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CD Reviews: Zwan
Zwan: Mary Star of the Sea
April 2003
by: Matt Boltz
album cover of Zwan's Mary Star of the Sea

Many of the influential groups of the 1990s, including several of the so-called alternative supergroups, are now defunct, broken up because of death, addiction, burnout, clashing personalities, etc. But like those in any profession who live for what they do, the most dedicated musicians find a way to regroup with a new band or a solo project to keep doing what they love and continue bringing music to their fans, old and new alike. Among others, the Foo Fighters rose from the ashes of Nirvana; Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine bred Audioslave; and Jerry Cantrell launched a solo career amidst the ruins of Alice in Chains.

Add Billy Corgan to the growing list of successful musicians from the past decade who have resurfaced with a new project following the demise of the group with which they rose to prominence. The ex-Smashing Pumpkins singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer is back on the scene with Zwan, a sort of middle-class version of a supergroup that specializes in defying categorization. While not as well known as Corgan and ex-Pumpkins bandmate Jimmy Chamberlin (drums), the other three members of Zwan are more than competent, with years of collective experience in bands that were credible but flew under the mainstream radar. Paz Lenchantin (bass) most recently worked with A Perfect Circle while guitarists Matt Sweeney and David Pajo are perhaps best known for their work with Chavez and Slint, respectively.

Zwan's debut CD, Mary Star of the Sea, was released by Reprise Records in January 2003 and includes 14 songs that combine elements of many different musical genres, most notably pop, rock, and even folk. Corgan assumes many of the same roles with Zwan that he held with the Smashing Pumpkins, including those of principal songwriter, guitarist, lyricist, vocalist, and co-producer. While Zwan is by no means a Pumpkins clone, there are many unmistakable similarities between the two bands, particularly in the dynamics, the lyrical imagery, the guitar production, and the presence of strings and keyboards. Not to be overlooked is Chamberlin's excellent, often-underrated drumming. At many points on the record, Chamberlin sounds as if he could be doing the work of two drummers while providing just the right touch for each song. The percussion is solid and consistent throughout the CD, no matter whether he is providing a soft and quiet beat for a mellow song or a thunderous backdrop for a rocking chorus.

Known for his perfectionist ways in the studio with the Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan was relentless (and successful) when it came to achieving nearly perfect production and mixing on Mary Star of the Sea. For more than a decade, Corgan has sought the achievement of a full range of loud and quiet dynamics within his songs, as evidenced by his work with the Pumpkins. He has further honed that craft on this record; songs such as Settle Down, Honestly, Baby Let's Rock!, and the epic (14:04) Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea take the listener on a sonic roller coaster ride of sparse instrumentation, quiet verses, crunching choruses, and guitar armies. Declarations of Faith, Of a Broken Heart (featuring Paz Lenchantin's sister, Ana, on cello), El Sol, and Ride a Black Swan offer a glimpse into the direction in which the Pumpkins were headed when they disbanded in 2000, marked by the heavy imagery, light guitars, and gloomy undertones that were prevalent on the final three Pumpkins albums. To balance things out, the release includes several straightforward pop/rock songs, including the aptly named Endless Summer (the album's best candidate for a warm-weather cruising song); the ultra-catchy opening track, Lyric; and Yeah!, a tale of longing and questioning tinged with tones of bitterness and told with undistorted guitars, keyboards, and soaring single-note guitar lines. The album closes with the folksy, country-like Come With Me, which is an upbeat, catchy tune featuring a stripped-down guitar sound and a harmonica. Although Come With Me is largely a departure from the rest of the album, it is an excellent album closer, it fits well with the other 13 songs, and it is in the same vein as the music Zwan (then known as Djali Zwan) played during their mini-tour of the Midwestern United States in December 2001. Of A Broken Heart was a staple of that tour, which featured acoustic and undistorted guitars, Corgan taking a turn on keyboards, and no bass player.

Corgan's lyrics on Mary Star of the Sea are catchy and full of the imagery that Smashing Pumpkins fans will remember. Themes such as faith, loss, uncertainty, beliefs, and desires are scattered throughout Mary Star of the Sea, and the lyrics are ambiguous enough so that in most cases the listener can relate them to his or her own experiences or situations. As he did when writing for the Pumpkins, Corgan steers clear of political issues and avoids a great deal of specificity with his words. While the lyrics are adequate, the real strength of Zwan is the music. Corgan's songwriting and arrangement skills are as good as ever, and he and his band have created a catchy album that effortlessly incorporates a variety of musical styles, implies a wide range of influences, and takes the listener through a number of emotions. Impressively, this is all done while keeping the focus on the music. The album's diversity should please not only Smashing Pumpkins fans, but also anyone who enjoys hearing innovative and stellar songwriting and musicianship by a band who can remain true to the music without having to worry about pleasing a major label or outdoing themselves on their sophomore album.