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.

Gypsy Tailwind: Grace

Better days

Gypsy Tailwind show power and Grace

Gypsy Tailwind have been a slow build. Though Halo Sessions was one of the best local albums of 2008, it seems no one really heard it until 2009, thanks largely to the radio success of “So Lonely,” a single whose melancholy bounce was heartbreakingly honest: “I’ll tell you a secret: I drank myself to sleep last night.” Their shows, too, have been measured out to increase anticipation and capitalize on opportunity. No one who wound a way down Market Street to the Big Easy after Ray LaMontagne’s Merrill Auditorium show [in June of 2009] was disappointed with Gypsy’s similar combination of roots and soul.

And they’re just getting started, really. Halo Sessions’ spare and measured arrangements weren’t necessarily by design. They were in some ways simply sketches by two vocalists, Dan Connor and Anna Lombard, who were trying to figure out just what kind of art they could make together. Over the past year they’ve decided they sound pretty great together, thanks, and they’ve collected themselves a band to fill things out: Max Cantlin (This Way) on guitar, Tyler Stanley (Sly-Chi) on keys, Colin Winsor (Jaye Drew and a Moving Train, Jason Spooner) on bass, Chris Dow (Band Beyond Description) on drums.

That done, Gypsy Tailwind re-entered the studio with Jonathan Wyman and produced Grace, released last week and celebrated with a show this Saturday at the Port City Music Hall. It is bigger and bolder and more true to the stage presence the band now evince, something akin to a modern-day Fleetwood Mac, if they’d been formed in Nashville instead of London, raised on Dylan and Emmylou Harris instead of John Spencer and Howlin’ Wolf.

If you’ve spent 100 listens with Halo, Grace will necessitate something of a recalibration, however. From the get-go, “Way to Here” opens with soaring minor-key strings (a four-piece section of Anna Maria Amoroso, Heather Kahill, Julie Anderson, and Tim Garrett), and though Connor’s voice is as velvet smooth as ever, when the full band enters it does so with a confidence of belonging. In fact, while Connor and Lombard trade verses, creating a narrative dynamic like you’re peeking in on an intimate conversation (“I’m going to grab the things I own and move away”; “With all my love I wish you were still here”), there are times where they aren’t the most important thing happening, and the finish is a 30-second play out of active cello and trilling strings that is wholly ignorant of them.

Remember Ray Lamontagne’s maturation with producer Ethan Johns? The difference between Old Crow Medicine Show before and after Don Was? This progression with the band is similar. It is more, but it’s also different from whatever that first blush was.

And it’s almost like they’re getting it out of the way in a hurry. The new album’s second track, “The Letter,” opens with a horn section (Rustic’s Ryan Zoidis and Dave Noyes, naturally, along with Mark Tipton, Joe Parra, and John Maclaine), for criminy’s sake, for a song that’s all lonesome-heart Lombard: “So here’s your letter/ I’m gonna sing it cuz it’s my way.” She’s definitely more aggressive throughout the album, at times projecting some major volume. She goes toe to toe with Cantlin’s throaty electric guitar in “Silver and Gold” without a petal wilted (and listen there for Bob Hamilton’s banjo — a great melancholy foil).

For the album’s heart, though, Lombard and Connor settle into comfortable territory. “Better Days” is a great complement to the first album’s “Long Drive Home from Baltimore,” with Connor getting out of the gate alongside slide guitar by trying to get out of San Francisco, and “the next flight out is Tuesday night/ I get my things and be polite … didn’t want to follow you.” Under three minutes, it’s a postcard of cautious optimism. Lombard, accompanied by an alternating organ, believes there will be better days, but Connor is “so scared of what my dreams say.”

“Barrel” is further stripped, a simple ballad that gets downright Jim James (a la his “Going to Acapulco” cover on the I’m Not There Soundtrack) in the finish as Lombard and Connor are personified by a trumpet and violin that wander off into a setting sun and fade to black. The lyrics are among the album’s best here, working to acknowledge the listener’s desire for the two voices to make like a short film: “We laughed about all the of the inside things/ We talked all night, till someone would drift to sleep/ Are you awake my dear?” At 3:40, it’s too short.

As is the album, I guess. The eight songs here make for a crisp package, but with the arrangements and production lending such a different feel to the band, I’d have liked to hear a couple new takes on the first set of songs, especially “Two and One.” Maybe as a bonus hidden track or something.

But it’s good to be kept wanting, and there certainly aren’t any throwaways here. “Madeline” is Connor’s best vocal turn, rising up in the register as his emotion carries him, and the trumpet-guitar handoff of the melody in the bridge is terrific. The Aimee Mann cover “Coming up Close” has Lombard more reserved, dispelling any worry she might be becoming a bit of a yeller: “We thought for once we really knew what was important.” And “The Last Song” has her doing pure pretty, crisp like Christine McVie doing “Over My Head.”

There’s talk of dueling solo albums and Connor is known as a prodigious songwriter, so don’t think this will have to tide you over for too long. If anything, this is just a taste of things to come.