Zach Jones: Things Were Better

Better and Better

Zach Jones gets all Smokey and Wonder-ous

Isn’t Zach Jones a guitar player? He certainly was with Rocktopus/As Fast As, on his following two solo records, and as a sideman for the likes of Pete Kilpatrick and Aaron Lee Marshall and Amy Allen [this originally ran in June of 2012]. A sinewy and smart guitar player, actually, with subtle tone and great instincts.

And yet, on the brand-new Things Were Better, it would appear he doesn’t play a single note, handing off guitar duties to the likes of Max Cantlin (Fogcutters/Anna & the Diggs, etc.) and Anthony Drouin (Lady Zen’s backing band, the Lazy Suzans, etc.), so that he can focus solely on lead vocals. He has reimagined/recreated himself here as a 1960s soul singer, a la Smokey Robinson with the Miracles, and it is really easy on the ears.

Or better yet, Stevie Wonder’s break-through record, the precocious and infectious Up-Tight, where Stevie went from child prodigy to songwriter and soul-singer. Jones shoots for the moon, with falsetto and drive and a terrific mix of easy soul and just plain good times.

The opening and title track, especially, is a keeper. Penned by Jon Nolan, who recorded the album at his Milltown Studios and did just about everything right in getting the organic sound this record needed, “Things Were Better” fires up with a guitar tone like walking barefoot onto the back lawn on a warm summer night and when Jones’ vocals enter he’s so fucking charming I was hoping he’d offer to buy me a drink. Then it gets better. The pacing is terrific, somehow both a rave-up and relaxed, with a sense of urgency and real passion, but nothing forced. It’s deep-seated. Enough so that “I need you like a bird needs feathers” doesn’t sound remotely corny. There are classic Motown “yeeea-aaah” guttural wails and sax duets from Kyle Hardy and Brian Graham and I’m pretty sure Bryan Brash and Tim Garrett chime in with viola and cello at one point or another.

It’s a listen-10-times-in-a-row kind of song.

In the same way that Aloe Blacc couldn’t hope to sustain the intensity of “I Need a Dollar” for the whole of Good Things, however, not every song here is that terrific. “If You Don’t Care” feels like an idea that didn’t completely come together, a ballad without resolution. “Wish I Could Dance,” despite being a hell of a lot of fun, comes off a tad anachronistic, a song that lives in a sitcom. In the same way Kurt Baker performs – okay, lives – in a pure-pop alternate universe and the Tricky Britches still write train songs in black and white, Jones is taking us outside of our everyday existences by conjuring a shimmering past that reminds us (maybe for the first time) of what used to be.

“Hard to Get” is a sugar-pie-honey-bunch number where the piano is mixed excellently to the center of the left channel, commanding your attention, but not stealing the spotlight. “Just out of Reach” teams Jones with Anna Lombard, like Otis Redding with Carla Thomas (that King & Queen is not on iTunes is a shame), a song with give and take and a playful sexuality.

Don’t sleep on “All the Time,” either. Kate Beever butters you up with the high end of the vibraphone before she’s joined by a skittering drum beat from Christopher Sweet. There’s just a tad of classic rock here, maybe coming from Tyler Quist’s active bass.

Best of all, though, is when Jones cracks open his chest and deals it straight. He has enough backlog with us now that we care – at least I do – about the mistakes that “have helped me learn from myself,” which fill the melancholic “Bittersweet Melody.” Too, when Jones rephrases Dylan with his closing “Used To Be So Young,” it’s hard not to think about Stevie Wonder’s take on “Blowing in the Wind,” a cover that said as much about Wonder’s musical acumen as any original.

Jones lets his voice break just a hair on his repeating and finishing delivery of “I used to be so young,” enough to make you believe it. Perhaps, back then, “it always seemed much easier,” but it seems like Jones has managed to figure out a thing or two along the way.

Eggbot: Father’s Day

Who’s your daddy?

Eggbot gets paternal, grows up a bit

Eggbot has always delighted in irony. No surprise, then, that one of Portland’s most puerile musicians has now released a disc called Father’s Day [this was Feb. 2007 – nowhere near Father’s Day].

From his stature (his “Eggbot Has a Posse” sticker lists him at 5’ 6”) to his mode of transportation (bike, all the time) to his love of crude humor (his web site features a photo of Eggbot fencing with a dildo), the Farfisa-playing madman is predictable in his unpredictability, like the oldest ever and most grizzled teenager (Danny Partridge, maybe, definitely not Keith).

He is also a treasure of the local scene and entertaining as hell. Luckily, he’s put out albums at a steady enough clip we never forget that.

His latest delivers everything his cult fans love him for: the rolling and vamped out left hand bassline and a hammering right hand busting pop chords on the Farfisa organ, paired with explosions of rock-solid backbeat from Tristan Gallagher on the drums. When Eggbot’s chorus-pedaled and distorted vocals enter, singing absurdities and lilting choruses, it’s like finding a long-lost stuffed animal in the closet. I think of him as a Beatles-loving pink bunny, really.

He’s willing to play it up, too. His opening track, “I’m Dead,” reliably repeats the title roughly 10 times and even features this pair of lines: “I’m the baby in the city … I’m the son you’ll never miss.”

Of course, he’s also “Queen of Nefertiti” and “the son of Alger Hiss,” an old soul that appreciates history. Who else would have dedicated an album to Maynard Ferguson, Arthur Lee, Syd Barrett, and Joseph Hill, four underappreciated musical luminaries who all died in the summer of 2006 and can easily be heard as influences on Eggbot’s style. Ferguson was a jazz trumpet player, and it’s always a little thrill when Eggbot busts out “Hobo Death Camp,” which features a trumpet so distorted it sounds like the tortured screams of some alien life form, and comes to Father’s Day after appearing as “Old Hobo Death Camp” and “New Hobo Death Camp” on 2002’s There’s No Denying the Existence of Eggbot. Here, I love how Jim Begley’s recording has the trumpet shooting between the left and right channels like a rocket through the sky.

Arthur Lee was the frontman of seminal ’60s pop group Love, one of the prime purveyors of the pop that has always been Eggbot’s raison d’etre. He takes the foundation Love and others poured and tweaks it, not to mock it, but rather to show that it is so strong it can withstand any number of deviations outside of mainstream taste. On “Belly Button Window,” we get a wonderfully simple “nah-nah-nah” lead in to the final choruses, but we also get lyrics like, “The mountains tremble/ Black clouds pass/ Jungle parts/ A monkey ass.”

Syd Barrett is Lee’s natural extension, and in many ways the link between Lee’s past and Eggbot’s presence. As a founder of Pink Floyd, he laid the groundwork for the psychedelic 20 seconds of Super Mario Brothers backing music that finishes “Aswaldo” (pronounced very much “ass waldo”). And then there is Joseph Hill, founder of Culture and advocate of the “International Herb.” Eggbot may not worship Haile Selassie, but his albums sure do sound better one spliff later.

You don’t have to be stoned, though, to notice that Eggbot has obtrusively added the electric guitar to his repertoire, and uses it to pay tribute to another hero, Jim Hendrix, with a stirring instrumental, “Hendrix Jazz Jam,” that features a ripping solo right off the bat. Just the fact that there are two instrumentals on the disc shows an appreciation for the likes of Edgar Winters and Gary Glitter.

More importantly, Eggbot is moving his sound forward by looking backward, and that’s a welcome development. Part of Eggbot’s appeal is schtick, and any schtick can get old if you hear it enough times and it doesn’t get any better. Eggbot gets better by showing a little self-awareness and offering up new sophistication — dare I say maturity? — that culminates in the majestic “Heaven and Earth,” what might actually show a sentimental side to our resident court jester. He details a suicide with some note of compassion: “I hear the lights go out/ The angels start to sing/ One shot, there’s no doubt/ It’s the end of everything.”

The song finishes with a big guitar solo accompanied by crashing drums and then the familiar ba ba ba ba-da-da-dahh chorus of “Hey Jude,” maybe the world’s most bittersweet coda. But don’t get used to it. After a minute of silence, Eggbot finishes the album with a toy-sounding organ rip and Gallagher’s circus drumming.

Maybe he’s not quite ready for fatherhood.