Three years ago, things werenít going so well for Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan. His band had just put out a new album, MACHINA/the machines of God (Virgin) that wasnít tearing up the charts: to this day, itís the only one of the Pumpkinsí five studio discs that hasnít gone platinum, and it was a definite sign that interest in the band had waned. Prodigal drummer Jimmy Chamberlin was back in the fold, but original bassist DíArcy had been replaced by former Hole member Melissa Auf Der Mar. Few were surprised when the group called it quits after a brief US tour.
Corgan spent the next few years out of the spotlight, but now heís back with a new manager, Elliot Roberts, a new label, Reprise, and ó most significantly ó a new band called Zwan. Itís no great departure for Corgan: he still handles the majority of the singing, songwriting, and guitar playing, and his style (not to mention his bald head) remains largely unchanged from his Pumpkins days. Much has been made of Zwanís impressive art-rock pedigree, but when it comes down to it, theyíre basically a new-and-improved version of the Pumpkins. In the James Iha support slot, Corgan recruited unassuming guitarists Matt Sweeney from the indie band Chavez and David Pajo, whose résumé includes roles in Papa M and Slint. Corganís also found another cool bassist, Paz Lenchantin from A Perfect Circle, and she sings twice as many background vocals as her predecessor. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlin is the sole holdover from Corganís Pumpkin days.
There is, however, a big difference between the current Zwan hit "Honestly" and a late-period Pumpkins single like "The Everlasting Gaze." On the latter ó and with the benefit of hindsight ó you can practically taste Corganís frustrations with everyone from himself to the band to the music industry in general. "Honestly," on the other hand, is the sound of a rock god reborn, happy to name his new single after a Stryper song and not worry too much about how it does on the charts. "Thereís no place that I could be without you," is the trackís simple refrain, sung in carefree unison by Corgan and Lenchantin. The band move along at an amiable dream-pop pace, and Corgan brings the song to a climax with a glorious fuzz-guitar solo.
Itís actually been a decent year all around for old Lollapalooza headliners at rock radio, where the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Audioslave are currently holding their own against newcomers like Sum 41. Zwan have just now launched their first proper tour, which is tentatively scheduled to hit the Orpheum on Thursday, March 27. And, already, "Honestly" is getting plenty of airplay, while their first album, Mary Star of the Sea (Reprise), scored an impressive debut at number three on the Billboard Top 200 album chart.
All of which should keep the notoriously downcast Corgan in good spirits, and the tone of Mary Star of the Sea suggests heís as happy as heís ever been. Sure, there were more than a few tender moments on the hit Pumpkins albums Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Siamese Dream (both Virgin), but Corgan mostly dealt in the kind of noise-addled tirades that fueled the songwriting of his biggest rival, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
Unlike Cobain, Corgan lived to see alt-rockís commercial thunder stolen by a new generation of less-cerebral metalheads. And since thereís always been an element of the dumb metalhead in Corganís persona, it wasnít that hard for him to play along. In retrospect, one of the Pumpkinsí biggest hits, "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," anticipated the alt-metal revolution, and, in spite of its relatively weak sales, MACHINA was a valiant attempt to keep up with the kids. Even after the Pumpkins broke up, Corgan was a safe bet to launch a comeback in the post-alternative new millennium.
But first he had to assemble his dream band, which is how heís been describing Zwan to anyone within shouting distance over the past year. Sweeney is an East Coast indie veteran who befriended Corgan on an early Pumpkins tour, and Lenchantin is a Hollywood rocker who has a platinum album under her belt with A Perfect Circle. Chamberlin has been with Corgan since day one, and Pajo, who has a devoted indie following of his own under the name Papa M, shares his frontmanís Midwestern roots. Corgan has been using his native Chicago as the bandís de facto home: they recorded much of the album at Steve Albiniís Electrical Audio, and last month they celebrated its release with a five-night stand at Metro, the club where the Pumpkins played their first show and made their last stand.
Corgan is famous for being a control freak, but given Zwanís talent pool, itís still a surprise to find that this band appears to be even less of a democracy than Smashing Pumpkins. On past albums, Corganís collaborated with star producers like Flood and Butch Vig. This time, itís just Corgan and long-time Pumpkins engineer Bjorn Thorsrud. Corganís new bandmates figure into the songwriting credits on just four of the albumís 14 tracks.
All of which makes it clear that while Corgan was on his short hiatus from rock, he didnít change his creative approach. From the opening guitar chime of "Lyric" to the earth-shattering climax of "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea," Mary Star of the Sea should have no trouble pleasing fans of Corganís trademark combination of arena-rock overkill and unabashed sentimentality. Age may have mellowed him a bit, and heís mostly done away with the violent musical outbursts of his youth, but he still likes his guitars loud and his drums pounding. Yet, for all their similarities to the Pumpkins, Zwan do have a loose, three-guitar feel that sets them apart.
Going all the way back to the dramatic snare roll that opens the first song on Siamese Dream, "Cherub Rock," big entrances have always been important to Corgan. On Mary Star of the Sea, the band are introduced one member at a time at the beginning of "Lyric," which piles guitars on top of guitars until there doesnít seem to be room for even one more until, eventually, the rhythm section crashes the six-string party. The drums move to the forefront on the first chorus, and Corganís newfound optimism manifests itself in both melody and lyrics: "A lyric, a time, a crusade, a line/One minute, a friend, a road without end." Lenchantinís presence is felt immediately through her bold assortment of background vocals, including a wistful countermelody on the chorus.
Along with "Honestly," "Lyric" sets the albumís tone: itís as flamboyant as any of Corganís past work, but warmer and more concise. The albumís radio-friendly vibe continues on "Settle Down," which features a brittle bass hook and a wacky psychedelic meltdown halfway through. Corgan lets his guard down at the end of the song, singing a short "la-di-da" ad lib and wrapping things up with a silly metallic guitar solo. He has even more fun with classic-rock convention on "Declarations of Faith," which puts his own jaded spin on the words of Springsteen and Lennon: "Maybe we were born to run forever/Or maybe we were born to come together, or whatever/Kiss me alone."
Like the Pumpkins, Zwan are primarily a big-rock band, but Corgan still appreciates a little peace and quiet once in a while. Chamberlin breaks out the brushes on "Of a Broken Heart," a somber waltz that perks up in the middle for a straight-faced classic-rock guitar jam. "Heartsong" is the albumís most moving ballad, a distant cousin of the Pumpkins classic "Disarm" with a tasteful synth part and little else behind Corgan and his acoustic guitar. As usual, his words are as sappy as his melodies: "Just be sure/No more, no less/Let love confess to you/What you must do."
Sandwiched between those two tearjerkers is the discís most fully realized rock epic, "Ride a Black Swan." Corgan revisits the prog-rock leanings of the latter-day Pumpkins, using swans and horses as spiritual metaphors and dispatching his army of guitars to remote corners of the dream-pop universe. Chamberlin shifts gears with menacing precision on the chorus, and Corgan dredges up some of his old demons: "As the world goes round/Itís got me thinking/That the things I want/Just keep me sinking down."
The band lose some of their momentum on the second half of Mary Star of the Sea: "Endless Summer" has nothing to do with the Beach Boys, and the exclamation point in "Yeah!" must be meant ironically. But the one in "Baby Letís Rock!" is no joke, and neither is the songís bouncy British Invasion backbeat or its psychedelic vocal harmonies. The group flirt with the Beatles-esque again on the closing track, "Come with Me," an acoustic-based rocker with a breezy harmonica hook up front.
Zwan abandon their pop pretenses for 14 minutes of fiery rock improv on "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea," the monolithic focal point of the discís second half. Corgan starts off with a loose take on the Christian hymn "Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken," which grows in volume until the band seem to ditch Jesus in favor of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. A dual-guitar music-box melody interrupts before the noise gets boring, and Corgan eventually returns to shred the song to a close. Yep, heís back ó and by the sound of Mary Star of the Sea, heís planning on sticking around for a while.