Versus iTunes #40: Zwan’s “Mary Star of the Sea”
Have you ever had something come up on your iTunes that you completely forgot existed? Having finally switched to an iPod dock in my car instead of a CD player, I was taking a drive when the shuffle reminded me of something I had thought was long out of my heart: Zwan. For those of you who were too young or just don’t remember this happening, Zwan was the band Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlin formed after the Smashing Pumpkins broke up in 2000, recruiting members of Slint, A Perfect Circle and Chavez. Releasing only a single album, Zwan was kind of a weird phenomenon, and I can’t help but feel weird about their relative obscurity since the Smashing Pumpkins are still a popular band. When you’ve spent so long as an established musical entity people tend to react weirdly to nay output you might have that deviates from your normal sound, making it difficult for many artists to break out and try new things. But even this argument feels a little weird for Zwan, as Corgan has always been a rather bold experimenter with the musical forms he used and Zwan isn’t so disparate from any of the work he’s ever done. What we got instead was what many people labeled as “happy Smashing Pumpkins,” and after all these years, I can say I am quite happy to make this rediscovery.
The designation of happy for music isn’t really a good qualifier, as in theory, any music can be happy or at least cathartic. What I think would be a designation would be that the music of Zwan is much more pop oriented in sound, shedding a great deal of the levels of dissonance and dreaminess of the Pumpkins’ catalog in favor of a rather bright rock sound. While Billy Corgan has always been a really good pop rock writer, it never really showed through until this point and it’s almost a shame, because the pop he puts out is staggeringly well done. For all the pretention that has gone into Corgan’s work over the years, his work is usually rather well thought out in intention and because of that, has a rather direct honesty in what it translates to the audience. Mary Star of the Sea epitomizes this, hitting the listener with songs that are just masses of catchy but dynamic singing set to gorgeous compositions, at least four of which are about as good as one can hope to make a rock song of this nature. The album opener, “Lyric” sets a great tone for the album as a whole, hitting this odd crackling open strum line, before rolling into pitch perfect guitar punctuation and a rhythm section that feels like it’s thundering at just all the moments of pure glee it can find. The drums act as the tar for this track, with Jimmy Chamberlin managing to cobble together fills rather than a more straight forward sense of rhythm, creating moments of broken tension, when the drums just join back into the mix full force as if they’re the loudest voice that could possibly sing along to the song, giving it a disjointed gallop that manages to stay anchored thanks to the overall lushness of the guitar sound. This is one of those songs that reminds me why Billy Corgan is such an interesting singer, not because of his nasal tone, but because of his ability to make such powerful statements with only a few words. The lyrics are rather staggered in delivery throughout the song making the way he sings them especially important, swelling in tone and volume to elevate rather than capitulate the ideas, the kind of dynamic outpouring of joy that comes from finally saying something you’ve held inside. “Honestly,” the album’s lead single was never a favorite of mine until this past relisten, as it fits closest to the Pumpkins’ sound without ever quite hitting the full majesty of it. But what it does do is create a mass of voices, this strong rise towards everyone joining in to sing along, much the way Queen used employ harmonies, using bassists Paz Lenchantin’s feminine timber not to soften, but to focus upon the openness of the lyrics, making their poignancy all the more inspired. That the song is one of the best uses of the three guitar set-up the band employs doesn’t hurt a thing in the world, as it gives a more blanketed sound overall that never quite become busy. “Yeah!,” is just a simple little song that happens to use starkness in the most appropriate way possible, with Corgan’s voice and a guitar solo being the only really defined musical aspects of the track, but this in and of itself is pop bliss, as it manages to be catchy without indulging into trying to go past the honesty of simply saying and expressing emotion, making the moment when Corgan sing “What I want/You can’t fucking kill,” the perfect launching point for the psychedelic explosion of simplicity that laces the guitar solo. And oh man… “Come With Me”… is easily the dumbest track on the album, feeling like an early era Beatles song, but even this comes together perfectly. It’s the epitome of brightness, sounding like everyone is just so happy to be involved in it, as the guitar and harmonica parts hit this wonderful treble balance. It’s strange to listen to it, because it’s pace is so jaunty, that kind of roll down the country roads step, but it’s what makes stripped down rock work; not an exercise in creating tonal dynamics, but simply creating articulate aural ideas of an emotional state.
But this wouldn’t be enough if the album’s overall message wasn’t so massively hopeful. I could really go into the lyrics for quite a bit, because Billy Corgan is one of my all-time favorite lyricists, but I think the easiest way to go about this is to look at one particular song. The astute listener will notice pretty quickly listening to Mary Star of the Sea that the actual lyrics of the album have a rather spiritual bent to them. It’s never very overt what Corgan is talking about, as he tends to be non-specific regarding his religious leanings, but instead does a stellar job of articulating the idea of faith, that abstract belief in something bigger than the self. That is… until “Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea.” This is the one track on the album that really comes clean in what it says, using the lyrics of a traditional song to plainly state both the inherent conflict and resolution of keeping faith: “Jesus, i’ve taken my cross/All to leave and follow thee/Jesus, i’ve taken my cross/All to leave and follow thee/I’m destitute, despised, forsaken/All to leave and follow thee/And follow thee.” This is another rather stark musical number, balanced on a kind of lava-like guitar sound bubbling up from the bottom and then turning into a bigger, more ominous rhythm driven dynamic, punctuating the inherent forthrightness of the lyrics being delivered. It comes off as rather earnest in its attempt, but this twists about midway through, when the extended breakdown, which really plumbs the depths of psychedelic rock, wrenching into this massively pulled guitar sounds. The whole guitar sounds become so painful and plaintive, dripping out like the slow drops of rain, leading Corgan to come back in, more somber and restrained: “Drift as i dive/Find the deep/Out of reach of all light/Stars, ever far/Listless tides along the changing shore.” The songs becomes very evocative of the sound of drowning, the guitar sliding and bending to match the changes in Corgan’s vocals, with the constant refrains of “Everything feels just like rain,” echoing on and in with such little power put behind them. It’s such an odd dynamic to have the more hopeful section put up front and the more somber section in the back, as if he’s falling out of his ecstacy, but it also makes perfect sense. It’s this point where he comes back to feeling human, to only understanding the world from his viewpoint and how lowly and encompassing that feels against the idea of the bigger self he had previously. The song still manages a massively triumphant vibe, but tempers it carefully to keep it grounded in reality. This is an album about finding happiness, not just being happy.
But it’s not a perfect album I suppose, as much as I’m starting to think it may be. The biggest complaint I can give well… let me give you an analogy first. You guys have heard Abbey Road right? How it ends in the beautiful sweeping and emotionally dynamic “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/ The End” trio and how that just manages to feel like the perfect encapsulation of the Beatles career/ Well it goes on and the album actually ends with “Her Majesty,” a little pop ditty about being in love with the Queen. It acts as a subversion of the powerful momentum that leaves you wanting following the three songs leading up to it, making the album end weirdly instead of perfectly. Zwan has this same problem as “Come With Me” is the closer rather than “Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea.” I think “Come With Me” is a great song, but it’s not the emotional build-up of the previous track, acting as a more coda/return to general sound than a powerful statement to send the listeners home with. And this is kind of a problem for the album as a whole. It’s not that it’s not cohesive, it’s just that they’re not especially well-put together in flow as they could. “Of a Broken Heart” is a beautiful acoustic number, but feels out of place in its position, seeming to drag the album’s tone midway through without a lot of thought of how it can swing back into the richer emotions later in the album. But even then, I don’t think it really would fit anywhere especially well on the album, seeming to diverge so much that it acts jarring. The attempts to diversify the sound seeming to be more experiments than outright matching tonal imprints. It would be a fine song by itself, just not on this particular album. And… I’m going to throw shade at Paz Lenchantin, who is just not much of a bass player. She has a good sense of swing on the album, but you can actively hear errors in her playing during the album and unless she’s playing by herself, she never really fits into the band. I love her vocal contributions but I wish she had thought her parts out better, which thankfully fall down in the mix for most of the album.
I am super high on this album right now. Maybe it’s just euphoria from re-discovering it after so much time and the fact that it features one of my musical inspirations doesn’t hurt but… I don’t know. After Mellon Collie and before Oceania there was such a lull in the beauty I saw in Corgan’s music, where the albums didn’t feel like they were connecting the same way, but I can see it in Mary Star of the Sea and I love it for that.
Is It Guitar Pornography?: Oh yeah. I love Billy Corgan and I love three guitar bands, so this is right up my alley. It’s solos aren’t as good as some of his other solos, but they’re very great overall and I just adore the lushness of the sound they provide.
Who I’d Recommend It To: People who have had a bad day or a bad time overall, because this album is not only generally bright in sound, but works through issues within songs in a cool way. People who can really concentrate on dynamics, as the really full sound needs some attentions. Fans of the Pumpkins who want to see the main men do some different things with the same kind of sound. Indie nerds wanting to pull an obscure one out but haven’t quite got their own obscurity finding chops together. Fans of vocal harmonies and psychedelic romps into the unseen realms. Those who have never played the bass and never plan to. Those with a song in their hearts and those trying to step outside the box a bit. Sing along folks who just want to jam out a little on a car ride.
An Arbitrary Rating: 9/10
Favorite Track: Jesus, I/Mary Star of the Sea