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Zwan Wake

Short-lived Band Mates Dave Pajo And Billy Corgan Cough Up Compelling Solo Albums

By Raymond Cummings | Posted 7/6/2005

It sounded like such a good idea at the time. One late-1990s Chicago ax man—Chavez’s Matt Sweeney—suggested to another—Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan—that they someday start a band named Zwan. What a name—it sounds prog, snobbish, futuristic, ambitious, even. The conceit certainly was: alt-rock bombast (Corgan and Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin) and indie-rock chops (A Perfect Circle’s Paz Lenchantin, Sweeney, Slint/Tortoise workhorse Dave Pajo) joining forces to blur genre lines. Yet 2003’s Mary Star of the Sea—Zwan’s only record, and a decidedly Corgan-dominated concern—hadn’t been out a year before this unlikely alliance toppled like a house of tarot cards due to varying tolerances for drug abuse, inner-band bed-hopping, and group commitment.

Zwan’s ex-members have since graduated to longer, less dynamic band names (the jazz fusion-inflected Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, Sweeney’s Superwolf project with Will Oldham) and shorter fuses (Lenchantin got to watch pal Josh Homme beat down a guy who hassled her and lead Distiller Brody Dalle in a bar last year). Corgan and Pajo, meanwhile, had less collaborative ideas. The former took the opportunity to give the solo venture a first try, while the latter returned to the one-man show he’d made his priority since the late 1990s. In the process, each man crafted his best post-millennium work.

Despite his insistence to the contrary, Corgan’s bands have always been about him, from his guitars-as-bagpipes chordage to his whining as singing. The Pumpkins formed in 1988, and the ensuing 12 years proved that, Chamberlin aside, no-one save Corgan was indispensable; even with musical dynamos replacing heartthrob zeros, Zwan proved no different. D’Arcy Wretzky, James Iha, and Melissa Auf Der Maur (and later Lenchantin, Pajo, and Sweeney) were present mostly to boost Corgan’s ego, sit mute during interviews, and spice up press photos while their leader discussed band activities in emotional, no-I-in-team terms.

Such a setup made a nifty defense mechanism: bad shows, shunned records, and other pitfalls could be absorbed by the group rather than the man responsible for the whole shebang. No more. The Future Embrace is Corgan’s first effort since Pumpkins’ 1991 debut, Gish, unburdened by expectations of any kind—commercial, collaborative, critical, or otherwise—allowing him the freedom to get in touch with his inner chubby, New Order-praising teen goth, beaming ample gloom-synths, soft shoegaze, and Cure vinyl back to the future.

Embrace may be just the ticket to lure John Hughes out of teen-flick retirement—it purrs like the soundtrack to an unmade blockbuster about the eyeliner-obsessed children of Brat Packers. Producers Bon Harris and Bjorn Thorsrud had a hand in producing the Pumpkins’ 1998 Adore—an electronically informed detour of lush, pop-up storybook grandeur that marked the beginning of that band’s decline—and here they and Corgan improve on and refine that sound, muzzling the epic largess and excising codas to achieve maximum pop effect. First single “Walking Shade,” for example, might be the most immediate Corgan song ever—frosted Ray-Ban synths flogging a textured, broiling synth backdrop and hollow drums as he indifferently tries to mollify a doubtful paramour. The three-minute, 14-second course runs by before you realize you haven’t heard nearly enough of it.

“Some might say my love devours you whole,” Corgan croons during the kick-drum beat and bass guitar-girded whump of “A100,” ripe for an extended dance mix. “Mina Loy” leavens its keyboard scenery searing with a fair measure of fluorescent ax-cruise flair, as Corgan offers passersby the peaceful soul that doesn’t fit his wartime disenchantment. “Now (and Then)” plods along on low piano notes, a constantly shifting black cloud of ultraprocessed guitar, and synth whirling as Corgan successfully persuades you that, psychically, he understands whatever agony was plaguing you in the guidance counselor’s office 10 years ago and whatever is agonizing you in the office park today: “Hold my hand, they’re coming back for more,” he warns. “There’s always one more score.” It’s a comfortable, panic-room nook of a ballad on a birthmarked wrist of a record extended to Corgan’s faithful. And it’s surprisingly easy to accept.

For years, Texas-born, Louisville, Ky-bred David Pajo looked content to express himself as a cooperative cog in a number of postrocking machines, allowing his deliberate musicianship to speak for itself with Slint, the For Carnation, and Tortoise, among others. In the mid-1990s he caught the solo bug and began issuing singles, EPs, and full-lengths under a number of M-related aliases—M, M Is the Thirteenth Letter, Aeriel M, and Papa M among them—ditching Tortoise around the release of 1998’s TNT to focus exclusively on his own music. Instrumental repetition of a plaintive and/or sinister nature was the name of Pajo’s meditative game, and every now and again he opened his mouth to loose a voice unfortunately similar to that of buddy Will Oldham. The pleasant 2000 Papa M Sings EP was the first time he sang for an entire release, but it sadly wasn’t a fluke; the next year saw Whatever, Mortal, wherein he sabotaged his delicate grace with purple song-sayer crap, signaling that this shift in style was something more than a phase.

That Pajo would opt to issue his first noncompilation record in almost four years under his own name—albeit just his capitalized surname, also the title of the album itself—is curious, if not as curious a departure as a Pajo hip-hop adventure might have been. What is certain is this: Pajo has here come to confident grips with the mechanics of ye olde verse/chorus/verse song. Whatever, Mortal was, at heart, postrock cloth folded awkwardly and with apparent necessity into middle-age folk-rock shapes. PAJO is more straightforward and conducive to Pajo’s scratchy, just-above-a-whisper singing.

Music and vocals alike were recorded to Pajo’s laptop, and the fly-by-night production does much to soften and personalize the artist, though these songs already seem borne alone in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. A foregrounded cymbal-tapping tic draws attention away from the oddly Dave Grohl-esque, self-destructive folk of quickie opener “Oh No No”—intentional, or a fortunate accident resulting as he learned to use the program? The jumbled guitars of “Baby Please Come Home” ramble atop a programmed, percussive click-snap pattern and prairie-grown pedal steel—strange bedfellows somehow made appropriate by Pajo’s detached, melody-canvassing pleas; one song later, on “Icicles,” he’s strumming at a hard lope, blessing some lover’s urge to take off “if it makes you happy.”

Until its last few tracks, PAJO feels cautiously intimate, like a collection of coded messages for various girlfriends. Then centerpiece “Let Me Bleed” arrives to universalize the mood, ruminating in a drowsy Leonard Cohen purgatory, hushed, unaccountably poignant couplets breathed against and fogging up languorous, bone-chilling undercurrents and rippling, peal-plunks of guitar. It’s a Pajoized “My Favorite Things” that finds a precious pleasure in the painful: “Thrown out of bars again/ I’ll take the heat for you/ Flickering halos that flare up like car bombs/ Books where the endings are written in margins/ We all cross our fingers, we all cross the line, sometimes.” Suddenly, the guy you hoped would shut up and just tend to his guitar is someone whose voice you never want to stop hearing.

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