Corgan, Star of the Band?
Thoughts on Zwan's Debut, Two Rants and a List

A few quick words about the president:

I’m sure virtually everyone who tuned in to the State of the Union Address noted that W.’s speech was actually two speeches – the “compassionate conservative” bent of his domestic-oriented first half, marked by phrases like, “That’s what a caring society does,” and the paranoid, crazed war-mongering of his foreign-oriented second half. Among the surprises was an admission (delivered somewhat gleefully) that the U.S. Government has been tracking down suspected terrorists abroad, one by one, and killing them, which may not be exactly the sort of thing a lot of people want their tax dollars going to support. I may be wrong on that count, but vigilante justice never sat right with me.

Anyone who still thinks we may not go to war with Iraq is, at this point, probably deluded. That doesn’t bother me as much as W.’s insistence on hiding the whole truth from the public – we may be invading Iraq partially because of a perceived threat to our national security, but we’re also undoubtedly hoping to set up a puppet government in Hussein’s place, one that will grant us really cheap prices and a measure of control over that region’s oil. All this after announcing an initiative to develop alternative energy sources “to decrease our dependence on foreign oil.” We all know that the gas and oil companies that own our government would never allow that to happen, and would much rather dig up the Alaskan reserves than pursue some ecologically-minded alternative.

I honestly have never been more scared of my government than I am right now. Reports from across the globe substantiate the notion that the rest of the world thinks W. has lost his freaking mind. (For an eye-opener, go check out Tom Morello’s piece in the new Rolling Stone.) This is a government that does not ask the public what it wants, but charges forward in single-minded determination toward its own goals. Bush even broached Phase One of his pro-life agenda – did you catch it? He cautiously buried it among other applause-baiting domestic policy ideas. This is not a government of the people, by the people and for the people – it’s a government that dictates to the people, and when necessary, forgets that there is a people all together.

Plus, it just drives me nuts that the elected leader of our nation can’t wrap his tongue around the word “nuclear.” It’s new-CLEAR, not new-cue-LAR. Man, that makes me angry.

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I am becoming increasingly certain that Chicago is going to win Best Picture this year, which I think is a shame.

Now, keep in mind that I haven’t seen Chicago, the film, but I have seen (and heard – again and again and again) Chicago, the stage musical. If Rob Marshall’s film stays true to the stage play, which I’ve heard it does, then it will definitely be a crowd-pleaser: a fluffy, safely ironic comment on fame with some fluffy, safe songs populating its edges. Not by any means a work of genius, nor by any stretch of the imagination the best film of the year.

That award, as of this writing, goes to Adaptation, a stunning work of recursion by the Being John Malkovich team of writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze. I have yet to see a film this year as fully and skillfully realized as this one, in which every scene can be enjoyed and marveled at on any number of levels. Adaptation pulls off the mind-boggling trick of making the audience a participant in the film’s creation, and through the whole thing, Kaufman and Jonze make rewriting the rules of conventional cinema look easy, and never less than completely engrossing.

And it probably won’t even be nominated.

What bothers me about Chicago is not just that it’s aimed at mass acceptance, but that its award will be nothing more than covering up for the Academy’s unconscionable snubbing of Moulin Rouge last year. At the time, the Academy’s nomination of Moulin for Best Picture without extending the same honor to its visionary director Baz Luhrmann seemed a ridiculous oversight. Now, however, it feels like the Academy is saying that they wanted to reward a musical, just not that musical.

Which makes a twisted kind of sense. Moulin Rouge is several leagues above the usual MGM-style movie musical, both in its visual style and in its use of six decades of popular tunes in a whirlwind summation of the emotional impact of music. Moulin is about that grand, epic, doomed love that’s been the subject of at least 75 percent of all pop songs ever written, and it uses those pop songs mainly for the direct emotional connection they already possess with the audience. Basically, my point is this: Chicago is just a musical, and a pretty empty one at that. Moulin Rouge is a musical about musicals, and about popular music in general, which tries to answer the question of why these little songs have such power over our feelings. It says more than Chicago could ever hope to.

Once again, the Academy is trying to cover its ass. Witness Denzel Washington last year, finally (finally!) winning the Oscar for Malcolm X and Philadelphia and countless other films in which he has stolen every scene in which he appears. What got him there? A piece of elevated genre trash like Training Day. It’s the same story here – Chicago will be unfairly honored for Moulin Rouge‘s vision, and it’s a shame because Luhrmann paved the way. Without his film, which many decried as an impossible project simply because it was a musical, something like Chicago would never have been made.

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The recent avalanche of release dates just goes to show that I should never do one of my preview columns in January. Here’s the latest:

Out next week are new place-holder projects by Jars of Clay (Furthermore: From the Studio, From the Stage) and the Pet Shop Boys (Disco 3, a remix EP). The week after that (2/11) sees new ones from Mistle Thrush (Drunk With You), Supergrass (the U.K. hit Life on Other Planets) and John Mayer (a 2-CD live album called Any Given Thursday). The Mayer album is kind of disconcerting, considering he only has one album and one EP from which to draw material. It just proves that record labels will run any successful artist into the ground if he/she lets them.

Also on the 11th is the debut album from Glassbyrd, called Open Wide This Window. This is interesting to me because both Marc Byrd and Christine Glass, who make up this project, are auxiliary members of the Choir, one of my favorite bands.

On the 18th comes Ministry’s long-awaited Animositisomina, which initial reviews have sounding quite a bit like Filth Pig. Shame, really. Additionally, the 18th will see the debut by Office of Strategic Intelligence, which includes folks from Dream Theater and Fates Warning. Could be good, could be crap.

And then the floodgates open on the 25th, with new stuff through the month of March from Lyle Lovett, Wilco, Aphex Twin (a compilation of remixes winningly titled 26 Mixes for Cash), Third Eye Blind, Ani DiFranco (a set she’s called Evolve, which reportedly puts the capper on her last five years of growth), Joe Jackson Band, Allman Brothers Band, the Lost Dogs, De La Soul, Type O Negative and Portishead, to name a few. I’m most excited, however, about the April 1 release date for Infinite Keys, the second full-lengther from Ester Drang. It may give me a chance to make up for missing their phenomenal first one, Goldenwest, in 2001.

And there you have it. Hope I have a job soon.

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We’re not going to be able to discuss Zwan without discussing Billy Corgan, so let’s do that first. Corgan has a reputation as a raving egomaniac, as a tyrannical genius who molds his bands in his image. Smashing Pumpkins certainly fit that bill – Corgan wrote all of their songs, sang and played guitar, and seemingly dictated the band’s larger-than-life public persona. The Pumpkins were kind of winningly arrogant, and none more than Corgan, especially around the time of their double-disc spectacular, 1994’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It was the first major double-record of the digital age, and at more than two hours, it presented the Pumpkins’ vision in an unbroken slab of noise and melody.

And then it all fell apart somehow. The band toppled under its own weight, most remarkably on their swan song, 2000’s MACHINA/The Machines of God. Here was a 70-plus-minute grand guignol that kept the noise while sacrificing nearly every inch of the melody. It was a chore to sit through – plodding and graceless, furious without direction. It was no real surprise that the Pumpkins broke up shortly thereafter, and that none of them have gone on to do anything remarkable since. (In fact, James Iha’s solo work only seems to prove that he, at least, lacked the vision to step out from Corgan’s big bald shadow.)

So what’s a prolific songwriter like Corgan to do? Well, it seemed obvious – he would go on to slog his way through a solo career dripping with importance and gravity, and we’d all ignore him until he went away. (Well, not me – I’d obsessively buy everything he put out for the sake of completeness, but you know what I mean.) Such a move felt inevitable, like Corgan’s installment of Behind the Music had already been written.

Lo and behold, though, Corgan went and found himself another band, this time with ex-members of Slint, Tortoise and Chavez, indie stalwarts all. He brought Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin with him, and dubbed this new unit Zwan.

Or maybe he didn’t, and that’s the point. Even though he sings every song (and wrote most of them) on Zwan’s just-released debut, Mary Star of the Sea, Corgan has cast himself here as just another contributor, just a regular guy in a band. In fact, Corgan’s name doesn’t appear in Zwan’s lineup – he calls himself Billy Burke, for some reason, as if we couldn’t instantly spot him from the inimitable tone of his voice. Corgan is trying to convince us that Zwan is just another band, a far cry from the saviors-of-rock pose he adopted while in the Pumpkins. Moreover, he’s letting it be known that Zwan is not a puppet band under his control.

And impressively, the record bears that out. Despite its Corgan-esque title, Mary Star of the Sea is marvelous, and oceans apart from what we expect from its primary author. Considering some of the song titles (“Declarations of Faith,” “Ride a Black Swan,” “Heartsong”), I fully anticipated a wall of noise topped by Corgan’s trademark nasal wail – basically, Pumpkins redux. So imagine my surprise when I pressed play on the first track, “Lyric,” and out came a swirl of jangly, acoustic-electric guitars that wouldn’t sound out of place on a BoDeans album.

For most of its running time, Mary Star of the Sea is a light, hooky romp through pop-rock land. The songs are simple, yet winning, and they actually have melodies, with choruses and everything. Even “Of a Broken Heart” is delightfully free of moping. Corgan adapts several traditional spiritual tunes here as well, to decent effect. Zwan has three guitarists, including Corgan, Matt Sweeney and David Pajo, but they rarely combine them into a full frontal assault. Rather, the guitars chime in atop one another, layering sweetness rather than sludge.

Even Corgan himself sounds more relaxed in this environment than he ever has. His voice has thankfully lost much of that pinched quality that weighed down his Pumpkins work, and his melody lines are gracefully sung. It helps that bassist Paz Lenchantin adds high harmonies in her clear, lovely tones as well. If I didn’t think it an inappropriate image, I’d say that Corgan seems to have let his hair down on this record. (How else to explain a trio of songs with the honest-to-Christ real titles of “Endless Summer,” “Baby Let’s Rock!” and “Yeah!” Punctuation originally included, by the way.)

There is one song that reeks of rotten Pumpkins, however, and that’s the 14-minute title track. It lopes onward, saturated in feedback, until it nearly eradicates the light sense of fun in the preceding 12 tracks. Thankfully, Corgan pulls out of it at the end with the dreamy acoustic closer, “Come With Me.” Still, one can feel the old ambitions pushing at the edges of Zwan, and I hope that Corgan has enough sense to stick with the original plan. The accompanying DVD shows little else but the band chumming around, five regular folks who happen to make music, and it rings a little false.

While it’s likely true that Corgan’s one-of-the-guys thing here is just as much a piece of theater as his previous rock-god stature, I hope he can play the part, because Zwan, at least on this album, is the most enjoyable setting in which we’ve ever heard him. If he can just relax and have fun with it, Zwan should be a most pleasant trip. If not, it could be another spectacular failure, but at least we got one zippy little record out of the deal.

Next week, who knows, considering my financial status. Donations are accepted, of course.

See you in line Tuesday morning.