Corgan's new band Zwan channels Pumpkins' sound

by David N. Archwamety | 1/30/03 6:00am

One may wonder why Billy Corgan's latest album isn't billed as a Smashing Pumpkins album. After all, any Pumpkins fan and probably any alternative fan in general will be able to recognize those trademark, playfully whiny vocals.

More finely tuned ears will be able to recognize Jimmy Chamberlin on percussion. Missing from the original Pumpkins lineup are James Iha on guitar and the recently-rehired-for-touring-purposes Melissa Auf der Maur on bass, but if they kept their name after D'Arcy quit, then why switch now?

Zwan is the name of the new band, which in addition to Corgan and Chamberlin also includes Matt Sweeney and David Pajo on guitar and A Perfect Circle's Paz Lenchan-tin on bass. The band was officially formed in 2001, months after the Smashing Pumpkins ceased to exist, and Lenchantin joined in 2002.

Maybe Corgan let go of his old band's name and took on Zwan in order to give him new band more musical freedom. The Smashing Pumpkins had reached an immortal status many fans' eyes, and with a new name they wouldn't be held to any standards. Even so, it could be argued that "Mary Star of the Sea," Zwan's debut album, would have been an acceptable follow-up to the poorly-performing "Machina/The Machines of God." The Pumpkins had the ability to redefine themselves with every album; each album after 1993's "Siamese Dream" became lyrically more introspective and musically softer until "Machina," where the instrumentals were split: they put the hard edge back on a number of those songs and made the rest even softer.

Sure, the music on "Mary Star of the Sea" is at least somewhat noticeably different from the Pumpkins' work, but the lyrical shifts are a better indication of the distinction between the Smashing Pumpkins and Zwan. Whereas Corgan's lyrics with the former band had become so abstract they could almost be mistaken for a faux Renaissance poet, the words Corgan sings on Zwan's debut CD, while still poetic, are simpler and more concrete. That's not to say that Corgan doesn't go off on a few tangents with Zwan, but he stays within orbit most of the time.

A number of tracks on "Mary" are love songs that range from simple to complex to obscure. Corgan pens both love cliches like "and all I wanted was just to hold you close" on "El Sol" and more track "Declarations of Faith," he still vows to hold onto both love and faith.

The track "Baby Let's Rock!" has a clear objective; however, Corgan's poetic talents matched up with the simplistic pointlessness of the song end up making it sound rather silly.

The instrumentals are a blend of standard Pumpkins fare and new Zwan highlights. Chamberlin's pounding, consistent drums provide good tempo to almost all of the tracks, especially "Lyric" and the pop-gem closer "Come With Me." The guitars on "Endless Summer" and the first single "Honestly" are especially well-poised, but they go overboard on "Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea," a skippable 14-minute track which contains two loud songs bridged by a two-and-a-half-minute intermission that wouldn't sound out of place on a smooth-jazz radio station.

"Turn My Way," Corgan's 2001 collaboration with techno pioneers New Order, seems to have influenced a few of Zwan's tracks. The lead guitars on both "Settle Down" and "Desire" are reminiscent of New Order, but the former is otherwise forgettable, and the backing guitar on the latter tries too hard to be retro.

They get the '80s influences right on "El Sol," though, which sounds like a cross between a typical "Sia-mese Dream" track and a stellar, mid-tempo new wave track. And that's not the only successful experimentation. The bridge of the lonely bar anthem "Of a Broken Heart," while no Son Volt tune, has a distinctly alt-country flair.

The Smashing Pumpkins may have broken up, but both Corgan and his audience knew he couldn't stay away from music for long. We recognized his voice and lyrics when he was with the Pumpkins, and we recognize them still in Zwan. As he tells us in "Lyric," "I'm a star and I will shine in a season all mine."

CD courtesy of the Dartmouth Bookstore.