Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Week 4: "Declarations of Faith" by Zwan

Since I moved to Kansas City in 2003, I have listened to the album Mary Star of the Sea by Zwan more than any other album. The song “Declarations of Faith” is my favorite song from this consistently strong album.

Zwan was a short-lived “super group” that formed after the Smashing Pumpkins broke up. The band consisted of Pumpkins front-man Billy Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin. Together they added two guitar players: Matt Sweeney of the band Chavez and David Pajo of the band Slint. They also added peripatetic bass-player Paz Lechantin who has played with a number of bands including A Perfect Circle and Queens of the Stone Age.

Billy Corgan, for all his giftedness as a visionary musician, is equally well-known for the volatility of his relationships with his band mates. The same personality issues (and alleged drug use) that led the Pumpkins to disband also led to Zwan’s premature demise after only one album.

Wikipedia describes Zwan’s style as “an intricate three-guitar attack.” This is true but doesn’t capture the fullness of their sound. In fact, after the release of Mary Star of the Sea, many who purchased the record asked if it was defective. The band responded by issuing a statement on their web-page that attempted to rectify these concerns,
“Recently, some concerns have come to light regarding the 'sound' of the album, and there seems to be confusion about whether or not there is a problem, which is understandable in the warm 'digital' age, so from my mouth to your ear, here's the deal: We set out to make the loudest rock and roll album that was humanly possible. No detail was too small, and by that I mean that everything, and I mean everything on the album is distorted by yours truly.

"So if our album is blowing up your speakers or making your dog cry, I can't say I'm sorry, but I do apologize for any worries this may have caused. 'Mary Star of the Sea' uses everything but the kitchen sink in the analog or digital domain to push the sound of Zwan past the blur into something that feels fresh and exciting, and most importantly, LOUD at any volume. So crank it up, and sit back and enjoy what it sounds like for us on stage in the overdriven glory."
This means that you can listen to their songs over and over again and each time notice new flourishes or bits of sound that you had never noticed before. The guitar-work is just so complex and layered that it is practically unsolvable.

Mary Star of the Sea is an album with a depth of quality songs. Virtually ever song is noteworthy, but especially commendable are the two singles, “Honestly” and “Lyric” as well as the tracks “Settle Down”, “Endless Summer”, and the 14-minute epic “Jesus, I / Mary Star of the Sea.”

Zwan approached their music with a similar sound to their prior incarnation as The Smashing Pumpkins, but with a wholly different attitude. Their songs are not only up-tempo, but also up-beat as compared to the melancholy and anger the Pumpkins exhibited. Zwan was optimistic and hopeful, even faithful. The first lines of the album declare, “Here comes my faith to carry me on.” While the song “Honestly” talks about truthfulness in relationships, Corgan opens the song by repeating the line, “I believe” three times with tremendous feeling. And, in “Declarations of Faith,” Corgan sings, “I declare myself, declare myself of faith.” The song ends with Corgan’s conclusion, “Maybe we were born to love each other.” What exactly is this faith that he has declared, anyways? While it resists definition, it is a “faith” based in hope and possibility.

In the song “Declarations of Faith” the song oscillates between straightforward verses and a chorus that swings. It features everything that is wonderful about Zwan’s music: an upbeat tempo, Jimmy Chamberlin’s frenetic drumming loaded with rolls and fills, complex guitar distortion especially in the upper-register, and the wall-of-sound guitars that are so loud that you feel them. You can see them play this song live here.

As a post-script, when I was a student at Harvard I had a friend named Katie. (I knew Katie because her older sister had been a classmate of mine at Reed College.) Katie not only lived in the same room that T.S. Eliot once lived in, but she also went to New York City on the weekends to go out on the town with her sister. Once she returned saying that she met a really cool guy named James – who played guitar in some band – at a club in New York and that she was planning to fly to Chicago to spend a weekend with him. James was James Iha, the original guitarist of the Smashing Pumpkins. She called him up and I got to speak on the phone with him.