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CD Reviews:  Zwan: Mary Star of the Sea

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The highly creative musical life of Billy Corgan has taken many turns, pauses and redirections. Wildly successful in fronting one of the more essential post-grunge bands of the 1990s, the brains behind Smashing Pumpkins sheds a few layers of skin here and delivers an absolute smash. Zwan is the band, Mary Star of the Sea is the record, and what a record it is! At first take this looks, sounds, smells and feels like a new Pumpkins project. After all, Jimmy Chamberlin is again enlisted behind the drums and Corgan still builds the wall of guitars sound to whine behind. But the 2003 version of Chicago’s favorite alt-rockers appears a great deal more composed and ready to stake a fresh claim. In short, Zwan seems intent on kicking your ass all over again.

Not since 1993’s breakout Siamese Dream have we gotten such a complete and focused attack of songs from Corgan or any company he’s kept. “Lyric” is a pile driver of a commencement with soaring guitar riffs, crashing percussion, and all the urgency of a truly great rock song. Paz Lenchantin (bass) and Matt Sweeney (guitar) even supply dreamy backing vocals ala The Supremes on steroids. Tempo and approach hardly vary at all through this first Zwan chapter, as “Ride a Black Swan” and the epic “Jesus, I” both start tender and innocent before erupting into the full sonic explosion that is a Corgan fixture. The former (“Ride a Black Swan”) is a highlight on this record, not to mention one of the best songs he’s written in years. While “Baby Let’s Rock” and “Yeah!” might flutter about briefly in a sweet pop wasteland, they each sport teeth and neither one is stodgy. In fact, “Desire” stands as the only slow dance number on the card, unless you include the “Disarm”-like acoustic strummer “Heartsong.”

To this point, the top-down cruising hit “Honestly” is the only representative from Mary to grace the FM airwaves, though I expect the marvelous “Endless Summer” to be close behind. As with the earlier “Lyric,” a chorus of backing vocals sets this one apart when “Let me go waste my time, in an endless summer, summer, summer…” is repeated in memorable, almost Motown, fashion until you’re singing it yourself. Zwan is currently touring in support of this grand debut album and I can’t imagine that much of it will be left out of their live shows. There’s nothing easy about crafting 14 songs with a commonality and purpose that gives each one a life, each a meaning. But that is exactly why Mary Star of the Sea should be garnering premature nods from many for Album of the Year.

Two months into 2003, we’ve not yet seen a real cash crop of new music surface. Maybe that’s why this new Zwan release is shining so brightly. Maybe not. Certainly and understandably, the expectations were high for Billy Corgan’s return to the alternative spotlight. As far as I’m concerned, he has won by throwing down a hand full of Aces, as if to demand this night’s pot belongs to him. Great work, Billy! Don’t spend it all in one place. 

~Red Rocker

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