Album Review: Zwan makes a smashing debut with 'Mary Star of the Sea'

    Hype is a bitch. Nobody knows this better than Billy Corgan. When he formed The Smashing Pumpkins over a decade ago, the “”grunge”” movement was just starting to gain momentum, and the Pumpkins were poised for stardom, which they achieved with 1993’s critically acclaimed “”Siamese Dream”” and 1995’s monster double album, “”Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.”” But the media’s reception of their last two under-loved albums, as well as Corgan’s plagued reputation and public persona, put a damper on the Pumpkins’ breakup.

    Now Corgan, along with former Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, is back with Zwan. He’s brought some friends along, too: ex-Chavez frontman Matt Sweeney, ex-Slint guitarist Dave Pajo and A Perfect Circle bassist Paz Lenchantin. Word has been slowly building about the band. Kelly Osbourne thinks they suck. Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly have submitted glowing reviews.

    One listen to the album’s opener, “”Lyric,”” should be a clue as to who is right. Corgan sings, “”Here comes my faith to carry me on,”” and means every word of it. The song’s gorgeous harmonies, religious references, textured guitars and driving beats set the tone for an album of uplifting, powerful music.

    The Corgan fans have grown to worship over the years is still here. On the title track, he sings, “”Everything just feels like rain,”” with the guitars perfectly matching the bummer vocal harmony. He can also still pull the self-deprecation card when necessary. In the stripped-down “”Heartsongs,”” he sings, “”Heart songs are all that I am, I use the same words to say the same things.”” He could be undergoing harsh self-criticism, or he could be blowing off his nay-sayers. Either way, it sounds great.

    But the Corgan who used to be “”in love with [his] sadness”” also displays a surprising sense of fun. “”Baby Let’s Rock”” severs all ties with Corgan’s Smashing past with the lyrics, “”Baby I’m the greatest thing you’ve got,”” and vocal and guitar harmonies worthy of Boston. Try to listen to the bridge where he sings, “”I dream about you every night, and when I do you’re holding me tight,”” without smiling.

    Zwan’s first single, “”Honestly,”” is receiving major airplay right now, and it’s not difficult to see why. The song borrows the chord progression of one of Corgan’s biggest hits, “”Today;”” lays on some intricate guitar work and vocal harmonies, courtesy of Sweeney, Pajo and Lenchantin; and blossoms into a prog-pop sing-a-long. For people who don’t dig it, know that it’s also one of the least immediately likeable songs on the album.

    Many of the album’s songs could be singles, the most likely contender being “”Settle Down,”” a new-wave jam with some of Corgan’s most inspired singing and guitar work to date. Another possibility is “”Of a Broken Heart,”” a stunning acoustic number that wisely changes up the mood of the album. But the album’s real treasure is “”Jesus I,”” which makes use of all three guitar players centering around a revolving guitar lick and contains the phrase, “”God and Heaven are all my own.”” Corgan can’t assume any responsibilty for the religious connotation of this line, at least; the song is actually an adaptation of a hymn, which slowly dissolves into the album’s title track.

    It’s a complete triumph. Look for the album on Jan. 28 and a U.S. tour this spring.

    Mary Star of the Sea

    ****

    Zwan

    Reprise Records

    In stores Jan. 28

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