Zwan
Mary Star of the Sea
Martha’s Music/Reprise
2003
B+

guns are drawn and ready to blast Billy Corgan to smithereens for his hubris and naiveté in attempting to achieve an unprecedented second term at mega-success without reverting to simply being a "solo" artist (i.e. Sting after The Police). What could he possibly be thinking putting another band together that sounds only slightly removed from his former one? Smashing Pumpkins were a band that held the "alternative" world in their grasp, only to see it disappear through internal disasters (drummer Jimmy Chamberlin's ousting and touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin's death), fan desertion upon arrival of the introspective Adore (understood only by the most ardent of listeners) and ultimately, a gaping divide between the maturing Generation X and the nascence of Generation Y. Wherein punk posers, teeny boppers, soulless hip-hoppers and nu-metal goons were the prime pickings and anything which smacked of intelligence or heart was cast aside in favor of another round of image over substance.


Knowing full well that his band would never matter in quite the same way ever again (Adore barely sold over a million copies and Machina: The Machines Of God, the Pumpkins' final album, has yet to hit platinum three years after its release) and with Chamberlin back in the fold, but founding member D'Arcy Wretzky gone, Corgan decided to pack it in before being drummed out of music altogether, ending things with two bombastic performances in the band's hometown of Chicago.


Instead of taking a year off as planned, Corgan called Chamberlin three and a half months after the Pumpkins' last show to say that he and a longtime friend of theirs, Matt Sweeney (Chavez), were starting a band. Anyone who knows the Pumpkins, knows that Chamberlin was always the glue that held the band together and was the only one who Corgan trusted implicitly, both personally and professionally. His involvement would prove to be the lynchpin for the new endeavor, but pieces were still missing.


Until it was agreed upon that having three guitarists (ala Moby Grape and Blue Oyster Cult) would be something truly special, David Pajo (Slint, Tortoise, Papa M) was the band's de facto bassist. Once this triple-guitar attack was formulated, Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle and Queens of the Stone Age) was recruited for the bass role, adding her beautiful voice to back Corgan up with and delivering an essential female vibe to the band.


With the lineup complete, they set out on a tour of small clubs and radio-sponsored shows, recording a truck load of songs that would ultimately be whittled down to comprise the whole of their debut, Mary Star Of The Sea. The band hired longtime Neil Young manager Elliot Roberts to oversee their interests and hand delivered the finished album to executives at Reprise Records in early December of last year, nearly two years to the day of the demise of Smashing Pumpkins.


So what to make of this album? Well, it is indeed rather similar sounding to the Pumpkins. The speedy, dexterous drumming by Chamberlin (one of the finest rock drummers ever), the guitar attacks and the distinctive voice of Corgan are the key components that made the Pumpkins stand out amidst a sea of grunge back in the early 90s, but there is still plenty here to distinguish Zwan from the Pumpkins as well. For one thing, there is a buoyantly positive bent to the lyrics (at times a religious angle manifests itself lyrically, with Corgan confusing things further by referring to himself as "Billy Burke", the name of a Florida evangelist, in the album's liner notes) and the vocals. You can literally hear the smile plastered on Corgan's face during recording. Instead of raging against inner demons, Corgan is purged and free to express the joy and love that lies deep within his heart. When he sings "'Cause when I think of you as mine / and I allow myself the time / to wade into the life we want / I feel loved", on the band's single, “Honestly”. Gone are the images of the petulant child that begat a nation's anthems of loneliness and despair. Delivered instead is a man who has matured and strengthened as a lyricist and as an artist.


Working with a colorful palette of overlapping guitars, Chamberlin's virtuoso percussions and Lenchantin's beatific vocal assistance in properly timed (for radio) bursts, Zwan seem intent to rock you in your car as you set out for a fun adventure. One could never have imagined that Corgan would write nearly an entire album's worth of songs to be enjoyed with the top down on the way to the beach, but that comparison is apt when you consider the joy and sun found here. From the gallop beats of “Ride A Black Swan”, to the refrain in the chorus of “Endless Summer” of "Let me go waste my time", to the fuzzed-out guitar stomp and soaring solo found in “Baby Let's Rock!” and ending with the catchy, harmonica laden skip into the sunset of “Come With Me”, enrapturing moments of love and harmony blast the darkness into tiny particles allowing the sun to shine brightly through, basking the musicians in its ethereal glow.


This is not to say that there are not faults to be found, on the contrary. Other than the similarity to Corgan and Chamberlin's former band (which, Zwan may never shake free of), the quieter passages, “Of A Broken Heart” and “Heartsong”, never grasp the ears or the heart in quite the same way that the ones with fuller arrangements do. Even though he worked up plenty of material with sparse instrumentation previously (especially on Adore), Corgan seems lost on what to do in these quieter passages in the here and now (though “Desire”, a more introspective number, does come close, balancing a strong accompaniment all the while wearing its heart on its sleeve). These two songs, along with the half-entrancing, half-quizzical, “Jesus, I / Mary Star of the Sea”, a fourteen minute long opus, whose second half wallows in prog-rock pretension, leaves the feeling that, perhaps the album could have been better served by closer examination of the material on it.


This minor quibbling aside, Zwan are a band that have made a rather auspicious debut. It's an album that is filled with plenty of big hooks, ample rock crunch and a loving attention to detail. Corgan may not reach the success he enjoyed as the leader of Smashing Pumpkins, but it is going to be a hell of a lot of fun seeing him take Zwan to the height of their capabilities. Baby Let’s Rock! indeed.


Reviewed by: Brett Hickman
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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