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Zwan – Mary Star of the Sea (Reprise 2003)

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For years now — in fact, since the 1996 release of Chavez‘s spellbinding release, Ride the Fader (read a disappointingly understated review here) — I’ve been wondering when guitarist/singer Matt Sweeney would resurface in another rock escapade. Well, that day has arrived. And he’s playing with some other cats with some past rock experience: a freakish chap who goes by the name of Billy Corgan, and a former bandmate of his named Jimmy Chamberlin. Oh yeah, in the band are also David Pajo and Paz Lenchantin, bassist from A Perfect Circle.

A rock supergroup of sorts — or at least one that fuses a pair of iconic popular rock figures with a duo of esteemed independent rock musicians whose underground street cred matches the name recognition of the former two. In addition to Sweeney’s prior work with Chavez and Skunk, Pajo played bass on two seminal albums with post-rock cornerstone, Tortoise — 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die and 1998’s TNT, together considered by many to be the pinnacle of the post-rock movement. If that weren’t enough to make indie post-geeks green with envy, Pajo also played guitar with Slint — who ranks only behind Fugazi in this humble writer’s opinion as the most influential and groundbreaking band in indie/punk rock — and also had stints with the For Carnation, various Palace incarnations, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and Mogwai.

With that lengthy introduction behind, Corgan and Chamberlin and their intriguing supporting cast have on the whole succeeded in their most critical task: exorcising the ghost of the Smashing Pumpkins, and especially distancing their new endeavor from the Pumpkins’ last two mediocre albums — Adore and Machina. Admit it, if you’ve followed the Pumpkins at all, you’ve expected Zwan to sound nothing different. In my opinion, this fact accounts for one of the critical reasons why there is so little hype about the new album. With a musician of Corgan’s stature and the recent downward trend in music sales, one would think that corporate execs would be swarming over this release, even touting it as the renaissance of rock or grunge.

Thankfully, the album speaks for itself. Even though their website encourages surfers to vote for the first single, “Honestly”, on MTV’s TRL, the album is an outsider in the cookie-cutter repackage/repurchase world of major label music. Indeed, this is Corgan’s most rocking work since Siamese Dream, though only tangentially comparable from a musical standpoint to that album. The three-headed guitar monster of Corgan, Sweeney, and Pajo coupled with Corgan’s masterful production realize a dynamic sound that shuns the excessive pensiveness of Corgan’s most recent work in favor of spirited and creative rock.

This artistic energy manifests itself in a number of stellar songs, among which are “Settle Down”, whose hooky opening guitar line evidences the influence of Corgan’s brief stint in New Order (oh, that’s all I can write about, no?); “Declarations of Faith” and its infectious chorus; “El Sol”, which is arguably the most complete song on the album; and the nearly fifteen-minute epic, “Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea”. While the first three songs seem to strike a subtle balance between the lush guitars and Corgan’s quirky vocal antics, the latter impressed me with its stages approach, including earlier on an unmitigated display of feedback as art. This success lies in the fact that the band simply works well as a unit. I don’t doubt that Corgan still runs the show, but the prominent voice of Mary Star of the Sea is that of a cohesive band. But if Corgan’s Siamese-Dream-era layered feedback is your urge, a few tracks do recall the glory days, including the first single, “Honestly” (query whether it was chosen to be the first single for this reason), “Endless Summer” and “Declarations of Faith”.

The album does have its weaknesses with the second half of the album being noticeably less loaded than the first, but on the whole Zwan’s first effort is impressive. Go here for miscellaneous Zwan demos and outtakes. Most importantly, you can stream the entire album at the Zwan webpage. Take advantage of the free tunes.

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