Mary Star Of The Sea (Reprise Records ’03) Rating: A-
With recent albums by Pearl Jam, Chris Cornell, and even Nirvana, I suppose it’s only fitting that another former grunge giant also reemerge with a new band and album. After a decade of tumultuous times and lots of great music, the Smashing Pumpkins broke up in 2001, but now Billy Corgan has regrouped with a new band called Zwan and a strong debut album, Mary Star Of The Sea. First of all, it should be noted that his new bandmates all boast impressive pedigrees, as guitarist David Pajo (ex-Slint, Tortoise, Papa M), guitarist/vocalist Matt Sweeney (Chavez), and bass player/vocalist Paz Lenchantin (A Perfect Circle) had previously proven their mettle in their own acclaimed bands. Never one to play the fool, Corgan also smartly took along former Pumpkin problem child Jimmy Chamberlin, and he does nothing to dispel the common notion that he’s one of the best drummers in the business. This is most apparent on the 14-minute “Jesus, I/Mary Star Of The Sea,” a somewhat overblown but often-spectacular song that gives the likes of past Pumpkins epics such as “Starla” and “Porcelina Of The Vast Oceans” a run for their money. However, though Zwan has a big guitar sound (not surprising given their empowering three-guitar lineup) and is dominated by Corgan (who wrote every song here) in much the same manner as his previous band, there are also plenty of differences between the two bands, most of which come as welcome changes after his former band’s heavy handed last couple of albums. For one thing, gone is Corgan’s legendary “rat in a cage” rage, as he sounds more at peace with himself, and possibly, his bandmates. These songs are less angsty and more relaxed as a rule, with upbeat mid-tempo rockers with poppy harmonies and several dreamy ballads making up the bulk of the album. And though Corgan is still apt to embellish his songs with synthesizers or string orchestrations, these are usually tasteful and unobtrusive, and overall this is his most straightforward and fun set of songs in some time. Granted, over 65 long minutes many of these songs seem to blur together at first, and perhaps a couple of them should’ve been cut from the track listing. The weakest entry is “Baby Let’s Rock!,” which also provides the best example of Corgan’s lyrical shortcomings. Yet most of this album is difficult to find too much fault with, as songs such as “Settle Down,” “Declarations Of Faith,” “El Sol,” and “Ride A Black Swan” only get better the more you get to know them. The first single is “Honestly,” but the truth is that any number of other songs (“Lyric,” “Heartsong,” “Endless Summer,” “Desire”) could’ve been chosen just as easily. True, the otherwise fine “Come With Me” ends the album in an anti-climatic manner (“Jesus, I/Mary Star Of The Sea” should’ve closed the curtain instead), but on the whole the end result here is still a smashing new beginning.

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