Friday, October 10, 2008

Zwan. Mary Star of the Sea (Martha's Music/Reprise, 2003)

"Everyone is not as one/ Everyone's the same."

I fully realize that, from an indie snob perspective, I'm not supposed to like this album. At all. It is not generally considered to be remotely cool. Its release was greeted with some initial interest -- the band was, after all, a supergroup of sorts, featuring Billy Corgan, Chavez's Matt Sweeney, Slint's David Pajo, Paz Lenchantin from A Perfect Circle, and the Smashing Pumpkins' tremendous junkie drummer Jimmy Chamberlin -- followed by disappointment, disinterest, and in some cases, anger.

Why the backlash? Most of it had to do with exceedingly high expectations -- "This is gonna be so rad, man! Corgan and the dude from Chavez AND one of the dudes from Slint?!? AWESOME!" -- dashed against the craggy rocks of reality, and, let's face it, inevitability: "Dude, this just sounds like a Smashing Pumpkins record. Drag." What else was it gonna sound like? Chavez? Slint? Slintvez? Nopes. Billy Corgan is at the helm, after all, and he's a notorious control freak. The band -- like many a supergroup before it, I might add -- quickly disbanded due to internal tensions, a nation shrugged, and everyone went about their business as though nothing had ever happened.

So yeah, this album sounds like a Smashing Pumpkins record. But here's the thing: it sounds like a really KICK-ASS Smashing Pumpkins record. It's huge, bloated stadium rock, full of pretentious proggy philosophizing and half-baked themes and theories. It's trying really hard to be important and profound. It's neither. But what it is is an overwhelmingly enjoyable -- if a bit too long (Corgan was never much for self-editing; Mellon Collie had like 16 sides or something) -- set of '70s throwback, oversized powerpop jams, man. These tunes pump from the stereo in a steady stream of sweet 'n' sour triple guitar crunch. Just turn it up.

Because let's not forget, Zwan did have the dude from Chavez (guitar), one of the dudes from Slint (also on guitar), and Jimmy Chamberlin, who's an alarmingly mighty drummer. Even Corgan's monolithic ego can't drown out the awesomeness of that combo. Matt Sweeney is an incredible guitarist (Chavez is one of the most exciting, flat-out rocking, and underrated bands of the '90s), and it comes through time after time in Zwan, despite Corgan's tendency to hog the spot light with his Boston-biting bombast. Plus, I get the feeling that the rest of the band brought some good ideas to the table that helped shape Mary Star of the Sea into something far more interesting and fun than any normal Corgan solo project could hope to be.

There's nothing subtle about any of these songs. They are heavy-hitting hook collections in afterburner mode, nearly every one. "Lyric" sets the pace with a galloping slab of riffery, introduced with a thickly distorted jangle and shot through with Sweeney's wandering, spiky leads. "Settle Down" is a stiffly syncopated stomper coated in dense power strums and searing solos as Corgan (who handles all of the lead vocals) belts out, "Never lose that feeling!" It's more than a feeling, right Billy? And check out the wicked shredding that begins at the 4:39 mark and sticks around for the remaining forty-odd seconds. Totally sweet.

"Declarations of Love" is almost laughably epic, with a massive sound and dynamic shifts straight from the Rush rule book. It's also insanely catchy and thrilling in its towering grandiloquence and ridiculous rock majesty. "Honestly" is a spry, elastic anthem, Chamberlin's drums and Lenchantin's bass mapping out the blast zone before Corgan, Sweeney, and Pajo burn everything inside it to the motherlovin' ground. The scorchingly melodic guitar three-way that begins at the 2:44 mark is basically everything that's great about the record compressed into thirty seconds.

"Ride a Black Swan" is one of the two best songs on the album, an unceasingly pounding pleasure, featuring an enthralling, circular main riff and some of the most enjoyably goofy lyrics on the whole record, with Corgan pondering, "As the world goes 'round, it's got me thinking/ That the things I want, they just keep me sinking/ Down." Whoa, bruh. Like, whoa. "Yeah!", the other best song here, is where the album should have ended, a sunny, charmingly bright and joyous little sparkler, with an infectious vocal hook and some blinding shredding. But instead of ending with "Yeah!," the eleventh song, Mary Star of the Sea continues on for twenty-two more minutes and wears out its welcome.

My advice to you is this: ignore the anti-hype and get this record. You can get it for pennies, basically. And stop listening after "Yeah!" 'cuz after that you'll probably start getting bored and a little irritable. But up to and including that track is a gem of an album, an unapologetically backwards-looking treasure trove of shaggy, six-string-slinging bliss. I promise.