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Zwan Dive

 

Zwan: Mary Star of the Sea

Warner Brothers, 2003

Rating: 3.3

 

 

Posted: February 4, 2003

By Laurence Station

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 rock club.

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 Zwan's shortcomings.

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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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