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.

Tree By Leaf: Of the Black and Blue

Melancholy chorus

Tree By Leaf are Of the Black and Blue

My first brush with our reality-television culture came back in 2005, judging a songwriting competition for NEMO (a SXSW wannabe you may or may not remember), which owned the Boston Music Awards, one of which Ray LaMontagne won despite the fact that he’d played roughly five gigs in Boston in his life. Beforehand, in the crowded Starbucks where the songwriting comp was being held, I mostly chatted with the competitors about how it was kind of like American Idol and how we were all basically embarrassed to be involved, but the Phoenix was a sponsor and the winner would take home a Les Paul guitar and move on to compete further in Boston for a chance to go to Hawaii. Who doesn’t want to go to Hawaii on someone else’s dime?

The thing started and Jason Spooner, Emilia Dahlin, Rachel Griffin, and Pete Kilpatrick proceeded to one-up each other with a series of pretty damn impressive performances considering they had three “judges” sitting in front of them (a colleague of mine from WFNX and a NEMO rep were the other two) and they were playing in friggin’ Starbucks (which was fine, actually, but still). Then Garrett Soucy came on the stage. What did he do differently? It’s hard to say. Armed like three of the others with just an acoustic guitar, he didn’t play it like a singer-songwriter. He kind of jabbed at it like an indie rocker, imagining a drummer and bassist to fill in the pauses and quietudes he didn’t mind letting hang in the air. And his songs had choruses, but they were progressive, and their narratives covered serious ground (and time – he was relating a relationship to first Roman times, then the middle ages, then the Renaissance, etc., I’m pretty sure).

*It’s funny how, nine years later here in 2015, Kilpatrick is fundraising for his sixth album now, and Spooner and Dahlin are still doing their thing, while Griffin has found her way down to NYC, where she’s also still performing and writing songs.

Even Soucy’s still plugging away, with a new album in the can, recorded up north where he’s been mostly hiding out for the past half decade.*

But, back in 2005, this is how I originally put it: Soucy might never be the mainstay of the folk circuit Jason Spooner could eventually be, nor the pop star Kilpatrick could be with his charming-pants-off charisma. He won’t be the next Diana Krall, which is a possibility for the aw-shucks Griffin, nor an independent self-made veteran of the college circuit, as is likely for Dahlin. He’s a special talent, though. Sufjan Stevens special; Elliot Smith special. And if half of you never heard of Stevens [seriously, back then he was pretty obscure], and only heard of Smith because he killed himself, that’ll tell you something about being a special talent. It doesn’t always translate into worldwide acclaim. Like many who seem to live inside their work, Soucy’s sure not much for self-promotion.

Maybe that’s why it’s December and I’m just getting around to reviewing the latest release by his band, Tree By Leaf, which came out in May. I’m not sure what other explanation there could be. Of the Black and Blue is spectacular, the type of album that demands you spend time with it and nothing else. The type of album that is all-consuming in and of itself – not background music, not what you put on at a party, not something you should hear on the radio because one song just wouldn’t be enough and they wouldn’t pick the right one anyway.

For his annual GFAC compilation [Volume 6], Charlie Gaylord picked “Never Seems to Leave,” which sure has a certain David Lynchian shuffle to it – one of those songs that’s fast despite the fact that it’s played slowly (or maybe it’s the other way around). Plus, it opens almost perfectly for a Maine compilation: “Trailer park, you’re aglow / You’re a dusted nineteen-sixty-four volume.” Yes, it’s that weird mix of backwoods and frontline intellectualism that Maine seems to revel in. It’s hard to beat, too, Garret’s interplay with wife Sirii, who comes in for the next verse and an ensuing chorus where she sings what’s picked out on the bass so nicely you almost don’t notice, then breathes out the barest backing to Garret’s second verse. Man, it’s good in the headphones. Every once in a while, their voices don’t quite hold up, but it totally works in a Brechtian sense of making you notice the construction of the music itself – this is the way you do this sort of thing, whether you’ve got classically trained voices doing or not it is really irrelevant.

But that’s maybe the fourth best song on the disc. “Rupert Sheldrake’s Favorite Girl” got 15, maybe 20 listens. I love this song in a big way, with Garret’s vocals doubled throughout — really two tracks, not just a chorus pedal or an echo, and they’re just the slightest bit off, both in good ways, with the right channel just the slightest behind, adding an urgency and pushing everything forward. There’s a great guitar break after the first verse, followed by a stellar chorus: “Wait a minute / Hold the phone / I still gotta walk this memory home / I’m in love with Rupert Sheldrake’s favorite girl.” Who’s Sheldrake? God, I hope it’s nobody. Right after the chorus, a really deep organ comes in, sounding like loud stadium applause, very country-rock, as though the Jayhawks decided that instead of rosy-cheeked harmonies they wanted to go the ironic route: “‘That’s funny,’ I said ‘because it’s not about you’ / The sky grew dark, and the wind did blew / ‘That’s weird,’ she said, and handed me a cigarette off the dash.”

At the very end, you can hear the slightest chair creek when Soucy sits back up after letting out the final note. Like much of the rest of the record, you feel you’re privy to something remarkably intimate, created just for you and this time and place.