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.

Zach Jones: Love What You Love

Everything’s fine, Zach’s here

The clear-headed advice of Love What You Love

In person, Zach Jones has this calming presence. The world moves just a little bit slower around him. He is always polished, well outfitted, comfortable in a ruffled shirt front. Pulls off a fedora, no sweat.

In a progression of four records, he seemed to get ever-more polished, with his latest, The Days, like velvet made audible.

The jist of it, too, often rode that nostalgia bent that has fueled minor-key songs since the beginning of time. Kodaline recently distilled for me this very sentiment in “Way Back When,” with a semi-falsetto: “Those will be the days that I’ll be missing, when I’m old and when I’m gray and when I stop working.”

On Jones’ newest, Love What You Love, there’s certainly plenty of falsetto, semi- and otherwise, but everything is much more in-the-moment: “Today she’s got nothing to do, but to rest all the time / With a song, in the sunshine.” As the title would suggest, Jones has here decided to embrace the silver lining, while moving away from the polish and revisiting some of his power-pop work with Spencer Albee and As Fast As – along with the singer-songwriter style that will inevitably visit someone writing mostly by themselves.

That’s “Song in the Sunshine,” with a light acoustic guitar, actual birds tweeting, and straight falsetto croon until Jones dips down to finish the song’s final embrace of “wasting our time.”

But it’s also the truly superb “Little Light,” like Gordon Lightfoot and Bill Withers, with a country bass walk and a touch of woodblock from drummer Chris Sweet, the only other musician on the album (other than the string section on “Nothing’s Changed”). This is going to be a lot of people’s favorite song for a little while, thanks to Jones’ pairing of purring verses that mix in quick, staccato delivery: “providing me with shelter from the storm … a little bit of light is all I need.”

With “Out on the Town,” a song begging to be in this year’s big rom-com, they make a trio that could slip effortlessly onto the last Ray LaMontagne album. Really, I’d love to hear what Dan Auerbach could do with them. As it is, Jones basically engineered the album himself, in his apartment, with some help from Steve Drown at the studio, tracking Sweet. Jones wasn’t even in attendance. Just sent over click-tracked files.

Who ever heard of the drums coming last?

And it raises the question: Does the blues-rock of “In Love” and the disco-rock of “Lucky One” sound antiseptic because of the click track and the way they were manufactured, or does knowing the way they were manufactured introduce doubt?

Either way, they’re nice genre pieces, not unlike the more deep-throated stuff he did on early works Broken Record and Fading Flowers. Jones is breathy in “In Love,” and just may be playing the role of the creeper, over the top in his affection. And in “Lucky One” he breaks out his first ripping guitar solo in years, with a growl that pulls the song out of being too syrupy and continues through the “looks can be deceiving” reprise.

In fact, there are a number of phrases that Jones revisits on the album that work as mantras, though it’s hard not to wonder if many of them aren’t “serenity now” in disguise. In the opening cut, it’s “Everything’s Fine,” as though reverbed piano and a bit of mildly distorted guitar could solve all of our problems. Or at least put them in perspective.

By the finish, the song becomes an interesting mix of some of Jones’ R&B/smooth operator persona and the aggressiveness of As Fast As (the bouncy chords on the keyboards are Spencer’s stock in trade). “Everything’s fine” yet again, but this time it’s yelled in the background. Is he trying to convince himself, you, some third party?

“Hate What You Hate,” an obvious single, is very much didactic, opening with White Album-era Beatles and then mixing in some oompa-oompa Dixie. Stomping piano chords introduce an irresistible chorus: “You’ve got to hate what you hate / So you can love what you love.” Eventually, a western flavor shines through, like sarsaparilla shots with a player piano in the background and cowboys sitting around betting on cards and munching on cheroots.

It’s an all-inclusive kind of album from a man who knows how to make records and likes for them to have a theme to rally around. Stop thinking so much, people. Just enjoy the ride.