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Mary Star of the Sea
Warner Brothers, 2003
Posted: February 4,
Zwan is the end result of product triumphing over art. Not that former
Smashing Pumpkins mastermind Billy Corgan has ever sought to emphatically
place music ahead of profit, mind you. But in spite of his undeniably
sharp business acumen, a part of Corgan is apparently just dying to
unleash the shameless, dollars-be-damned art rock beast he knows lurks
within. Wait a minute; didn't the Pumpkins already exhaust Corgan's art
rock leanings? How about Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness? It
appears to meet the criteria: Pretentious title, double album, and song
titles like "Bullet With Butterfly Wings." But behind the artsy packaging
and hefty ambitions (not to mention the price tag), Mellon Collie
lacks an overriding theme; it's more a collection of songs drawn from
Corgan's '70s prog-rock/arena-rock record collection, and the best cuts
("1979," "Zero") are the unmistakable offspring of the glorious
three-minute pop song. Toss in an expensive and visually appealing video
("Tonight, Tonight") and Mellon Collie loses all art rock cred.
What about Siamese Dream? It bears the distinction of being the
band's strongest, most consistent album, but hardly a Museum of Modern Art
Rock contender. Noise pop, yes. Art rock? No. "Cherub Rock," "Today," "Disarm;"
these alterna-rock standards will be in heavy rotation on Gen-X oldies
stations for countless decades to come. Excluding the post-Mellon
Collie work altogether, that leaves Gish, the
Pumpkins' wonderfully psychedelic debut. "Rhinoceros;" good tune. But
there's nothing here serving as a secret passcode into the exalted art
Which brings us to Zwan, Corgan's supergroup of Chicago indie rock
powerhouses: Slint/Tortoise guitarist Dave Pajo, Skunk and Chavez
guitarist Matt Sweeney, and A Perfect Circle bassist Paz Lenchantin. Toss
in ex-Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlain, and it would seem a safe bet
that Corgan aims to flex his industry muscle to make an uncompromisingly
progressive pop-rock statement -- to hell with the number of units sold!
Sadly, such is not the case with Mary Star of the Sea, Zwan's
polished-to-a-blinding-sheen debut. To be blunt, there's nothing
progressive going on here. But Corgan and his band do serve up several
innocuous power-pop numbers that sound great while they're playing. You
may not recall the music once it's passed, but the initial rush during
playback is warm and arena-friendly. There's nothing wrong with such an
approach, of course, as Corgan's commendable past work proves. Ironically,
it's when he tries to graft his art-rock leanings onto this sturdy
pop-rock frame that things go awry. Refusing to play to his strengths
(short, punchy alterna-rock fist-pumpers) only magnifies Corgan's and
After serving up a prepackaged diet of formulaic anthems (steady
buildup, big chorus, power chords, repeat) -- most egregious on the
ubiquitous radio single "Honestly" -- Zwan savvily slows things down with
the requisite ballad "Of A Broken Heart." If nothing else, this should
play well on the Modern Rock "She loves me, she loves me not" call-in
request hour. Soon, however, "Endless Summer" and "Baby Let's Rock!"
reveal all that is right about Zwan. They're loud and arrogant, showing
off unimaginative but tightly played guitar, drum and bass interplay that
works because of what it's not: overblown rock epics that don't hold up
under close lyrical or musical scrutiny. Corgan's indulgent side further
surfaces on the hyperbolic, if relatively short, "Ride A Black Swan,"
which comes off more as a parody of art rock histrionics than anything
else. Fair enough; you're willing to allow Corgan a moment of indulgence.
But nothing excuses the 14-minute anti-opus "Jesus, I / Mary Star Of The
Sea," a bloated God complex of a song with a meandering instrumental
middle section that unnecessarily drags it out toward a disappointing
payoff with no discernible progression -- thematically, lyrically, or
musically -- from beginning to end.
If nothing else, Mary Star of the Sea proves that Corgan knows
how to arrange a three-minute pop nugget. Unfortunately, he lets his
nagging desire to be more than a MOR craftsman get the better of him, and
the music suffers because of it. Not that it's a rigid Either/Or
situation, but Corgan would be better off -- and more honestly -- served
by following either one muse or the other. Commerce and art make strange
bedfellows, and Zwan's debut only reinforces the messy result when both
are forced to occupy the same aggressively contested space.
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