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Zwan: Mary Star Of The Sea

Album: Mary Star Of The Sea
Label: Reprise

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The Smashing Pumpkins' commercial decline can probably be traced to the release of 1998's Adore, the band's quietest, subtlest, and (not coincidentally) most underrated album. From there, Billy Corgan & Co. seemed to play catch-up, following Adore with MACHINA / the machines of god, an epic disc with enough portent and bombast for itself, Adore, and half a dozen side projects. From there, given MACHINA's failure to turn around the group's commercial fortunes, The Smashing Pumpkins had nothing to do but disband, leaving Corgan with an imposing array of musical directions to choose from. Surprisingly, the legendary control freak aligned himself with not only his old band's ace drummer (Jimmy Chamberlin), but also respected collaborators who've made strong creative contributions of their own–most notably Matt Sweeney (of the grossly under-appreciated Chavez) and David Pajo, who fulfills the Former Member Of Slint quota required of all supergroups seeking critical acclaim. In the end, however, Zwan's biggest and most pleasant surprise is how unassuming it is. Naturally, Mary Star Of The Sea hasn't altogether shed Corgan's messiah complex or his interest in themes of spiritual and cosmic importance, but it presents them mostly in the form of glossy but stadium-friendly pop-rock songs that stay nicely rooted in human emotion. Not until the end does Zwan drop a ludicrously ambitious epic, the 14-minute "Jesus, I / Mary Star Of The Sea," and even that isn't anywhere near as toxic as its title suggests. By that point, the disc has more than earned its keep anyway, with a crackerjack opening third that divides its time smartly and equally between lush grace and ingratiating catchiness.