Music Reviews
Mary Star of the Sea

Zwan Mary Star of the Sea

(Reprise) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

During the late 1990s it began to seem, to both loyal fans and casual outside observers, that Billy Corgan was taking himself far too seriously and quite a few people were left wondering if the Smashing Pumpkins could withstand the strain of a frontman eager to be all things to all people. Adore, the electronically tinged and brutally pitiful follow-up to the Pumpkins' masterful double-album, left the music world wondering what happened to Corgan. All of the sudden, the "guy next door with the broken heart" shaved his head as slick as a chicken's egg and donned a bizarre black leather gown that, along with disturbing quantities of white face paint and blue eye shadow, made him look like the product of a sexual encounter between The Cure's Robert Smith and a cenobite from a Clive Barker film. Put simply, the public grew weary of Corgan's gothic look and self-loathing lyrics. The timing was off and the platform was insincere. As a result, the public kicked Corgan off his soapbox and Adore flopped. Even the reintroduction of Jimmy Chamberlin, accompanied by a fairly solid release in 2000, couldn't save the band in the public's eye.

So wisely, Corgan disbanded the Pumpkins to form a new project known as Zwan. His first smart move was to surround himself with capable musicians. Chamberlin, arguably one of rock's greatest drummers, was signed on to perform percussive duties. Paz Lenchantin was snagged from A Perfect Circle and rounds out the rhythm section with her fat bass grooves. Lenchantin also performs a very significant role in the band by performing background vocals, which mesh beautifully with Corgan's. The band is rounded out by guitarists Matt Sweeney and David Pajo, who have played in a number of different groups (all enjoying limited commercial success) around the Chicago area.

Corgan's next wise move involved losing the cape and face paint. This may have been the move that inspired him to produce Mary Star of the Sea. Despite the burden of bearing a silly (and somewhat creatively pretentious) name, the new album marks a return to straightforward "alternative rock" and is sure to contain a few love anthems destined to be remembered by teens fortunate enough to skip the cookie cutter TRL fodder littering the shelves of record stores everywhere.

Listeners are treated with gorgeous vocal harmonies from the start. Lyric provides a big bang hello to fans loathing for the interesting duality once found (but always annoyingly buried in the mix) in Corgan's harmonies with former Pumpkin bandmate D'Arcy. Lenchantin's gorgeous voice is aptly utilized by Corgan in an attempt to retrieve one of the things that made the Pumpkins so interesting in the first place - a brilliant mix between masculine force and feminine beauty. This yin-yang approach is sure to please fans of "old-school" Pumpkins who will no doubt be turned on by the sulky, sexy union of "his and her" vocals. Most music lovers, however, will probably wonder why the voice reigns weren't handed over to Lenchantin for a complete song.

Settle Down explores Corgan's vocal range. It becomes apparent, in this track, that Corgan is literally belting out the lyrics with the full force of his (tortured) lungs. The experience is an interesting departure from his regular whine (which still rears its sometimes ugly head). The song, much like some others on the album, tends to run a little long. Repetition, if nothing else, will burn this song in your head for a while. Listen to the opening riff though and compare it to the one in New Order's Dreams Never End. Interesting. Declarations of Faith is the first strong indication that Corgan has returned to the planet Earth. This song floats along on Chamberlin's incredible kick, snare and ride grooves. A great, catchy chorus is sure to keep listeners singing along.

The album simply erupts with Honestly, Zwan's first radio single. Incredible lyrics seem to jump straight from Corgan's heart onto the track. The song is structured well and was clearly written with the same pop sensibility that helped early Pumpkin's releases fly off the shelves. The song is set apart from most radio fodder due to a strong current of sincerity that is sure to provoke an emotional response after repeated listens. Honestly faithfully highlights the band and should serve as the litmus test for record buyers vaguely interested in checking out the album. The track, scarred only by a largely ineffective guitar solo towards the end, is certainly the best thing floating around on American pop radio these days (which, admittingly, isn't saying much).

Mary Star of the Sea is not without its low points however. Notably awful are filler tracks like Heartsong which, much like it's balladesque companion Of a Broken Heart, appears to be an afterthought. Heartsong is nothing more than a series of open chord strummings and thrown together lyrical melodies. To make things worse, the song is washed (or, more appropriately, littered) by distasteful synth sounds. Of a Broken Heart isn't nearly as bad, but simply lacks anything interesting enough to maintain a listener's attention. The repetitious chorus comes dangerously close to those silly, dark times when Corgan insisted on telling the world that his life sucked. This time, he is telling us he is destined to die from a broken heart.

Thankfully, things pick again as a trio of fantastic rockers round out the B-side. Ride a Black Swan is one of the album's best tracks. The song opens with a riff that builds a sense of desperation that explodes with a driving chorus paved once again by the brilliant drumming of Chamberlin. It's also vies for the "heaviest" song along with Jesus, I. Endless Summer is a great track that, at times, drips with the same guitar tones found in early works by the Foo Fighters. Baby Lets Rock is, fittingly enough, one of the most "rock" songs Corgan has ever written. When the rhythm section relaxes and lays back into a solid grove, they manage to form a foundation for Corgan's tribute to the fun (but shallow) sounds of American arena rockers from the late 1970s.

With a few fantastic exceptions, this album is slightly above average. Unfortunately, it will probably not signal a much-needed return to three-dimensional pop music. It's also probably far too "pop" and commercial to gain a large underground following and will, sadly, probably die on the charts within three months. However, Mary Star of the Sea does offer a bit of hope for people struggling to find something meaningful on the radio. Honestly, along with a few other tracks from Zwan's debut, is a breath of fresh air for pop music. Lets pray it stays afloat long enough to save some of us from drowning.