If you think you've already heard it all from Philip Zoellner Band, think again. On previous CD's, the focus has been squarely on Zoellner and his solid songwriting, which has always fallen somewhere between Ryan Adams and Pete Yorn in my book, with distinct Beatles and Rolling Stones (Stick Fingers era Stones) influences.
When Zoellner's latest disc, Lean On, opens, however, you can tell from the opening guitar riff of "Running is the Hardest Part" that something is different here. There's a different energy, a swagger that's been missing and a chemistry that can't be manufactured. Instead of being a solo album with a band, Lean On is a band album with Zoellner at the wheel.
Part of that change definitely comes from the three years and nearly 300 shows the group has played together since Zoellner released his last album, I Love Jets. Over that time, the band has really gelled and formed a chemistry that can only come from playing together over an extended period of time. Make no mistake, this is still Zoellner's baby, but now he sounds more like a proud parent that's comfortable with his role and is enjoying seeing his child's personality come out and blossom.
Undoubtedly, a portion of that comfort comes from the band's chemistry and time spent playing together. It also comes from a comfort with the material and recording process. With this album, Zoellner has finally built his own studio, a luxury he's never had before, with all of the band's instruments at their disposal. Weekly or biweekly jam sessions -- often with other musicians invited to join in -- helped the band flesh out its ideas and work out all of the songs in advance without constricting them too much.
As Zoellner shared, in many instances, the jam sessions would produce ideas for songs and he'd throw down his iPhone to record the exchange to come back and revisit later. Songwriting and jam sessions with Tony Romanello, Daniel McElroy and Brad Rice (of Jason Boland & the Stragglers) helped shape the new material, with Romanello receiving songwriting credits on a handful of songs on the new disc.
An immediate highlight of the disc is the opening track, "Running is the Hardest Part," which immediately signals a shift of gears and new focus for Zoellner. Although Zoellner as always worn his Beatles and Stones influences openly, this track carries a distinct Led Zeppelin inspiration. When mentioning the observation to Zoellner, he responded with a laugh: "I can live with that. To me, those three have always been the ABC's of rock & roll: The Beatles, The Stones and Led Zeppelin."
This isn't a one trick pony, however. Zoellner and his band move into the alt-country realm that he started out with in Marshall City on "The Arsonist" and show off his more melodic side on Lead On, both of which are also undeniable highlights of the disc. Of course, The Beatles will always be a staple in the Zoellner cannon and their latter era work shines through in another of the band's stronger rockers, "Tongue Tied," which Zoellner co-wrote with Romanello.
The energy on Lean On is palpable, a result of a three day recording session in May in which the band layed down the vast majority of its tracks at Zoellner's studio with producer John Swamy at the helm. Having a studio at his disposal expedited the recording process as Zoellner and the band demoed each of the songs in advance, working out their parts and sending those rough drafts to Swamy, who arrived from Wisconsin knowing what he would be working with.
According to Zoellner, only his keyboard parts weren't worked out in advance. After sitting in with a number of artists, ranging from Cross Canadian Ragweed to Dustin Pittsley, Brandon Clark Band and Dante & the Hawks and always playing off the cuff, Zoellner wanted to keep that spontaneous energy intact. To do that, he cut all of his keyboard parts instinctively during the main recording sessions with no overdubs. As a result, the piano and organ swells are never intrusive, but add a warmth to the songs and tie everything together.
Initially, Zoellner shared that "This was one of the hardest records I've ever made, in some ways..." The weight of admitting his father to hospice on the day that recording commenced added to the difficulty of the process, but in many ways it was also the shelter and escape that Zoellner needed, even if for an extended weekend.
By the end of our conversation, when reflecting on the recording process itself, Zoellner said "This was by far the best recording experience I've had so far. It was a lot like how I recorded Z, over three days in Brooklyn." With 85 percent of the album recorded over three days, Zoellner and guitarist Mike Taylor made only one trip to Wisconsin to meet with Swarmy and record vocal and guitar overdubs.
"That's one of the main differences with this record," Zoellner said. "I Love Jets was a guitar record, but it was a one guitar record. This is a two guitar record and I think [that] really adds to it."
When digging in, Lean On really is a musician's record from top to bottom. As avid music fans and gear freaks, most of my personal conversations with Zoellner inevitably circle around to songwriting and instrumentation of our favorite songs and albums.
Zoellner is as much a fan of classic albums and liner notes as modern technology and he indulges his inner music geek on the liner notes for Lean On, including which guitars and instruments were played on each song and noting that Taylor's guitar parts largely run on the left mix with Zoellner's in the right. It's a touch that dedicated fans will enjoy while making a nod to the classic records of the 70's and 80's.
Suffice to say, Lean On is undoubtedly Zoellner's finest effort to date and feels like he has just begun to turn a corner with his songwriting and playing, making the future look that much brighter. The swagger of his band shines through in tracks like "The City" and show just how comfortable everyone is playing together.
Hear it for yourself this weekend when Philip Zoellner Band holds the CD release party of Lean On at the Treehouse on Saturday night, Nov. 19. Tony Romanello & the Black Jackets will open at 9pm, followed by Philip Zoellner Band at 10pm. Promo Dave & the Haters close things out at midnight and admission is $5 at the door or $10 with a CD.
Tulsa has seen a number of local CD's come out in recent months and there are quite a few more coming in the next month or so, but Lean On is a definite highlight of the year and gives us reason to look forward more.
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