2003 / Music

Review: Zwan, Jayhawks Attempt To Escape Their Past

Midwest Bands Release New Albums

Read The Reviews: The Jayhawks | Zwan

Although bands like the Jayhawks and Zwan have little in common musically, there’s one aspect of the music industry that both groups seem to know all too well: struggling to reinvent themselves.

While the ‘hawks were leaders of the burgeoning alt-country scene for most of the early ’90s, before the decade was over they’d lost a key band member and moved in a more decidedly pop-rock vein.

Similarly, Zwan is the newest alternative rock project from Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins. Having dissolved his old band (but retained the services of the only Pumpkin he seem to respect, drummer Jimmy Chamberlin) in 2000, Corgan is now attempting to guide a group of near-equals to new creative heights and away from the goth overtones and tunelessness that eventually overtook the Pumpkins.

Read on to find out if their latest albums have allowed them to escape being prisoners of their musical past.

The Jayhawks “Rainy Day Music”

Whatever one’s feelings are about the Jayhawks or the Minneapolis alt-country/pop-rock group’s five or so records, the group — and particularly bandleader Gary Louris — deserves credit for keeping this outfit going and growing. They’ve persevered through stylistic changes, record label shakeups, reported financial duress, MTV/radio disinterest, and the kind of endless lineup changes that have become the standard punchline for nearly every writeup they get these days.

Photo: American Recordings

Photo: American Recordings

So it’s with some curiosity and a healthy amount of suspicion that many listeners might greet the band’s new record, “Rainy Day Music,” a roots-oriented, “Unplugged”-type album that appears to make peace with the group’s past, but raises new questions about their current destination.

It’s been about eight years since the Jayhawks endured the most dramatic event in their history: the abrupt departure of band co-founder/resident folkie Mark Olson. The move came after they’d released their top-selling album to date and Olson’s absence prompted the band to forsake its bread-and-butter of country-rock songs with Everly Brothers-style vocal harmonies for straight-forward, poppier material. (At the time, Louris said that he was swearing off ever again trying to sing like country music icon George Jones.)

The albums that followed, “Sound Of Lies” and “Smile,” gave the band a new footing despite speculation that they’d shrivel without the Olson-Louris dynamic. While the band continued hearing grumbling from country-rock devotees who said they were straying and weren’t besting their previous efforts, the Olson-less albums were arguably as strong. Both records sold only a few thousand copies, but many critics and fans took an especially harsh stance toward “Smile,” charging that the band went too far in allowing infamous producer Bob Ezrin to imbue the music with an overly slick, radio-friendly sound.

Three years later, the Jayhawks’ “Rainy Day Music” is another sea change in their music as the group — now consisting solely of singer/guitarist Louris, bassist Marc Pearlman and drummer/vocalist Tim O’Reagan — has returned to their roots, literally.

Right from the start with “Stumbling Through The Dark,” its clear the Jayhawks have begun making music like it was the good old days. Wound around a Byrds-like cascading guitar pattern and the plucking of a banjo, Louris and O’Reagan sing in unison the same way Louris did with his old partner — although O’Reagan’s grittier, Leonard Cohen-esque voice is a darker contrast than Olson’s hillbilly warble.

Another song that owes an obvious debt to the Byrds, “Save It For A Rainy Day,” is just the kind of cheery, single-worthy song that the band would have crafted for the Olson-era’s “Tomorrow The Green Grass.” Propelled by an acoustic guitar strum and piano licks, Louris is again sweetly urging a girl who’s down on her luck to buck up. To keep the ’60s California rock vibe going for “Madman,” the trio paired it down to acoustic guitars and Latin-influenced percussion and sang all together like Crosby, Stills and Nash — with some extra assistance from Stephen Stills’ son Chris and former Long Ryders multi-instrumentalist Stephen McCarthy. O’Reagan’s deeper voice overshadows the others, giving the impression that he’s leading them.

Long underutilized by the band, O’Reagan’s higher profile is a welcome addition to the music. Perhaps the finest singing drummer since the Band’s Levon Helm, O’Reagan was previously restricted to singing one song per album and a couple of tunes during concerts even though his performances could be routinely counted on to be among the highlights. For “Rainy Day Music,” he helps Louris with vocal support, and also sings a pair of tracks that are the record’s most idiosyncratic. The David Bowie-influenced “Don’t Let The World Get In Your Way” blossoms with epic, “Space Oddity” grandeur that Ezrin was likely hoping to achieve with the “Smile” songs. “Tampa To Tulsa”, however, is a folk-blues about riding the roads, and O’Reagan’s voice somehow sounds both weary and passionate as he sings of wishing to be with the one he loves.

Despite the changes the Jayhawks have undergone, one problem that has continued to weigh down all their albums is the fact that there are too many filler songs on each disc. “Rainy Day Women” is no different. For every cut overflowing with soaring melodies mixed with country soul, the group includes lightweights such as “You Look So Young” or the introspective “All The Right Reasons,” which is much too similar to a song from “Sound of Lies.” Even the Shania/Faith pop of “Tailspin” comes across as a bit forced because a majority of “the song” is devoted to repeating the chorus.

A lingering question remains: Is “Rainy Day Women” a return to the band’s (and fans’) musical comfort zone after the pop excesses of “Smile”? Or is the album just another stop for a band that has kept at it even when the chips were down and everyone was betting against them? We’ll likely find the answer to that one day soon because it’s a good bet the Jayhawks will keep at it.

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Zwan “Mary Star Of The Sea”

While it’s often unfair, especially in terms of art, comparisons often prove to be enlightening.

In the case of Billy Corgan and his new Chicago-based band Zwan, the sheer number of commonalities between the new group and his former band, the Smashing Pumpkins, only bolster attempts to compare and contrast. Both bands revolve around Corgan and drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, feature a female bass player and write music that’s exclusively guitar-heavy alternative rock. In fact, it would be hard for many who’ve listened to the group’s debut, “Mary Star Of The Sea,” to not admit that Zwan is arguably the Pumpkins, version 2.0.

While not really distinguishable from the Pumpkins’ sound, what the band offered besides three fresh faces — guitarists Matt Sweeney and David Pajo and former A Perfect Circle bassist Paz Lenchatin — is perhaps a breath of fresh air and a clear head for primarily songwriter Corgan.

Sometime after the Pumpkins released their double-disc 1995 opus, “Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness,” Corgan’s prolific songwriting skills fell into truly unusual kind of funk. Instead of suffering from writer’s block, Corgan kept writing a series of truly bad songs — each more lackluster than the previous and all with a vicious, darker edge. These songs filled two whole albums, “Adore” and “MACHINA/The Machines of God,” both of which served to end the Pumpkins’ reign on MTV and radio and likely sped up their demise.

With “Mary Start Of The Sea,” Corgan the ace songwriter appears to have awoken from this nightmare. The album’s 14 songs each sound refreshingly melodic and the playing reinvigorated. And the songs’ lyrics, filled with pledges of faith and religious imagery, suggest that Corgan is feeling truly hopeful.

And he should. The new band members are more adept musically than the other Pumpkins and the new guys give Corgan a richer arsenal of sound to select from. Songs like “Lyric” and “Settle Down” leap out of the gate with layers of lush yet intricate guitar melodies, thanks largely to the extra guitar muscle from Sweeney and Pajo. Even Corgan’s voice sounds improved, and he has stopped resorting to using that grating wail of his all the time. He emphasizes his voice’s alluring tone and innocent-sounding qualities, and frequently matches it with Lenchatin’s equally sweet vocals.

The album’s first single, “Honestly,” is probably Corgan’s finest song since “Siamese Dream.” Interestingly, the song also features a squealing guitar solo that sounds exactly like those found on “Rocket” or “Cherub Dream” from “Siamese Dream.”

The new true standout in Zwan is Chamberlin, whose inventive and quick-limbed drumming style changes drastically from song to song but consistently propels the music forward. On “Lyric,” he walks the fine line between playing an unending drum roll while never stealing the spotlight from his frontman. Later, he plays a quiet shuffle and uses a tap of his cymbals to color the verses of the ballad “Of A Broken Heart.” For “Ride A Black Swan,” it sounds like he lets go completely and makes his way through every drum and piece of percussion in his kit.

While an overall solid effort, “Mary Star Of The Seas” doesn’t quite rise to the level of the Pumpkins’ best offerings like “Siamese Dream” or “Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness.” Luckily, Zwan shares many of the key traits — and even a few new attributes — that could catapult the group to similar heights.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2003 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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