Zero. Zero. (Sausalito, CA: PopMafia, PM010.) 1 Compactdisc, 54:27 min.
Songs: Pits O' Thunder Friday's Child Roll Me Over Spoken For Possession 8 Below Zero Did I Mention Sun SunSun Ermaline Kissin' The Boo-Boo.
After thirteen years and five albums, the Marin County-basedband Zero has finally released
its eponymous album. The titleseems appropriate: the disc sounds like the essence of Zero
today,though it took nearly an hour-long recording with ten songs todo it. A solid introduction to
the band, the CD commands attention:far from background music, it features the Zero hallmarks of
clarity,intelligence and feelingthoughtfulness and depth, reallywhich provides a powerful,
well-matched underpinning and superstructureto lyricist Robert Hunter's studious lines. The
secondof the band's recordings to feature the words of the poetand former Grateful Dead lyricist,
Zero features eightnew Hunter compositions, and it should delight and relieve hisown fans to hear
that time hasn't diminished his eye orear. And he still has impeccable taste in choosing
collaborators.For Zero, famed for years as a favorite musicians' bandand perhaps the pre-eminent
jazz-rock explorers in the Bay Areascene, the disc has the feeling of a change in direction, thoughit
really only reflects the broader, more organic developmentthat they've been driving and refining
since their 1992live offering, Chance In A Million.
Those who have been keeping up with Zero lately will appreciatewhy the album opens with "Pits o' Thunder," a concert showpiece for the band's distinctive free-formjams. Live, this always seems to get spun into realms far aboveand outside the funky, syncopated opening, though it can emergefrom just as ethereal and gossamer contexts as well. A great funkgroove, "Pits" is a classic example of theband's attitude towards arrangement: they maintain a clarityof instrument voice that belies the complexity of their interactionit shows intelligence, a high weird sense of melody, and a propulsive,irresistible beat. Zero plays with structure and arrangement constantly,making concerts exercises in divinationwhere are theygoing, is that a fragment, what are they going intoandhere, they take a traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus song andadd touches, such as fine backing vocals (courtesy of Diana Manganoof the current incarnation of Jefferson Starship), which subtlysubvert your expectations as they fulfill the song's musicalpromises. Hunter's words describe a worn-down character,an urban casualty whose wanderings mix the gritty with the mythic,in an On the Road-style grail search for enlightenmentand redemption. As the song unfolds it tumbles into abstraction,the images evoking more and more of the blasted landscape thatis destroying the narrator, and providing the energy that is drivingthe song. Fans will delight in Hunter's distinctive poeticflourishes to lighten the armageddonism"Downin the valley of greased blue lightning / Under a flame-out sun/ Dance with the bag man's black-eyed daughter on the headof a conga drum"but it also has the feel ofHunter's obliquely cautionary lyrics that provided Deadheadswith endless hours of speculation and rumination.
The production is quite good. A nice reminder in the bookletpoints out that the disk was cut directly, without overdubs, aprocess which does an excellent job of capturing how tight andrefined their sound is live. Headphone addicts may be slightlyput off by some of the rough edges left ina solo thatfeels cut off, a fade out that sounds prematurebut ifanything, eben these details fit the feel of the band, whose quirkinessand prolific jamming probably yielded takes that didn'toverlap much beyond the lyrics.
From the harshness described by Pits to the sweetness ofVan Morrison's Friday's Child was a good sequencingdecision, and lyrically, the two songs also complement each otherwell. Both Hunter and Van are both describing loss ("And you left your home"), longing and redemption, evendown to the imagery of wandering and destruction and hope: "And you built all your castles in the sun / And you knocked themdown, each and every one." Not surprisingly, the songgets a sympathetic and affectionate treatment, a characteristicof Zero's attitude towards cover songs: they like to delvedeeper into a song's core, trying to tease out even moreof the intent and context. Incredulous Hendrix fans who hear theirreading of Little Wing tend to become disciples on the spot. Andit's easy to see why "Friday's Child" appeals to a band who wanted to work with Hunter: aside fromthe sympathetic themes and cautionary tone, in the end it conveysa studied lack of judgmentalism, which is partly what makes itsuch an infectious and powerful anthem. Chip Roland shines here,setting the tone with his keyboard and organ work, offsettingany stentorian potential in the lyrics with his unaffected deliveryand warm, folky baritone, a perfect match for the arrangement.Van should be pleased.
From that ringing, glorious final crescendo in Friday's Child it feels so proper to drop down to something soft andsimple, which is what "Roll Me Over" provides.A ballad, pure and slow, this meshes classic Hunter lyricism witha melody that twists from sweet to mournful to plaintive to anguished,in easy sweeps that showcase Judge's power and range asa vocalist; he makes the song's progress from the biblicalinvocation"The Holy Ghost, the virgin bride"to the more general allegorical imagery that follows,seem ineluctable. Hunter fans will have difficulty resisting thetemptation to read it as something of a paean to his own transitions:the haunting imagery of the first two verses read as if they couldhave been written about and to his long-time friend and firstcollaborator, Jerry Garcia, and the last verse about his new partners,Zero. Their arrangement is exquisite: so many nuances, from theimplied close and unfinished rhyme at the end of the first verseto Martin's sax solo before the last verse, adding theright touch of mournfulness to close out the loss outlined bythe first two verses before launching into the forward-lookingfinale. Some strange and intense Kimock work at the close featuresa sample of the tone vocabulary he has, winding through a classicguitar sound to a semi-banjo-ey twang that echoes with sitar overtonesin certain runs; it's difficult to imagine what his handsare doing to create this strange plucking and bending and stretching,which ends far too quickly.
The tempo drops to thoughtful in "Spoken For," a slow, somber elegy that starts with a nice major key intro,and moves swiftly into the dominant, somber mood, a restrainedand moving set of images and musical motifs that progress fromabstract to concrete, until the reference to Wounded Knee in thefinal verse brings the entire song into sharp focus. The firstof the two overtly political songs on the disc, it also workswell as poetry, with some excellent lines and a clever structuraldevice, beginning each line with "Spoken" and moving from "spoken for" to "spoken to" to "spoken by" to "spoken in," when the narrator has his revelation: "Spoken for, every acre by acre from sea to sea ...." Kimock's pedal steel solo is worthy of comment here, sinceits understatement could draw some critical fire "man, this guy can't play, he's hardly doin' anything"and only at the end does he hint atthe jaw-dropping pyrotechnics he is capable of pulling from thatinstrument. That sense of restraint and poise, though, is oneof the hallmarks of Zero's soundand it is whatmakes the jams that explode those limits all the more emphatic.
Emphatic also describes the next song, "Possession," the most obviously political tune on the disc, decrying the idiocyof laws which reduce the judiciary to rubber stamps and imprisondrug users for longer than murderers. A spare, wiry melody witha nicely grunged guitar line over the top, it matches the didacticismof the lyrics, though avoiding the stridency. If program directorsdon't listen to the words too carefully, this sounds likeit could easily be radio fodder, especially with the haunting,Gilmore-esque guitar solo at the end. The lingering wistfulnessof that close carries through perfectly into "8 BelowZero." Sad, sweet and gentle, this is an archetypalfolk-rock ballad, with classically graceful phrasing and linesby Hunter and an equally spare, lyrical melody by Chip and Steve.Musically it doesn't stretch out and flex its potentialuntil the end, where Chip's vocals fall off and immediately,Bobby's bass begins an off-rhythm thump, a syncopationjoined by each of the others in a swirling roundhouse of keyboards,guitar, shaker and traps, just mesmerizing interwoven cascadesof percussion that make you wish for just a minute more; a quickdescent into the sort of controlled rhythmic unease that Zerocan project so artfully, and a hint of the core of their intensity,the edge lurking in their sound.
And into a rollicking rock beat, barreling alongside Judge's belted out lines. With a familiar rock love song feel, "Did I Mention" proves to be a case study in how Zerorefuses to follow rock conventions, even while trading on them.Some of the instrumental stylings actually redeem the duller turnsof phrase as they unfold, though in classic Hunter fashion, thoselines also twist out of the cliché s they tap in a series offeints and dodges. It isn't ironic: it still manages tobe a good rocker, in fact an excellent example of Zero rock, fromnuances like a spooky little keyboard trill to reintroduce themelody after the instrumental break to the jam itself, as closeto their live sound as anywhere here, the band whipping the paceinto a frenzy. A nice touch was leaving in the comment at theend, when someone says, "Ha!", as in, We gotit. Yes, you did.
"Sun Sun Sun" is Martí n'sfrom the outset, strong tenor sax groove giving way to his vocals,joined by Judge, chant-singing through this ancient Spanish (viathe Caribbean) folk song until the solos begin, and here again,Martí n's saxophone shines. His style is commanding,almost importunate, but with more authority, cajoling and pullingyou into the solo, reassuring and inviting and teaching and challenging.Martí n usually doesn't sing much, but his voice isadmirably suited for this kind of rhythmic singing, and makesa good blend with Judge's. A slinky, Latin-flavored tune,it inspires creative and enthusiastic dancing at their shows.Since they've played with members of two of San Franciscorock's founding bands, it's difficult not to letit evoke comparisons to anotherthe first Santana bandalthough the jams here go much further out. This trance-like spacecarved out in the jams is a big part of the Zero ethos and a centralpart of their musical signature: beginning here with Martín's sax blowing high and soft, ethereal and floating andtrilling, swinging up quietly levelling then descending, all whilethe bass bounces and bobs over this metronomic, spartan, powerfulkaleidoscope of drums and cymbals, rolling with the same fluidityas Kimock's guitar lines, which also showcase his crystal-cleartone.
The mood of the disc continues with a slower and even morehypnotic atmosphere and rhythm, a little too weird and moody tobe sweet and not exactly bittersweet either, which settles wellwith Hunter's story of being in love with the groupie fromHell, woven into some great brooding, unsentimental meditationon hardship and the resiliency of love. "Ermaline" feels like a penultimate song, as if it were approaching theend of the last set for the night. Martí n's first breakhas the ring of a solo that has already been spun into its finalrun, everything resolving nicely, and the rest of the song swellsinto that same slow, smoky jam-closer feel. The final sweep buildsinto such a towering roar that the cut, when it happens, feelsfar too abruptthe fade out hits Steve in the middle ofa solo that is flowing and expressive, after a relatively slowstart; two more minutes would've been nice.
Kissin' The Boo-Boo, another entry in a long listof fairly looney instrumental titles, finishes the disc off witha reminder of the band's prowess and history. And it issuch a classic Zero instrumental, a gentle jazzy giant, roamingand weaving and floating and dancing, always dancing; rhythm compelling,melody breathing words so clearly you can almost hear the scatsinging that accompanies the solos; Kimock playing possessed,Chip's Hammond wrestling with the bass and drums, poundingand sliding around and over the beat, almost a liquid rhythm.The bluegrass tinged ending, flavored with Kimock on a Dobro,perhaps?, makes for a gentle landing.
There are no liner notes, which is a little disappointing,but there are extensive credits. A particularly noteworthy oneis to John Cipollina, a late member of Zero, Quicksilver MessengerService and several others, and one of the fathers of the SanFrancisco psychedelic guitar sound. As Greg said in a recent publicinternet posting, "John Cipollina still plays with Zero." And indeed, they never filled that position after Cipollina's death; they just retired the second guitar. Zero has alwaysbeen generous in acknowledging their musical heroes and influences,such as Grateful Dead keyboardist Keith Godchaux, who first broughtGreg and Steve together for a project of his, The Heart of GoldBand. For a band whose connections to the Dead have unfairly paintedthem as laboring in the shadow of that other Marin County institution,in many ways this album is the shrewdest way of laying the issueto rest: it says, We can work with Robert Hunter, too, and seehow different the results of another perfect match can be?
After so much praise, it's hard not to cavil aboutthe booklet design. Some of the ideas are goodthe covershot is finebut surely there are better photographs ofthe band. The layout is a visual pun: the front is a black-and-whitepositive image (+), the back is a white-and-black negative (-),and the picture sandwiched in the middle is a full-color tie-dyedpsychedelic (0). But the art direction still fails to grip. Andthat is distinctly unlike the music it packages, which has hada hammer-lock on my disc player, word processor, and mind forweeks. It's that kind of album.