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.

The Fogcutters: Jingle These Bells

Better than a sweater party

The Fogcutters add to our Christmas cheer

When done right, Thanksgiving through Christmas is a month-long party of friends, family, and whatever beverage-and-food combination turns you on. It’s also the only opportunity you have all year to bust out the Christmas-music playlists for the gathering du jour. The pressure’s on. Do you go all-Christmas, maybe just leaving on WHOM or putting together an ironic mix centered around “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” or do you sprinkle in Christmas tunes that won’t be obvious outliers into a broader party mix?

That latter is much harder, as the normal songs set unfair bars for the Christmas songs to get over, but it’s helpful when you’ve got an ample supply of contemporarily recorded material. Better yet if it’s local and you’re inclined toward local mixes. Recent efforts from Don Campbell, the Sea Captains, and Cam Groves have helped in that regard, but this year’s contributor is remarkable for fitting in so seamlessly with your Etta James, Sinatra, and Bing Crosby LPs.

The Fogcutters continue to demand attention for big band-style performances and arrangements by simply overwhelming listeners with creativity and competence. They’re no nostalgic novelty. With yet another State Theatre performance looming Dec. 7 [2012], the Fogcutters whet appetites with Jingle These Bells, a five-song Christmas drive-by that offers equal doses of Rat-pack class and Buena Vista Social Club fire.

The opening take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is full of the latter, with chiming and teasing horn lines of the central melody that are upbraided by salsa rhythms. There is a sway and ripple to the way the British and Latin influences co-mingle and John Maclaine’s arrangement is very danceable. It also serves as a pretty setting for sax, trumpet, and finally an electric guitar solo from Max Cantlin that’s as laid back as your first neat whiskey of the night.

Finally, with 30 seconds to go, the horns play the song as straight as could be in homage to what, at its core, is a delightfully melancholy number: “When we were gone astray.” (Also: Annie Lennox did a version of this song? Jars of Clay?)

The middle tracks are jazz-traditional vocal-led, featuring a highly resonant and big-voiced Chas Lester on “The First Noel,” where he positively fondles the word “Israel,” and a delivery by Stephanie Davis on “Silent Night” that plays up the lullaby angle enough to make it a little dangerous for late-night parties where people are already well into the nog. Add a woodstove and people will be dreaming of mistletoe.

When Lester and Davis come together on the classic “Oh, Christmas Tree” duet, their back-and-forth is like the Drapers in A Very Mad Men Christmas.

The closing “Jingle Bells,” though, is the attention grabber. It’s possibly too quick to catch on with holiday parties, but its legitimately breakneck pace is impressive. Lester crams words into spaces that hardly exist over straight percussion and when the horns jump in it’s a drop worthy of Skrillex (that may be an exaggeration).

When normal people sing in unison it tends to make them slow down, all waiting to make sure they’re not ahead of others, and so we think of so many of these Christmas songs as near-dirges, but when performed by a band this excited about what they’re doing, a song like “Jingle Bells” can truly sparkle, adorned with every glittering colored light arranger Brian Graham could wrap around it.

The hardest thing is keeping the lead vocal far enough forward in the mix as the full band increases in activity as songs go deeper, but Lester puts a bow on the tune with an extended “sleigh” that finishes the song and album on a high note.

It’s only a side A’s worth, really, and less than 20 minutes, but I expect this isn’t the last holiday offering the Fogcutters will produce. Plus, you want to leave plenty of time for Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas and your rare Beatles Christmas record, only sent out to members of the fan club.

It just wouldn’t be Christmas without those.