New Listen: The Forgotten Prophets’ ‘The End’

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Artist: The Forgotten Prophets
Album: The End (2016)

I can think of few better ways to musically kick off 2016 than The End, the debut album from The Forgotten Prophets. The End is pure rock and roll, the songcraft and stylings of which are a tasteful and fun mix of rock, blues, and country, with strong elements of roots music and improvisation.

Bassist, vocalist, and songwriter Pat Harris may, at least on paper, serve as the group’s de facto leader, but the album is very much a group effort. This virtuosic sextet brings together top-notch musicians into a whole that is greater than the sum of its formidable parts. Guitarist Chris Bell is a first-rate gunslinger. Together with James Anderson, who deftly moves between melodic violin playing and gritty fiddling, they handle much of the album’s lead soloing. Keyboardist Jonathan Geer flexibly rounds out the melodic and harmonic fabric with everything from barroom swagger on acoustic piano to funky electric textures. Aaron Lack and Steve Schwelling do a particularly great job of forming one full-bodied but cohesive percussive unit. Harris sandwiches the sound with his rock-solid and often melodic basslines and his strong vocals.

At the risk of being hyperbolic, The End is timeless. Pristine production quality* aside, the songs and performances sound simultaneously fresh and decades old (though not a bit dated). As stated at the outset, this is rock and roll (i.e., before it was just “rock”), a genre borne out of rhythm & blues and country and meant for an intimate stage and dance floor. The End doesn’t at all come off as a stylistic homage (a la Billy Joel). It’s the genuine artifact, and the songs’ styles and moods are diverse but cohesive. Harris’s compositions are artful yet accessible pieces that demonstrate a deep and broad well of musical influences. Songwriting has long been one of his many strengths — for example, see 2013’s Hour Before the Mourning and 2011’s Traveling by Moonlight (reviewed here) — but here he reaches another level of lyrical and formal maturity. The songs are but a framework, however, realized only by the ensemble’s collective talent and intuition.

Recorded over four days in and around Austin, TX, the group’s home base, The End has a very “live” presence. What you hear are live single takes (performances), save the vocals. It’s quickly apparent that the musicians are all technical masters of their respective crafts. What’s more is that these are six nuanced, empathetic practitioners who always know when to play, how to play, and when to lay back. The violin and second drum set seamlessly meld into this standard rock instrumentation, and never does the band sound too cluttered nor any instrument out of place. The orchestration changes slightly throughout, offering constant variety.

“Always a Road” opens the album. The rhythm section chugs along, buoying Harris’s singing of driving down life’s highway, accompanied by expansive piano fills and, later, sweeping violin melodies. Moving from contemplative to carefree, “Mountain Town Blues” — an ode to Mt. Pleasant, MI (once home to Harris, Lack, and even yours truly) — is a honky tonk saloon stomp that is pure fun. Harris shares lead vocals here, trading alternate verses with Bell and Lack. The dirty, bluesy guitar and violin soloing, the gritty vocals, and the percussive beat (and tambourine) make you want to storm the bar’s dance floor, peanut shells and all. Changing gears once again, the next three songs form a nice triptych. “Dance with the Lightning” is a melancholic mid-tempo anthem that is easily the 21st-century heir apparent to Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.” The band here is a big wall of sound without being too busy. A rather spacey instrumental breakdown follows the second chorus, with the drums, electric keys, and violin nearly taking a fusion-esque turn. It may seem like an odd pairing, but it works, naturally building into the final chorus. The closing chord leads directly into the guitar intro of “Magnolia Hill,” a nostalgic number that, in terms of songcraft, is easily one of the album’s crown jewels. It’s a touching tale reminiscent of the heartland, both in story and sound. A sparse, brief group improvisation follows the close of the song proper, fading away into the ether. Emerging from the final notes is a light percussive pattern leading into “The Canyon,” an outlaw number with soaring vocals, electric keys, wailing violin, and shredding guitar.

The second half of the album is a bit lighter in character overall. “Alright, I Love You, Be Good” is a playful up-tempo dance number with a charming twang. It’s a joyous chaser that’s welcome after the previous three songs, setting the stage for the rest of the album. For my money, the ballad-esque “Run from the Ocean” is a great display of this band’s live sound on record. (Arguably, the same could be said for the other songs as well.) From the soft, approachable verses to the anthemic, wall-of-sound choruses, and the full-bodied but melodic guitar solo, you feel like you’re feet from the stage. “Raise the Gate,” The End‘s rocker, is a surefire prescription to get you on your feet and dancing (if you can keep up with the off-kilter, but not forced, mixed-meter intro and segues, that is). “Gate” is infectious and will stay in your mind’s ear long after the album’s finished.

The penultimate, mixed-meter “Only from Afar” is a mournful country-tinged ballad. One of my favorite things about Harris’s compositional approach is that his use of odd meters sound natural, not shoe-horned in. The music certainly doesn’t impede the message here. The appropriately-titled “The End” closes the album. I dare say that it’s the title track because it showcases much of the band’s, and the album’s, strengths: technical command and tasteful interplay, songcraft, a powerful live presence, and stylistic diversity. Clocking in at over twelve minutes, it’s by far the longest song on the record, over double the length of “Magnolia Hill,” The End‘s second-longest entry. Also like “Magnolia Hill,” “The End” features an extended instrumental jam, only this one lasts over eight minutes. Musically throwing caution to the wind, the sextet take a lyrical cue and let the Devil out of his cage, covering a wide musical berth that’d attract the ears of any nearby Deadhead. The jam gives everyone room to breathe and shine, moving from the freely mysterious to the frenetic and culminating in a cacophonous blues that leads back into one last romp through the chorus.

While the title track may be about throwing caution to the wind at the End of All Things, I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s an allegory for The End‘s place in the current state of the music business, an institution that, in many respects, is crumbling before our eyes. (At least for the 99% who don’t wake up each morning with corporate endorsements and six- and seven-figure royalty payments.) In the face of this, The Forgotten Prophets release a self-financed album with little fanfare, recorded and produced — at a very high level, might I add — simply for the sake of doing it. The attitude (having nothing to lose and letting it all hang out), the content (top-shelf songwriting), and the execution (expert performances) are a recipe for much artistic success. I can’t recommend The End enough, and I hope it’s only the beginning for this group and catalogue.

The End is out now. Purchase via:
Bandcamp
iTunes
CD Baby

*The End was engineered, edited, and mixed by Charlie Kramsky at Blue Rock Studios and Phase In Studios (TX), and mastered by Daniel Gonko at The Sounding Board (NC).

Album preview:

Album art (atop) by Kait Harris Cleanthes.

Fandom and Partisanship II: Under the Empire and Dreaming

Seemingly, fandom isn’t gauged just by what you like, but also how you like it and what else you may dislike. This partisan aspect has long baffled – and often irritates – me. I touched on this a bit in this long post about Dave Matthews Band specifically.

Allow me to briefly indulge one of my great lifelong interests that hasn’t yet been mentioned once on this site. In doing so, I’d also like to go far out on a limb to offer an unexpected analogy. Consider it in the vein of one of my favorite posts (on Wagner & Seinfeld), though neither as detailed nor robust. That as yet unnamed interest? Star Wars. Its analogy? Dave Matthews Band.

Unless you haven’t heard, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is out now. Commercial ubiquity notwithstanding, this is a big event for myself and legions of other deep fans. Taken together, the Star Wars series are my default favorite movies, and the story has been with me as long as I can remember. (A cherished childhood bath toy of mine was a Gamorrean guard action figure.) I won’t go through and defend my Star Wars pedigree, but suffice it to say that I’ve dedicated a significant amount of time and money (and my mom’s when younger) to the franchise over my life. As an example, though, I can’t recall a year in which I haven’t received at least one Star Wars-related gift.

Once this new sequel trilogy (ST) is complete, it’ll tell a tale that spans three generations and has been over forty years in the making. It’s been a decade since the last entry (Episode III); or, according to some, it’s been over three decades (Episode VI, discounting I-III altogether). Episode VII‘s opening night was, admittedly, emotional for me, and it was one of the most fun movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long while, likely since the final moments of Episode III in 2005.

I write series above to take the entire story into account. Yes, I’m a prequel trilogy (PT) defender. It’s worth mentioning, of course, because nowadays (and in recent years) the PT has come under universal fire from both non-fans and fans alike. I’ve been hard pressed to find an article or conversation about VII that doesn’t also include at least a glancing blow to the prequels. Similarly, in conversations with other fans over the years, it’s become apparent that fandom becomes partisan: it’s not enough to love Star Wars, but one must also distance himself from the PT (and, to a certain extent, George Lucas himself). I’m the first to acknowledge the prequels’ myriad flaws, the two most pronounced of which are the acting and the special effects. However, the PT’s biggest asset, to me, was that it told a new story. Granted, the eventual destination was a given (i.e., the rise of Darth Vader), but little of the journey was known. And, though it may seem counterintuitive considering the near universal praise of VII, I believe that the prequels have, in a sense, been propped up a bit by the newest installment.

I came home from my first seeing Episode VII to a quiet house with everyone asleep, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I was pretty jazzed up and still sporting my ear-to-ear grin. Aside from the movie being so fun, I was greatly impressed by J.J. Abrams’s ability to powerfully capture the look and the feel of the original trilogy (OT). Unable to sleep, I ruminated on what I had just seen, and gradually a big concern started to accompany the giddiness: I’d seen this all before, but in Episode IV (and bits of V and VI). I of course noticed all of the cues and nods (and “echoes” as it’s been euphemistically stated in the press) while watching the movie (e.g., Tattooine, Death Star, Death Star II attack run, Mos Eisley, Luke’s lightsaber in the wampa cave, etc.), but I let them go. The more I thought about it, however, the more I felt almost insulted. A number of reviews mention this, but often only in passing. I mean, in a vacuum, the movie is really great. But in the context of the overall series, it treads trodden trails. Much like Rey nesting in an aged, abandoned AT-AT, Abrams has come home to roost in the decades-old shell of the OT. I waited many years to see the story continue in a new direction, only to get a quasi-reboot, albeit cleverly executed.

As George Lucas correctly noted in his recent interview with Charlie Rose, “[Disney] wanted to do a retro movie. I don’t like that… Every movie I work… very hard to make them… completely different, with different planets, with different spaceships… make it new…”

(This of course makes it seem like I dislike the movie. My repeated viewings attest otherwise. I’m just airing a grievance.)

Disney and Abrams decided to play it safe “for the fans.” In corporate speak, that just means “recycle what’s popular.” Instead of an inventive space opera about family dynamics (OT) or an unexpected dive into political gamesmanship and interpersonal relationships (PT), Abrams et al. decided to don Han’s proverbial old coat (new coat?) for one last joy ride. Now I sit and wait for Episode VIII, as that will certainly determine the ultimate fate of VII. If it’s a re-hashing of V, then that’s truly bad and VII becomes deeply scarred. If it goes in a new direction, this can be largely forgotten. As a craftsman, Abrams did a near perfect job, but I’m delighted that he won’t be directing the next installment.

It seems odd to complain so much about something I so much enjoy. I just can’t believe that, with everything VII got so right (the atmosphere, acting, and minutiae), the story goes almost nowhere new.

I said this had something to do with Dave Matthews Band, right?

As detailed here (and so I don’t have to again in this post), I find myself, once again, in the perceived minority when it comes to their discography (similar to the series above). As I explained in that post, I believe that the now-eschewed post-Lillywhite albums of the band’s arguable “middle period” (Everyday and Stand Up) are more in line with the core or so-called “classic” DMB approach than its successors Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King (as electric of an album as its immediate predecessors, if not more so) and Away from the World. Yes, Everyday and Stand Up appear different on the surface — Dave playing electric guitar, shorter arrangements, a more “pop” production aesthetic — but the overall musical formula remained: saxophone and violin as lead melodic and solo instruments, intricate rhythm guitar parts and patterns, and despite the songs’ lengths, many of them stretched out when performed live.

(It’s worth noting, for the record, that a third studio album, Busted Stuff, was released during that “middle period.” Nowhere near as electric as the other two, it was a re-recording of much of the fabled Lillywhite Sessions, released with less fanfare than is typical of the band. Fan reception is often mixed on this one as well.)

Supposedly, this “classic” sound returned with Big Whiskey…, an album in which Tim Reynolds’s electric guitar starts to dominate melodically and the horns (and there’s still a violin, right?) become more a stereotypical rock horn section than individual melodic assets. (Coincidentally, Big Whiskey… is the band’s seventh studio album…DMB’s own Episode VII?) Part of what makes the band stand out from the rest — a rock band with no lead guitar — was largely foregone. This move was further solidified in Away from the World, the band’s triumphant return to its partnership with producer Steve Lillywhite, lauded by many as was the ST’s stewardship by J.J. Abrams — a return to the “original approach” done “for the fans.” And yet both missed the mark in certain respects: Away sounds more like a Dave Matthews solo album than a DMB effort, and Abrams’s VII is a quasi-reboot of IV as opposed to a new story headed in a new direction.

One big difference between these two properties is that, regardless of approach, DMB’s sound continues to grow and evolve. Any discussion of a “classic sound” is largely an academic exercise. Star Wars, on the other hand, risks no longer growing nor evolving in new directions depending on what happens after VII.

Taking a step back, however, my little analogy comes more into focus. For both DMB and Star Wars, respectively:
• The early releases — the first three studio albums and first three films — loom large over the rest of the catalogue.
• The middle period — the second three studio albums and films — are often vocally disliked by the fan base despite being commercially successful.
• The middle period brought divisive technical change — commercialized production and special effects.
• The middle period continued using parts of the old approach — keeping the guitar out of the spotlight and telling new stories to establish the series’ mythology — even though such aspects were obscured by the technical change.
• Fans have an almost Tourrette-like need to voice their disapproval of the middle period to one another and non-fans alike.
• The recent period — the seventh and eighth studio albums and the seventh film — saw a move away from core approaches (guitar as lead instrument and re-treading old stories).
• Fans have, curiously, thus far lauded the recent periods of both as having righted the wrongs of each middle period despite going in starkly new directions — directions that, in theory, are odd ones to be celebrating.

In both cases, I’m not saying that the middle period (the three studio albums and/or the PT) is better than the rest of the its respective catalogue, but rather that it’s not quite the black sheep that it’s made out to be. Similarly, the partisan back-and-forth that surrounds each is lost on me. (It’s a reason I’m not actively involved in fan club/membership community threads and discussions, though I observe such from afar and in conversation. I just like each for my own enjoyment.) With two more ST films on the way and another DMB studio album in progress, I’m curious to see how each progresses and how the “true fans” will react.

Boasting

Boasting. Like networking and politicking, I have a hard time with it. And that’s unfortunate, because it seems to be a prerequisite for success — or, at least, perceived success.

And what exactly do I mean by “boasting”? It takes many forms, but the most frequent tend to be overly proud gig and recording announcements as well as related humblebrags — and not just the promotions themselves, but the fact that they’re seemingly endless. Those that immediately come to mind for me are those for whom every gig is apparently the best/most creative/last one in (name the zip code). (Really? You’re never playing at that bar in the next town over again? But you just performed there last month…)

Of course, it’s expected and understandable that one is proud of what they’re doing. You would hope so. I know that I’m proud of my own projects and accomplishments, but I try not to be aggressively so, nor do I rub it in others’ faces.

Most days I’m greeted on social media by posts from friends and colleagues to the social media echo chamber, which come in the following general varieties:

• “Check out my new recording. Get the good sounds in your soul!”
• “I’m honored to be sharing the stage with _____ tonight/this weekend — the best band in ______!”
• “Contribute to my Kickstarter! Be part of something important!”
• *invitation to “like” another project*

And then there’s Kickstarter. Woof. I should mention that I don’t dislike all crowdfunding projects sight unseen. Quite the contrary — I think it’s a step in the right direction towards getting people to financially invest in music and the arts, a perennial topic on this blog. I believe I’ve contributed to three such campaigns: one was a Wagner recording project which was unsuccessful, another was the successful (and important) capstone for the Einstein on the Beach documentary, and another was for a colleague’s project (to which I may have donated after it met its threshold). Of course, those three are but a drop in the bucket when compared to the countless campaigns I’ve been invited to “join.”

Many crowdfunding endeavors strike me as odd in the sense that I just don’t completely understand why the fundraising is necessary. I’ve seen peers campaigning to record an album and asking for ridiculous (to me) totals, with such prices being the supposed bare minimum. At a certain level of “making it,” I can understand that, but unless you’re using studio time to actually write material or tinker away as part of the creative process, it seems a bit excessive to go hog wild. Need the album be recorded in GarageBand on a shoestring budget? No. A happy medium exists somewhere. Also, and back to the aforementioned boasting, it seems that every Kickstarted studio album is the greatest sonic experience to ever be recorded. I recall a musician I know personally posting about three different Kickstarter campaigns on Facebook within about a month of each other (one of which was his own), and each one was IMPORTANT!!!, with the listener/funder’s life being significantly “less than” had the campaigns failed. Maybe so, but I’d hate to be the crowdfunder caught crying wolf.

(Music — art in general — requires a financial and temporal investment to create, but it’s the financial aspect that I think escapes most people. As I started to discuss here, I believe that more honest and frank discussion of the money required to realize a project is needed, particularly as we move into this freemium/sharing economy.)

Now, before I get ahead of myself, is it wrong to post oneself in one of the aforementioned manners? No. I think I take real issue with the frequency at which it’s done.

You could easily argue that I do a poor job of “selling” myself. I rarely, if ever, “invite” someone to like a page/account, I don’t often post a link to one of these blog posts more than a couple times each (unless it’s doing well or has potential, which is a rather arbitrary decision/evaluation), and I surely undersell my gigs. It’s not because I’m trying to go unnoticed. Quite the opposite, in fact. I assume that, like myself, most people just tune out the constant barrage of self-hype hyperbole that floods social media (or unfollow such perpetrators altogether). That, and I’d rather “target” and invite those who I’m sure are interested than just carpet bomb the town or network.

I’ve started and stopped various drafts of this posts over the last couple months, prompted by some commiserating I’d been doing with a colleague a while back. We were reveling, as we occasionally do, in our mutual disgust with those who are seemingly political and PR professionals who just happen to have careers in the arts. And then while catching up on my RSS feeds the other evening I saw posts touching upon this general theme by two unrelated folks: jazz pianist George Colligan and music writer Bob Lefsetz. The former’s list of PR ideas made me laugh, and the latter hit the nail on the head, writing, “Beware of self hype. […] Tireless self-promoter is a gig, but it’s got nothing to do with art.”

At the core, and I know it’s an arguably naive and/or pithy statement, but I’d rather the work just speak for itself. Yes, I know that for the work to be heard then it must first be known (via promotion of some kind), but there has to be some sort of balance — and I believe that that balance skews more towards the art or product than the PR. And after all, the posts or gigs of mine that I’ve seen gain the most traction have been those that also enjoyed promotion or assistance from third parties, often unsolicited. A germ of an idea was planted and then grew. Some do, others don’t.

When it comes to “advice,” one constant seems to be that you should discover “your thing” and hone it. Well, I can safely say that self-promotion isn’t mine. And that’s just fine.

New Listen: Mette Henriette

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Artist: Mette Henriette
Album: Mette Henriette (2015, ECM Records)

ECM has done it again: introduced me to a new artist and new sounds. Saxophonist and composer Mette Henriette Martedatter Rølvåg’s double-album ECM debut Mette Henriette is a triumph, presenting a fresh sound from an original voice. I’ve been listening to this album for several weeks now, and one thing remains constant: this is a soundworld in which I want to inhabit and further explore. It’s enchanting.

Mette Henriette includes 35 pieces that flow seamlessly over 100+ minutes. The two discs, while complementary, each showcase a different ensemble: a trio on the first and a 13-piece “sinfonietta” on the second. Although Mette is the leader, she doesn’t often place the saxophone front and center, opting instead to blend into the overall texture. Similarly, while Mette subtly demonstrates that she’s a virtuoso tenor saxophonist, she doesn’t make her technique an end itself — it’s always a tasteful means and used appropriately. The album is billed as jazz, but that’s selling it a little short. It’s as much chamber music as it is jazz. The Nordic- and free-jazz elements may serve as a foundation, but this album transcends many singular stylistic labels. In fact, the first time I listened to it — straight through and without regard for track names and numbers — it wasn’t until about an hour in when I thought that it sounded like a “jazz record” (“wildheart,” specifically). Also, the quantity of tracks can be some misleading, as I find it best to just listen to the album straight through — either a disc at a time or all together. It flows nicely, and the only real noticeable change is the transition from the trio to the larger ensemble, which itself is gradual.

The first disc features the trio of Mette, pianist Johan Lindvall (who composed three of the pieces: “.oOo.,” “3 – 4 – 5,” and “O”), and cellist Katrine Schiøtt. The three perform a quiet, intimate series of 15 pieces that together sonically paint a stark landscape upon which they wander. While the album isn’t explicitly constructed as a suite or other similar large work, there are motifs that recur throughout in different permutations, be they short melodic phrases or textures (e.g., the low piano ostinato in “all ears” and “beneath you”). A number of the pieces are melancholic and mournful though not without hope. In fact, light breaks through towards the end with “I Do” and “O.”

This trio of tenor sax, cello, and piano is wonderfully flexible, showcasing an uncanny knack for orchestration. The tasteful use of extended techniques — such as the sax and cello’s parallel lines both in standard ranges and in altissimo/harmonics in “the taboo” — help to break up the texture, and you rarely get the aural impression that it’s a static ensemble. Also, regarding the aforementioned stylistic transcendence, it’s rarely clear if the music is composed or improvised. I know that both are occurring, but I don’t always hear the delineation, which is a compliment to the composer and the performers. In fact, the first time one hears a semblance of a “jazz lick” is in the first disc’s penultimate track, “I do,” and even then it’s fleeting.

The second disc features a large ensemble of the aforementioned trio plus trombonist Henrik Nørstebø, trumpeter Eivind Lønnig, violinists Sara Övinge, Karin Hellqvist, and Odd Hannisdal violist Bendik Bjørnstad Foss, cellist Ingvild Nesdal Sandnes, bandoneonist Andreas Rokseth, bassist Per Zanussi, and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen (also on saw). It’s not an abrupt change of ensemble, however, and rarely does the full group play in concert. The immediate use of bandoneon on “passé” is of course obvious, but much of the ensemble gradually enters over the next several tracks (including the strings-only “pearl rafter” and winds-only “unfold”), culminating in “wildheart,” the whole album’s first raucous romp and the first time in which Mette’s free jazz roots enter the spotlight, with her guttural cries on tenor rising from the band’s primordial bed. Given that, the second disc isn’t as uniformly quiet as the first. While the more cacophonous moments can break up the pieces more than on the first disc, everything is still rather seamless.

As evidenced by “wildheart,” the second disc, though often complementary to the first (e.g., “behold” sounds like something originally for the initial trio but re-orchestrated for a different instrumentation), explores different sonic terrain. Another example is “late à la carte,” which drunkenly plods along like some Lynchian (and Badalamentian) burlesque. Several pieces later, “I” begs the question of what is improvised and what’s composed, only in a far more aggressive context. There appear to be motifs and structure, yet it also sounds rather free. Perhaps it’s both? I can’t know without the score, and that’s an asset. The music simply flows — composed and improvised, quiet and loud, dissonant and consonant, free jazz and chamber music, trio and sinfonietta.

I know it’s a word thrown around too often, but Mette Henriette is a unique album, particularly as an ECM debut. The only other ECM albums I sort of immediately liken it to are the Evan Parker and Roscoe Mitchell pairing of Boustrophedon and Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2, & 3, but only really because of the structure — a large mixed ensemble of classical and jazz musicians performing notated and improvised music. As for sound, though, Mette is an original voice, and one I’m anxious to hear a lot more from going forward.

Mette Henriette is available in the US this Friday, November 20.

Pre-order via:
Amazon
iTunes

‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ at 20

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The Smashing Pumpkins dropped a bomb on this date twenty years ago with the release of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, a wide-ranging double album that stormed the mainstream with a parade of infectious singles and music videos, sweeping up ubiquitous airplay, accolades, and trophies in its wake. (Of the six singles, four became legitimate pop hits.) It also gave us a Billy’s shaved head and the iconic Zero logo. The epic double album covers the rock gamut, and it spawned the equally eclectic box set of b-sides The Aeroplane Flies High a couple years later. Two decades later, it’s still a force to be reckoned with. That’s the historic overview. For me, it’s a desert island twofer, something to which I still listen regularly, and a real touchstone as far as my own musical, artistic, and personal development is concerned.

I’ve debated and hesitated for months over whether to write anything for this occasion, but I can’t not acknowledge the date. Also, I think that SP’s influence has been rather downplayed or neglected, particularly this last decade, and that the band is often seen as a 90s holdout or nostalgia act than a continuing band. (Having seen the band on their most recent tour a couple months ago, I can report that Smashing Pumpkins is alive and well, sounding great live, and still releasing damn good songs.) I doubt Billy Corgan’s temper has helped the band’s legacy, but their significance and influence can’t be denied.

I’ll keep this relatively brief, partially due to time, but mostly for a few other reasons:
1. I can run my mouth and fingers about this album and band all day, and I don’t want to risk losing the forest for the trees.
2. It’s a mammoth work with a great deal of mythology around it. There’s not much I can add in an objective sense that hasn’t been already written. (Pitchfork and Stereogum articles put it more in an historical context.) If I were to really get wordy about it, I’d want to write about each piece. But there are 28 tracks altogether, and I wouldn’t really be breaking new ground.
3. I hold it on such a high pedestal that I don’t think I’d be able to fully do it justice anyway.

Another reason I’d like to opt out of the novel is that this is actually related to another looming topic that I’d like to hopefully touch on in a series of posts over the next year: 1996. In short, my reverence for that year is akin to the baby boomer fixation on the sixties and seventies. For an adolescent me, many formative albums were released during “the long 1996” (late ’95 to early ’97), which arguably begins, for me, with MCIS. (In fact, three of my Top Five — those still alive at the time — dropped seminal albums then.) More on that later.

I touched upon Mellon Collie some here and a little more here. It’s arguably distasteful, but I’ll go ahead and quote myself from that 2011 post as a starting point: “[At that time], SP was music. The incredibly variety on [MCIS] showed me that a rock band could be multi-dimensional, and that the musical possibilities could be endless.” To put it in context, I was twelve when the album came out and purchased it months later, a bit before my thirteenth birthday. If I’m not mistaken, I got it once “Tonight, Tonight” put the Top 40 — as well as MTV with its landmark music video — in a choke hold. Until that point, I had really liked various albums or compilations, but I dare say that MCIS was the first album that really led me down a rabbit hole and left a permanent mark (i.e., that I remain fascinated by today). I spent countless hours listening on headphones and reading the lyrics and looking at the artwork in the liner notes, lost in the myriad textures and styles. From there I quickly worked backward through the catalogue and “caught up” with the band’s history and output, but MCIS was my patient zero.

The diversity of style is part of what captured my attention. In a rock context, it really does have everything: anthemic hits (“Bullet With Butterfly Wings,” “Tonight, Tonight”), acoustic folk-laden ballads (“To Forgive,” “Stumbleine,” “Thirty-Three”), quirky alternative novelties (“Lily (My One And Only)”), the grunge-inspired (“Where Boys Fear To Tread”), dreamy psychedelia (“By Starlight”), nostalgic pop (“1979”), hard-driving rock and metal (“XYU” and “Tales of a Scorched Earth,” respectively), the sweeping rock epics (“Porcelina of the Vast Oceans,” “Thru the Eyes of Ruby”), and more. So much more. (For example, where else would a song like the lovely “Cupid de Locke” comfortably fit?) Disc 1 kicks off with the title track, a contemplative instrumental featuring piano, strings, and synths, giving way to “Tonight, Tonight,” a song that somehow manages to be anthemic and incorporate sweeping symphonic passages (performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to be exact) without being a ballad. It could be argued that the actual rock album begins with the third track “Jellybelly,” with the rest being a prelude — and what a prelude it is! Finally, regarding style, you can hear both where the band has been (e.g., Siamese Dream- and Gish-esque “Here Is No Why”) and things to come (e.g., “To Forgive” sounds like an Adore outtake). And the fact that all four band members sing at some point on the album is worth mentioning. The lullaby on which they all sing — “Farewell and Goodnight” — closes the album, ending with a solo piano passage which complements the album’s piano introduction. Just hit “repeat all” and you’re good to go.

Of course, as I mentioned here, ambient sounds abound, consonant and dissonant alike.

Most of the albums I’d heard until that point were, in a vacuum, rather homologous. Granted, the albums I had were diverse, but each one was rather consistent. Mellon Collie, on the other hand, was an entire sonic universe, and I found each system and planet appealing in a different way. Because of my age, and the fact that many of my friends are a few years older than I, I’m a bit out of step in my Pumpkins fandom, as they hold Siamese Dream on the pedestal. A great album, no doubt. I’ve worn out my copy of that also. However, I was at an age or stage when Mellon Collie was released that they likely were around the time of Siamese Dream or its predecessor Gish. Perhaps it’s because it was my first deep SP dive. However, twenty years later — writing that is a rare instance in which I feel old — I listen to MCIS more often than Siamese Dream. (I also listen to 1998’s Adore much more than a bulk of the catalogue. Expect a piece on that forgotten gem in a few years if not before…)

There’s no grand point to this post other than to mark the occasion and to publicly thank Billy, Jimmy, James, and D’Arcy for it. Here’s to another twenty.

And with that, KA-BOOM…