, Corgan's keener sense for playing to the crowd (there are flashes of his and Iha's underrated sense of humor), a killer setlist drawing on both albums (plus "Starla" and "Drown"), and brilliant sound and performances throughout. If Corgan's voice shows strain at many points, the crowd shots are especially entertaining, with endless moshpits and crowdsurfers during most of the loud points and plenty of the slow ones.
The full story of the band's existence has plenty of ups and downs to go through, and there are more reissues to come to spell this out, even as the current version of the band moves along according to Corgan's own cryptic impulses. Yet these two releases still resonate, as both a nostalgia fix underscoring how it was so easy to fall for Smashing Pumpkins in the first place, and as the best introductions to their music any newcomer could want.