When Say ZuZu released “Highway Signs & Driving Songs” in 1995, they were part of a vibrant movement, with bands like Uncle Tupelo (and then Wilco and Son Volt), Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle bringing classically country sounds into the alternative scene, an acoustic version of the angst and ire those grunge kids were traveling in.
Nearly 30 years later, and with 20 years since their last studio album (2002’s “Every Mile”), their sound hasn’t changed much, but the world’s a sight different and so are the six members of the band, pushing 50 and feeling both a post-kid wanderlust and the nostalgia that comes with understanding you’re closer to the end now than the beginning.
They come to town this weekend to play Sun Tiki to celebrate the launch of the brand-new full-length “No Time To Lose.” It’s hard not to remember the connection they had with Portland in the late ’90s, recording their fantastic “Bull” at Big Sound Studios over in Westbrook with Lance Vardis at the knobs and contributing the road-weary “Pennsylvania” to the very first “Greetings from Area Code 207” album in 2000. Even if they were more honestly from the 603 (the original trio of Jon and James Nolan and Cliff Murphy grew up in Dover).
Say ZuZu were very much in that same stratosphere as Rustic Overtones, a local band headed for big things. Heck, they were touring Italy! But there were advanced degrees to earn and kids to have, and while Jon Nolan was a regular fixture into the 2000s, the band broke up and seemed to have drifted into history.
Nowadays? “Waking up, it feels like/ Falling down.” Such is the chorus from the first song on “No Time To Lose,” introducing a collection of songs flooded with self-aware middle age, dripping twangy electric guitars and atmospheric organ that have always been designed to pluck heartstrings and induce a sense of longing. And oh how nicely they’re all put together, with little echoed vocals after each line in the chorus and all six pieces knowing their role.
Truly, there might be more five- and six-note guitar riffs, often one in each channel, on this album than any in memory.
If you were a fan, this ought to trigger some serious memory flood, of days seeing the band load into the Better End down on Fore Street maybe, maybe Morganfield’s or Raoul’s. The organ sound is right there with the bit that opens that iconic “Pennsylvania.”
And yet it’s striking how different the world views are now. “Pennsylvania” is a driving song, about getting conned into making a solo road trip — “seems like a lonely proposition/ But I got time.” Heck, the second song on “Bull” is literally called “Wasting Time,” and the guys are drinking wine all night wondering if their girls are the ones: “Am I wasting my good love on you?”
Twenty years later, not only is there “No Time To Lose” (which sounds a lot like “Holiday Road” at times), but Cliff Murphy’s penned a song wondering “What It Looks Like in Heaven,” where “I fear that you’re gonna go first.” It’s a soft-rock piece with a three-step walk-down into the end of the chorus, and “I don’t want to get there too soon.” Yikes. You’re not that old, guys.
And “Take Me With You When You Go” may be about that wanderlust that returns after the kids are out of the house, but the pedal steel in the left and electric twang in the right, buffeting quick couplets, can’t quite keep it from being downright dark: “In the caverns of depression, where anxiety wakes.”
Oof. There are many times on this record where it’s clear the boys are now steeped in the language of therapy, which is great for building healthy relationships, but maybe takes the edge off a song or two here.
When they nail it, though, watch out. The Nolan-penned “As Much Love” is a waltz that feels like someone’s gripping you by the shoulders, like Robin Williams in “Good Will Hunting,” telling you that none of it is your fault — “you can only accept as much love as you think you deserve.” If this baby hits you in the right moment, you might find yourself legit sobbing, especially in the powerful outro. The late-song drums bounce around the channels like a mind racing.
“Pawn Shop,” too, is the kind of low-down, crunchy guitar burn that made the alt-country sound so vibrant, and the two-verse construction eschews a chorus in favor of extended storytelling: “If I had a penny for every song we played/ I wouldn’t have to sell my guitar just to get my rent paid.”
And then the guitars are talking to each other, and drums ramp up, and Nolan lets out a little “yeah-eeee-hee-hee,” and they hammer on the quarter notes, and damn if it isn’t 1995 all over again. If it’s your first visit there, you might wonder why we ever left.
Correction: A previous version of this story cited the incorrect studio recording producer at Big Sound Studios with producing Say ZuZu’s 1999 album “Bull.” The correct producer credited for that record was Lance Vardis.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
Say ZuZu play Sun Tiki Studios in Portland with Palomino Motel on March 11.
2 Weeks, 5 Songs
Lady Lamb – “Between Two Trees” | One of Lady Lamb’s oldest songs, released in some spaces as long ago as 2010, this is a pull from her archive, re-released with a haunting violin backing and deep resonant vocals that show off her vibrant talent: “Are you a predator?”
Toby McAllister – “Headlights & Fireflies” | The first single on the brand-new “Autumn Skies,” McAllister here continues to carve out a really interesting mash-up of his emo roots and country sounds, like a re-energized version of the first alt-country wave.
Lyle Divinsky – “Your Stars” | His days with the Motet over, Divinsky’s back with a solo track that leans into his big-voice R&B roots, but moves in the pop-rock direction with a reverbed guitar and a heavy snare: “Dancing in the living room, holding you one last time.”
Beensbeendead. – “Sleep Half of It” | Not only has Ben got a new track for us, mashing up Atlanta grime and West Coast atmospherics, but he’s paired it with a beautiful video of love found and lost, with a break-up interlude that probably shouldn’t succeed, but does.
Whitney Walker – “Love keeps no record of wrongs” | Building on a little Dana Colley sax licks and fingersnaps, Walker’s world-weary drone works particularly well here as part of his new full-length, “A Dog Staring into a Mirror on the Floor.” The dainty keyboard in the background is delightful.