The smiley face hasn’t exactly been absent from music in recent times, with a plethora of electronic music purveyors embracing the “don’t worry be happy” aesthetic represented by the little yellow circle. Still, it’s come as quite a surprise to see Billy Corgan — linchpin of the mope-rock set as frontman of Smashing Pumpkins for more than a decade — get into the blessed-out groove with his new quintet, Zwan. As is his wont, Corgan threw down the gauntlet at the onset of this long, sometimes meandering set, leading off with the quarter-hour “Jesus I/Mary, Star of the Sea.” The former element, an interpolation of the gospel plaint “Jesus I Have Taken Up My Cross,” provided some white-knuckle moments, thanks to several sudden dynamic shifts, but also served notice, via Corgan’s ecstatically intoned “reborn” chant, that Zwan wasn’t going to be serving up anything monochromatic.
The leader’s retooled outlook — whether spiritually driven or not — is the clearest delineation between Zwan and the Pumpkins. Endless laments about loss and failure have given way to allegories about things Corgan has found — a sea-change that makes the portent a bit more palatable and leavens the gaminess of his feline yowl.
Bassist Paz Lenchantin, a far more flexible player than any of her Pumpkins counterparts, helped out on the latter end as well, cooing sweet counterpoint harmonies that gave a nice bounce to “Lyric” and “Honestly.” Likewise, the band made the most of the textural diversity of three different-minded guitarists, particularly when Dave Pajo’s spiky leads strafed against Matt Sweeney’s full-bodied ’70s rock riffs on “Ride a Black Swan.”
Despite having a relatively small pool of material to draw from, Corgan didn’t resort to stretching the evening with servings of reheated Pumpkin. A few scattered shouts for old favorites went unacknowledged, but the band did pepper the set with new offerings, the most memorable of which was the ostensibly anti-war plaint “A New Poetry.”
Zwan plays L.A.’s Wiltern Theater April 18.