Bald Billy strikes gold

BY JEFF LEVEN

Billy Corgan is a strange guy, God bless him. Especially as far as the mainstream is concerned, the Smashing Pumpkins were one of the grunge era’s strangest bands. While the Soundgardens and Nirvanas of the world generally mined only the sludgy caverns of the punk and indie rock underground for a sound that was as brittle as it was kinetic, the Smashing Pumpkins were simultaneously belting out albums that mixed drama-laden acoustic ballads (“Disarm”) with lush chamber pop (“Beautiful”) and the requisite blistering rock (“Bullet with Butterfly Wings”). Pawing through the Smashing Pumpkins catalogue, you find oddball scraps of a dozen genres — shades of goth rock, power pop, heavy metal, prog rock and, in their later years, electronica.

And at the helm of the whole operation was Billy Corgan, a mopey svengali who became one of rock’s most quotable, explosive and self-involved mad-hatters. A gawky suburban misfit from a musical family, Corgan grew into himself, blending the ominous darkness of the Cure’s Robert Smith with the punch and humor of a young Ric Ocasek. Alternating between supreme media asshole and thoughtful auteur, Corgan is the type of chameleon that makes the rock world occasionally as interesting in reality as it appears in our tabloid dreams. While the Cobains of the world imploded, Corgan embraced stardom just enough to give the band the profile they needed to convince the masses to embrace his ambitious musical decisions. Who else could have churned out Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, two dense discs of musical meandering, and sell four million copies of it? Who else could hold things together long enough to release two full albums after the tragic overdose of keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin and another year of drug-addled revolving-door lineup changes in the band’s rhythm section? Who else could survive a professional relationship with Sharon Osbourne (she was his manager) and a personal relationship with Courtney Love and live to tell about it? Being the oddball survivor that he is, when Billy Corgan pulled the plug on the Smashing Pumpkins in December of 2000, it was on his own terms — a quick, barely-explained exit in a puff of smoke.

In retrospect, the speed with which the band now known as Zwan began doing informal gigs was proof that Corgan may very well have had something up his sleeve all along. Listening to the group’s first release, Mary Star of the Sea, it seems that what he had in mind was something very thoughtful, indeed — a coherent, if overly cautious retreat into an indie rock band something akin to what the Smashing Pumpkins started as. For all the airtime that people will spend on Corgan when they talk about Zwan, the rest of the cast is itself a huge part of the story. Featuring guitarist Matt Sweeney (formerly of indie rockers Skunk and Chavez), guitarist David Pajo (formerly of Slint and Tortoise and also a vibrant solo artist in his own right as Papa M), Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle) and a rehabilitated and revitalized Jimmy Chamberlain (original and bedrock drummer for the Pumpkins), Zwan is something of an unlikely supergroup — a band that could very well have been composed by and for indie record store geeks, were it not for the fact that they were born into a type of ersatz stardom by virtue of Corgan’s presence. And, oddly enough, they managed to deliver a record that is pretty squarely accessible to the pop rock mainstream without too many obvious swings for the Top 40 fences.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Mary Star of the Sea is how deftly it avoids the myriad disasters that could have befallen a project like it. With three guitars and a big, dense rhythm section in a band where all five members probably listen to My Bloody Valentine at least once a week, you risk turning into Lynyrd Skynyrd on some strange mix of tranquilizers and acid, which translates to a huge sonic mess. With Corgan fresh off of the Pumpkins’ lackluster, overblown MACHINA album and a brief tour with electronic godfathers New Order, Zwan also faced the threat of turning into another post-Nine-Inch-Nails exercise of gloom-and-doom self-seriousness riddled with Manchester dance beats and pre-programmed drum lines. Or finally, Zwan simply ran the risk of taking its supergroup status and Corgan and Chamberlain’s career revitalizing mission all too seriously and producing a bloated, pompous post-grunge turd (like, according to some, Audioslave).

Thankfully, one of the great and unlikely things about Mary Star of the Sea is its modesty. Rather than spike out in a thousand different directions, the album plays like a well-conceived indie rock record — a mix of dense but not overcrowded mid-tempo rockers and lush pop ballads. Sonically, the album is a treat — while Corgan can still flex the wall-of-sound guitar rock muscle he used to such advantage on Pumpkins tunes like “Cherub Rock,” on Zwan songs like “Honestly,” Jimmy Chamberlain grounds the grind with subtle syncopation as Sweeney and Pajo chime in and out with purpose and skill. “El Sol” bounces over a soft bed of harmonics and “Desire” is a gorgeous four minutes of wafting dream pop. While there are moments where Corgan threatens to outthink or overdramatize himself, his new band usually comes up with a save — the bizarre Gary Numan-esque synthesizer opening on “Come with Me” gives way to a loping acoustic folk number.

While it often lacks the sort of loving nostalgia that so propelled old Corgan gems like “1979,” in its best moments, Mary Star of the Sea catches you up in its enthusiasm. On the album’s opener “Lyric,” there are points where you can’t help but get carried away with the enthusiasm of Corgan’s new declaration of purpose: “a lyric, a time, a crusade, a line, a lyric, a friend, a road without end.”

All this being said, Zwan’s debut is not without its flaws. “Baby Let’s Rock!” simply doesn’t, and clearly someone forgot to smack Corgan upside the head for proposing a fifteen-minute dirge called “Jesus, I” that morphs into the title track. After flopping around for a few minutes like that fish from the old Faith No More video, the song treats us to a noodly guitar solo that sounds every bit as out of place as the classic rock wankery that Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner slathered all over the live version of “Sweet Jane” on Lou Reed’s Rock N’Roll Animal, ultimately ending with a few extra minutes of Mogwai-esque droning that ends up sounding pretty cool only because it represents a retreat from the ten minutes that proceed it. Furthermore, by the end of the album, the relative sonic consistency that is otherwise a virtue starts to accentuate how monotonous and unpleasant Corgan’s voice can be. On the Pumpkins’ albums it alternated between fire alarms, spoken word mumbles and blithe angel whispers, but by this point Corgan’s timbre is that of a squeaky ceiling fan that, 55 minutes into an insomniac night, is just a little more than you want to bear.

Still, to point out the album’s misses detracts from the strong step forward that it generally is. Zwan, like the Pumpkins before them, bring something a little more strange and interesting to the mix than most bands of similar profile. With Zwan, Corgan has found an ample vehicle for his best instincts — a pop band in indie-rock clothing with the mettle, muscle and perhaps most importantly, the modesty and taste — to bring a few new ideas from Corgan’s deep creative reserves to the masses.

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