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.

Rustic Overtones: Let’s Start a Cult, Part II

The show must go on

The Cult of Rustic Overtones continues

In the basement of the Franco Center in L/A this past Saturday [this was November 23, 2013] , various of the Rustic Overtones are signing CDs and T-shirts, posters and packs of Rizlas. Jeff Beam is upstairs opening their benefit show for the Good Shepherd Food Bank and the guys are eager to chat about their new album, a second volume to follow on 2012’s Let’s Start a Cult.

Jon Roods: “What do you think?”

Sam: “We were just listening to it on the way up. It’s so well orchestrated…”

Roods: “Yeah, we’re grown-ass men, now.”

Later, watching the seven-piece band, augmented by a four-piece string section, there were certainly signs of maturity. Some gray hair, maybe thinning in places. Frontman Dave Gutter’s daughter gamboling about. Dave Noyes’ epic Cosby sweater.

You’d never know it from hearing them play their hits, though. They opened with a huge “Hardest Way Possible,” a song they’ve released on three of their now eight full-length records (it’s worth noting that next year will be the 20th anniversary of their first album, 1994’s Shish Boom Bam). The singalong that marks the second movement of “Rock Like War” was soaring. And “Gas on Skin” – well, from the extended, rippling jam to Gutter’s crisp and powerful delivery, it was as easy as ever to see why it’s been a live favorite since Viva Nueva in 2001. I’m not sure how you could stay in your seat for that tune.

Except there were plenty of fans sitting in the Franco’s Center’s plush red seats.

Hey, the fans are getting older, too. Just as there were plenty of kids who couldn’t help but crowd the stage, there was an equal contingent content to nod their heads in relative comfort. Similarly, while the Overtones may be playing live with as much passion and precision as they ever have, on their albums they have exchanged some of their youthful aggression and fire for a mature and worldly approach.

Be glad they did. The result of years of experimentation with ska, R&B, hip-hop, rock, and Latin sounds is some of the most progressive and interesting music being made today. While almost all of popular music can be bucketed into electronic/rhythmic, country/stringband, and radio rock, the Overtones continue to forge new ground with intricate horn parts, layered keyboard lines, and lyrical work from Gutter that shows he’s never been more inspired.

The biggest departure from the rest of their oeuvre on Let’s Start a Cult, Part II, though, comes in the form of Gary Gemetti, who has now truly settled into the drummer’s spot vacated by Tony McNaboe and brought with him a jazz-influenced, quick and light hand that drives the eight songs here with a skittering urgency you haven’t heard from Rustic before. What he’s doing live sometimes sounds like the programmed beats from the Postal Service. Good God is his cymbal work impressive.

He’s best on “Martyrs,” where the horns match his Latin vibe and help introduce a guitar solo from Lettuce/Soulive’s Eric Krasno. Gutter is quiet in the open, but lets energy seep into the first taste of the chorus and then consistently delivers the hook with evolving couplets. Best is this one: “We don’t need no torture/ We get obsessed over pleasure or pain/ Oh, we could be mothers and fathers/ We don’t need to be martyrs.”

Fans of his vocal work should notice that he’s still got the chops, delivering trademark screams on stage with everything he’s got while his work in the verses has tended to sweeten as he’s become more contemplative with age. It’s also worth noting, as on “Bedside Manor,” that Matt Taylor has finally filled the keyboard/harmony vocals chair in a way that hasn’t happened since Spencer Albee left the band half a decade ago.

Gutter’s wordplay on “High on Everything” is at its most agile and poignant. There’s a touch of “Gas on Skin” in the intro, and a better version of the low-down sulk of “I Like It Low,” and then Gutter insistently right in your ear: “They gave us alcohol, it made it hard to focus/ They gave us Adderall, it made us smell the roses/ They gave us Claritin, they gave us Ambien/ We woke up in the ambulance.” Gutter to delivers, too, a guitar break in the style of ’80s Jeff Beck.

At its core, though, this album is all about bassist Jon Roods. Not only did he engineer it, as he’s done since New Way Out, but his playing has become a highlight of the band’s songwriting. He’s present right from the get-go of “The Show Must Go On,” with a dynamic line that is the ultimate mood-setting for a song that, itself, is designed to set the mood for the album as a whole, with Beatles-style backing vocals and vibrant horn lines.

If Roods isn’t the most musical bassplayer in town, I don’t know who is. On stage, he and Gutter have become inseparable, always set up in tandem to the front, with Roods acting as an unflappable melodic foundation that allows Gutter to be emotionally pyrotechnic.

Such is “Us Vs. Other People,” with spacey keyboards, congas, and an ‘80s vibe like an R&B version of Alphaville. Combined with the horn lines, Rood’s bounce creates something like a fusion base that supports an aching descending vocal riff from Gutter in the chorus: “Still, in essence we’re the same.”

Which is all there is to it. This is a band with talent that has brought them into more side projects and opportunities than is worthwhile to recount. That has had every opportunity to abandon a big-band rock effort that hardly makes sense anymore in today’s music industry. While most bands pare into duos and trios to make the the finances work, Rustic goes ahead and swells to 11 pieces with the strings, as they did on Saturday night to magical effect.

Yet, still, in essence, they’re the same.