Corgan moves ahead with new band


December 18, 2001



It was a year ago Dec. 2 that alternative rockers the Smashing Pumpkins played a marathon 41/2-hour concert at Metro, ending a career that spanned 13 years and six studio albums, with 22 million copies sold.

But with all of the activity in the Pumpkins' camp of late, it's as if they never left.

The group has a greatest-hits album packaged with an accompanying limited-run disc of rarities in the stores just in time for Christmas, along with an impressive DVD that puts the earlier "Vieuphoria" collection of its videos to shame.

On top of all that, it should surprise no one to learn that Zwan, the new band led by singer-songwriter Billy Corgan and featuring drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, sounds a whole heckuva lot like (you guessed it) the Smashing Pumpkins.

In addition to the two ex-Pumpkins, the new group features guitarist Matt Sweeney, formerly of indie rockers Chavez, and bassist "Skullfisher" a k a Dave Pajo, one-time lead guitarist with underground legends Slint and briefly a member of Chicago art-rockers Tortoise.

The pedigrees of these new players, along with comments Corgan made during the Pumpkins' final days, led some to believe that Zwan would highlight more of the songwriter's progressive-rock influences than the Pumpkins, whose most successful music represented a mix of gothic imagery, melancholy moodiness and arena bombast. But that doesn't seem to be the case.

Zwan has played only a handful of dates so far, starting with four club gigs on the West Coast last month, and moving to the Midwest for shows in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Indianapolis last week. (There is no word on if or when there might be a Chicago show.)

I intended to review the Grand Rapids show but was told by representatives of the band that while it wasn't that I wasn't welcome, well, I wasn't welcome if I was going to be reviewing . Granted, every new band needs some time to work the bugs out onstage, but Zwan might consider performing under a different name if it really wants to play things low-key and under the radar. And it's impossible to keep the press out entirely.

A reviewer for the online music news service Allstar made it into Zwan's Nov. 18 show in Santa Ana, Calif., and he underscored the opinions of others who've seen the group when he wrote that it is very much "a work in progress." While there are fewer pyrotechnic guitar solos than in the Pumpkins, the sound is still pretty Pumpkinesque; how could it be otherwise, given Corgan's distinctive voice and the chemistry he shares with the hard-hitting Chamberlin?

A handful of bootlegged Zwan songs are already floating around on the Internet. In addition to a passionate cover of the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down," I've heard two characteristically melodramatic, mid-tempo ballads (including one with the chorus, "Until I die of a broken heart") and a gutsy Corgan rocker that sounds a bit like a roughed-up "1979." (I haven't yet scored a copy of the band's cover of Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now," but I'm certainly curious.)

Some who are close to him say that Corgan is thoroughly enjoying the chance to create a new vehicle to deliver his bountiful musical ideas. But he is clearly just as concerned with maintaining the legacy of the Pumpkins.

Starting with "Siva" and ending with the band's parting gift, the sprightly single "Untitled," the first disc of "The Smashing Pumpkins Greatest Hits"--subtitled "Rotten Apples" (and released on Virgin)--is a concise, no-nonsense argument for why the band connected with a generation. At its best, its pairing of exquisitely crafted melodies with expressions of timeless teenage angst were cathartic and uplifting. (At its worst, they were whiny, miserable and self-pitying, but there's thankfully precious little of that here.)

The set's second disc, subtitled "Judas O," rounds up various late-era B-sides and unreleased rarities, including a rather pointless cover of David Essex's "Rock On" that folds in a dollop of Van Halen. Overall, though, this disc is superior to the rarities collection "Pisces Iscariot" because it reflects the tremendous musical and lyrical growth of the group from "Adore" through its untimely demise. (I miss James Iha! If Billy's still playing Pumpkinesque music with Jimmy, why not James?)

Meanwhile, "The Smashing Pumpkins 1991-2000" DVD (Virgin) is the best I've seen from any band in this still-new format. It compiles all of the group's ambitious, groundbreaking and fabulously expensive videos in pristine digital form, offering viewers the option to watch them unadorned or with commentary by the band members and directors. The words "Billy's artistic vision" surface entirely too often, but it's still fascinating to learn what he was aiming for in some of these famously inscrutable clips.

Rating for "The Smashing Pumpkins Greatest Hits": ****

Rating for "The Smashing Pumpkins, 1991-2000": ****