When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week the Civil Wars take on Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
By 1993, Smashing Pumpkins were quickly becoming a household name, thanks to the success of Gish on college radio and a relentless touring schedule that included opening slots for Red Hot Chili Peppers and Pearl Jam. But, as has been well-documented, that period in the band’s history was tumultuous at best. Soaring popularity did nothing to abate Jimmy Chamberlain’s drug abuse, Billy Corgan’s writer’s block and depression or the love lost between James Iha and D’Arcy once their once budding romance turned sour.
Although these struggles would loosely serve as a bellwether of the band’s future unraveling, in ’93, they instead coalesced into the fuel that Corgan would need to craft one of the great rock albums of all time, Siamese Dream. Alongside Chamberlain and producer Butch Vig, Corgan wrote and recorded nearly every track on the record, all of which are, in my mind, perfect. And while the psych-metal thrust of songs like “Cherub Rock” and “Geek U.S.A.” tended to hide Corgan’s vulnerability, “Disarm,” “Soma” and “Luna” made it abundantly clear that he was everything the critics had predicted: unnervingly talented but, more importantly, multi-dimensional.
What’s particularly amazing about “Disarm” is that its acoustic, orchestral fixings do nothing to belie Corgan’s intensity. Clouds of distortion and pummeling drums are nowhere to be found, yet it’s impossible not to feel tense amid its dark and obliquely romantic passages. Here, there is a cohesion with the Pumpkins’ heavier work despite the song’s relatively stark composition, Corgan revealing himself to be more of a haunted lover than the fighter implied by the otherwise visceral nature of his approach. This dynamic was not lost on us, of course: Siamese Dream, led by singles “Cherub Rock, “Disarm,” “Today” and “Rocket,” was certified quadruple platinum and is widely considered to be a classic across all genres among critics and fans alike.
Nashville’s most recent success story, the Civil Wars could probably make any piece of the Pumpkins’ catalog sound beautiful. Armed with only the essentials—two voices, acoustic guitar and piano—Joy Williams and John Paul White make music that emits a wildly disproportionate amount of feeling in relation to the austerity embedded in their approach. So it’s to the duo’s credit that, instead of simplifying “Today” or “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” for dramatic affect (something they could’ve easily done), they engaged the challenge of making their own one of the most bare Pumpkins tracks. This isn’t as easy as it looks when you consider that Williams and White already trade in the kind of slow, sonically weightless compositions that have made them an instant hit in recent months. Nonetheless, the Wars manage to suss out every pure ounce of the song, leaving the body limp and exposed, but satisfied.
Cast your vote wisely.