(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Recording review - Zulu Pearls, No Heroes No Honeymoons (2012)

Stripped down sound distills songs to their essence

Following the popular trend, Zach Van Hoozer records under his band monicker, Zulu Pearls. Beyond that, though, Van Hoozer distances himself from the usual crowd. He's ditched Washington D.C. to settle in Berlin. Rather than tapping into the electronic music scene there, he focuses on his own rock vision, playing with a pan-European set of musicians.

Van Hoozer came back to D.C. to record No Heroes No Honeymoons with producer Nick Anderson. The two created a stripped down sound where guitars generally provide light accents rather than steal the show. The stark production and the slapback echo on the vocals give the songs a retro feel with a taste of late night ruminations. Most of the songs are bass driven with solid drumwork. The echoed vocals and bass playing are a bit like the Arctic Monkeys sound on Whatever People Say I Am That's What I'm Not, but more laid back. Van Hoozer's voice is expressive and occasionally weary.

Simple strums of reverbed guitar add highlights to the down tempo bassline and steady drumbeat on the opening track, Keep It Cool. The music is distilled down to it's purest essence. Van Hoozer's voice comes in like he's whispering secrets. He picks up some urgency and stronger expression on the chorus, matching the increased rock intensity. This track sets the tone for the whole album. Regardless of the tempo, the arrangements feature the same clarity where a gesture is preferred over bombast.

That's not to say that No Heroes No Honeymoons is an understated album; the sonic focus can create a powerful tension. On Two Thousand Whatever, the verse's hypnotic beat supports a seductive vocal. The stalking bassline adds a hint of threat or maybe temptation. But the chorus breaks the spell with a languid and expressive release:
Some want love, some want submission
You can keep your diamond ring
I'm on top, you're on a mission
And you want to take everything
But you say I waste my breath on rock and roll
Ain't nobody gonna save my soul
Those last two lines open the music to channel My Morning Jacket, with Van Hoozer reaching for Jim James' style of vocal self-flagellation. The chorus resolves and smoothly slips back into the verse groove with a renewed sense of anticipation.

One track ignores Zulu Pearls' sonic blueprint. The first single, Magic Tricks opts for a more standard pop/indie rock approach. This time the drums and bass step back in the mix and let the guitar drive the song. There's even a guitar solo after the second chorus and some keys slip in on the third verse. It's a catchy song and I like it, but compared to the rest of No Heroes No Honeymoon, it feels like a compromise.

Despite this, the rest of the album's aesthetic offers a unique response to the usual indie rock sound. Zulu Pearls create a kind of power vacuum when they sideline the guitar without an obvious replacement. Letting the rhythm section take center stage gives the songs a different perspective.

Check out the drag beat title cut, No Heroes No Honeymoons. The album releases in the U.S. on September 18.

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