Memory Girls – Warren Zanes
Dualtone Records 80302-01133-2
The trials and tribulations surrounding Warren Zanes’ Memory Girls
journey from personal reverie to national release would be useless if the
album wasn’t worth a shit. Somehow, Zanes’ conflation of Randy Newman’s
satire, XTC’s melodic mix, Brian Wilson’s vocals and introspection, The
Beatles jangle/string arrangements, and early 1970s soul, does live up to
the large, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-esque myth about the release.
Like Wilco’s once ostracized offspring, Zanes shows an unrelenting
infatuation for hooks, great big pop hooks laced in layers of sticky pop
panache. He delights in offering the redolence of haze-addled nostalgia, of
an era when lyrical depth remained tantamount to the boisterous buoyancy of
guitars, farfisa organs, theramins, clean harmonies, off-kilter string
arrangements, petro-petering muscle behemoths, and hipster hippies.
But this line has become a faddish shtick for most modern artists. Everyone
from Sheryl Crow and Steve Earle to joe-blow-record-producer have felt some
sort of artistic gratification in latching on to the past to create more
critically acclaimed trash. Zanes, as his distinguishing characteristic,
doesn’t merely offer a hook for no apparent reason. He prides himself on
expressing the story (no wonder he claims Chekov as an influence), with the
melody as a key component in revealing the details. An element lost in the
translation when current acts have begun pilfering past pop sounds, studying
Revolver for production characteristics and ignoring the pertinence
of Lennon and McCartneys’ poetics to the whole.
A track such as "Sidewalk Sale," for example, could be considered a lost
composition from Smiley Smile like many others have patterned. The
inclusion of satirical, acrid metaphors where broken love adjoins a garage
sale reveals more intellectually developed intentions, and not merely
pandering to the past. Similarly, the accordion led "Where We Began"
commences with an Astor Piazzolla tango in spirit, before the composition
hits a bridge replete with strings and Zanes’ best McCartney impression,
crooning "first you were on my block, then you were on my mind." Here, with
the hook in the middle of the tango’s obtuse harmonics, the compositions
romanticism suddenly reveals the duality of love obviated and obtained; or
at least how the mess looks in retrospect.
Augmenting Zanes’ introspective waltzing pop is an apparent love of 1970s
Stax soul, as on "Have You Once Recalled the Days." With this apparent
pillaging of various idioms, I get the impression that Zanes began the
process of writing his album one early, sunny Sunday morning by rummaging
through his dusty record collection, pinpointing specific highlights. Trying
to locate, amongst the worn vinyl and etiolated cardboard, the soundtrack to
his past memories mentally coated in a guileless gloss. His findings are
luminous, beach styled jazz filigrees, offering poignant stories of love
gone awry. He offers songs before things became too complicated, too
maudlin, and overblown with hyperbole. Who could turn down Zanes resulting
personal mix tape, Memory Girls?
Certainly not Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin, two women with more to do
then simply adding texture to a veritably unknown talent’s debut release.
The last time Emmylou Harris supplied her talents in a duet capacity for an
industry "unknown," she did so on Ryan Adams’ 2000 release
Heartbreaker. Zanes and Adams probably didn’t need Harris’s inclusion
to create a patent connection. The two seem to have the same inexorable
hobby of sauntering through old records, gleaning ideas from tenebrous
corners in attempting to meld earnest emotion with melody.
And both artists probably wouldn’t matter, wouldn’t be able to sustain the
hype, if their music sucked.