Smashing Pumpkins' "Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol.1" Is Actually Kind of Dull
The woah woah woah-ing that opens Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol.1/ LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun (which for my sanity and yours will be henceforth referred to as Shiny) is undoubtedly supposed to sound forlorn and dramatic. Instead it sounds extremely off-putting, an almost sickly groan that captures Billy Corgan's vocals at their worst. While fans of The Smashing Pumpkins have come to appreciate, and even love, Corgan's weasely rasp, its success has always hinged on the music surrounding it. On this latest release, about as often as not, the match up simply isn't there, with the mostly reunited Pumpkins supplying music that doesn't complement the vocal melodies and lyrics, leaving a jarring, mixed experience when they really needed a home run.
"Knights of Malta," the first track on the album, is everything wrong with the latest attempts by the Smashing Pumpkins to jump back into the world of rock music. Like "Run2me" on Monuments to an Elegy or "Wildflower" on Oceania, Corgan tries to create a ballad, a song suited for an arena rock concert or a sold-out stadium show. Instead, Corgan's harsh vocals mash awkwardly with saccharine lyrics ("We're gonna ride the rainbow") and melodramatic violins and piano, making a song neither suited to the Pumpkins' classic style or up to par with modern rock bands. "Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)" does right by quickly jumping away from this style. Instead of bombastic and overblown, "Silvery Sometimes" utilizes a more passive drumbeat reminiscent of "1979," and thankfully avoids any overtly cheesy lyrics.
"Travels" is the most neutral song I maybe have ever heard, and despite listening to it three times, I can't seem to recall the hook. Back are the cliched lyrics from the first track, this time waxing about...well, I'm not really sure to be honest, and I'm not sure Smashing Pumpkins do either . But Corgan sure meant to sound poetic with lines like "See tears, see bright/ see day from night" and "see you, see me/ see destiny." After you are done forgetting that you listened to "Travels" is "Solara," the real reason I checked out this album and the best case for the continued existence of this iteration of the Smashing Pumpkins. "Solara" was released as a single for the album back when it was going to be two separate EP's, and I heard them play it on their recent 30th anniversary show where it blended nicely with the throwback heavy setlist that they played. More hard rock than any of the previous songs on the album, "Solara" is upbeat, punchy and filled with chugging guitar riffs, as well as the "quiet verse, loud chorus" dynamic that characterized much of the 90's.
If "Solara" is this album's big success, and "Knights of Malta" is the most off-base, "Alienation" lies right in between. As a chorus, just yelling "alienation" isn't particularly catchy or memorable, but there are elements that work. In particular, the drums sound like they have been transplanted from a slowed down 70's dance song, highlighting the success of Jimmy Chamberlin as a drummer, and the guitar solo is also pretty solid from James Iha. The piano and acoustic guitar elements also succeed in being less jarring this time around, achieving drama without being over-the-top. "Marchin' On" is also a lot of fun, and seemingly contains all of the grittiness and dirtiness not present on the rest of the album. Daring to invoke the distortion and off-key guitar work of Pumpkins' past, "Marchin' On" delivers that missing element of chaos and creativity.
"With Sympathy" also manages to recapture some of the magic present on classic songs like "Today" or "Cherub Rock." This track succeeds because it manages to sound genuine in its expression of longing and love, relying more on melancholic guitar than a full orchestral backdrop. "Seek and You Shall Destroy" will probably be a little divisive among fans, largely because it almost sounds like a pop-rock song. I think the foray into a slightly different style is successful, injecting some vigor into an otherwise by-the-books album. Ultimately, the second half of the album may be stronger than the first half, but lacks anything substantial to sink your teeth into.
Shiny could have stood to take more risks, neither fully succeeding as as a return to form nor an innovative next chapter for the Smashing Pumpkins. The nearly restored line up seems to be unwilling to commit to a direction, instead putting out bland ballad-esque tracks that appear to mainly be aimed at getting people to sing along in packed stadiums. Someone should tell Billy Corgan that their 30th Anniversary tour didn't sell so well.