Roy Davis: We Are a Lightning Bolt

Lightning strikes

Weather the storm with Roy Davis’ third LP

When Hank Williams sang a song like “My Son Calls Another Man Daddy” he could sell it because he’d been down low: born with spina bifida, father with a paralyzed face thanks to a stroke, brother he never knew because he was already dead. And when Williams died at 29 no one was over-much surprised, since he’d been drunk most of the time he’d been alive anyway.

It can be fun to sing country songs about lives busted-up and broken, but unless you’ve got the empathy to feel those hurts, the songs just become the clichéd joke mainstream country music has often found itself.

So whatever it is that Roy Davis experienced in his travels over the past year down [this was early 2010] to Nashville and over to Wyoming and back, you’ll be thankful after you hear We Are a Lightning Bolt, his third full-length release and the record on which something important seems to have clicked. The twang and the lilt of alt-country were always there, but somewhere in the country’s small towns and wide open spaces Davis put his hands in the country’s dirt, too, and his always-smart songs have never been so fully realized, so full of real people, as they are here.

Recording down in Portsmouth with Jon Nolan — himself no stranger to great alt-country sounds, but never as dark as Davis is here — and helped out with “Dregs” like Kerry Ryan (Jeremiah Freed) on drums, Travis Kline (an up-and-coming solo artist in his own right) on guitar and backing vocals, Bernie Nye (Pete Kilpatrick) on banjo and bass, and Justin Maxwell (the Coming Grass/Sara Cox/Cindy Bullens) on bass, Davis seems to have needed to get out of his comfort zone, feel what it’s like to truly be uncomfortable, in order to make the record he’s been trying to make all along.

I still listen to those first two records—Grey Town and Deadweight. They’re good. And I like that Ryan Adams/Jayhawks/Uncle Tupelo sandbox in which Davis plays. But on the first listen, I heard something different in Lightning Bolt. Right around “Barbara Lang,” it struck me that Davis had discovered a pipeline to pathos, where chimes of piano match his tentative reaches into a squeaky falsetto like Townes van Zandt, and “he sits at a bar by the Super 8/ She cooks him food, but she waits.” Ryan’s shuffling drumline gives the song texture like sandpaper while “we get up, go get coffee/ Walk around like a couple of darlings/ Just as sweet as the sun.”

Nolan captures vocals especially well, as when you hear Davis close the “k” on “boardwalk,” part of a naked vocal part over cello and indie-rock-flavored alternating notes, before the song charges up with a heavy acoustic strum and a wood-block beat into an alt-country orchestra, staying all-instrumental through the finish where a pair of laconic electric guitars harmonize. And on “Stranger’s House” every instrument is so terrifically crisp that the pedal steel in the song’s second half is like liquid amber pouring over dry, brittle sticks.

In that song, as on album-opener “You Don’t Have to Fall in Love,” Davis explores the nuances of relationships, the degree expressed by a line like “I’m not going to fight you in a stranger’s house/ I’m not gonna give you what you want right now,” in that voice-crack of knowing that can come through with a simple “oh, honey.” The implied plea in “you don’t have to fall in love” he can make heart-breaking.

By the album’s end, Davis seems almost stripped of emotional charge. The songs become more and more bare, as presaged by the 2:02-long “Sweet Release,” where a father does his best to crush the life out of his son: “By now you’re old enough to know your mother’s dead/ And everything’s a lie … maybe you’ll fix cars, or drink yourself to death.” And so, with the finishing track, the falsetto is ever more warbly, the guitar most ghostly, the lyrics more plaintive: “I need a fix/ I need to be fixed/ For ten dollars I’ll sell all my things/ And there’s nothing that I won’t admit.”

Maybe Davis does have a secret or two. He sings with the depth of a man who’s got a few skeletons in the closet. For a songwriter, that can never be a bad thing.

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.