This January, music journalists learned a valuable lesson: never try to outguess Billy Corgan.
Fresh from a two-year hiatus since the breakup of Smashing Pumpkins, most people saw it as a forgone conclusion that Billy Corgan would fall into a solo career. He spent 2000 and 2001 penning songs for veteran acts Berlin and Marianne Faithful, as well as touring with one of his favorite bands, New Order, as a second guitarist. It seemed as though Corgan would become the Alternative Rock incarnation of Nile Rodgers, 70’s funk songwriter of Chic who has produced albums for David Bowie, Madonna, Hall and Oates and Mick Jagger.
Corgan created a media buzz when his new project, Zwan, debuted in November 2001 in Southern California. With fellow ex-Pumpkin Jimmy Chamberlin on drums, ex-Chavez member Matt Sweeney on guitar and ex-Slint guitarist David Pajo on bass, Zwan seemed like an Indie-Rock supergroup. Touring for much of 2002, Zwan added ex-A Perfect Circle bassist Paz Lenchantin to their fold, opening a third guitar slot for Pajo. Zwan released their album Mary Star of the Sea in 2003, landing them a number three debut on the Billboard charts.
Mary Star of the Sea is a 65-minute wake-up call to a rock industry where downtuned mediocre rap-rock rules the radio. Throughout much of the album, Zwan seems closer in kin with Cheap Trick, Three Dog Night or Grand Funk Railroad than the Linkin Parks and Papa Roaches of today. This is appropriate, as Mary Star of the Sea exudes 1970’s rock in every facet, from the Partridge Family-meets-Yellow Submarine artwork in their album and website to the three guitar attack of Corgan, Sweeney and Pajo. Corgan even mixed the album to emulate the monaural albums he listened to in his youth, giving the album a warm, fuzzy feeling that isn’t found on most albums in this digital age.
“We set out to make the loudest rock and roll album that was humanly possible,” wrote Corgan in a post on the zwan.com message board. “So if our album is blowing up your speakers or making your dog cry, I can’t say I’m sorry,” explains Corgan, “but I do apologize for any worries this may have caused.”
On that loud note, Mary Star of the Sea delivers psychadelia, a wall of fuzzed-out guitars and enough religious references to make Linda Blair’s head spin. From the jingly lilt of “Lyric” to the lush, melting guitars of the title track, Zwan takes Corgan to a territory little-explored with the Smashing Pumpkins, happiness.
Zwan is in no way another installment of the Billy Corgan show. Zwan is a juggernaut built on the shoulders of Pajo, Sweeney, Chamberlin and Lenchantin. Chamberlin unleashes his familiar tribal bombast throughout the album, most notably in the second half of the epic “Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea,” the only track on the album that hints at the greatness of Chamberlin and Corgan’s other band. Pajo’s strumming provides the canvas for Corgan’s embellishments on lead guitar. Lenchantin and Sweeney’s background vocals give Zwan’s songs a gentle, harmonious quality that was never fully realized in Corgan’s previous band.
Other highlights include “Ride a Black Swan,” a gentle rocker that showcases Lenchantin’s pristine backing vocals, and “Baby, Let’s Rock,” an ode to 70’s AM rock in the vein of Cheap Trick.
All of these elements combine for an excellent array of rock, spirituality and a taste of 70’s pop that will leave the listener in a state of blissful euphoria not heard on rock radio in over 20 years.