Let’s start with an instant disclaimer – I love this band. I’m already a committed fan. So it’s not like any great surprise that I would want to sit down, listen to and take notes on their newest album. Zed For Zulu is this year’s offering from Those Pretty Wrongs – Jody Stephens and Luther Russell – and due out on September 6th. If you’re not already familiar, here’s your education: their friendship goes back to the early ’90s, but about five years ago, they started making music together when they were simultaneous united by a documentary about Jody’s alma mater, the legendary Memphis group, Big Star. After releasing their self-titled debut on Ardent/Burger in 2016 to positive reactions, they went on tour, playing across North America, Australia, Europe and the U.K. During these tours, songs began to develop for what would become their second effort, Zed for Zulu, which visits themes such as communication (or lack thereof); the ever-present past or the question of the future, inevitable death or imminent re-birth. As its so aptly described, “the music is colorful but muted, something complex woven in a simple way. It’s a symphony of chords and melodies, yet played in an understated fashion, without too much fuss.”
So with my bias in tact, the album reads like this: opening with the sweet melancholia of “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” (which, I have to admit, has shades of Big Star’s Third), you’re immediately enveloped in the richness of both the melody and the arrangements – and those harmonies are chill-inducing. And those arrangements are by way of the brilliant Chris Stamey, so it all makes sense. The pop-ness of “Ain’t Nobody But Me” is instantly classic – a perfect mix of chiming guitar, tempered by a crisp acoustic guitar underneath and catchy as anything; the Beatle-esque/baroque chord structure of “Hurricane Of Love” is a marvel, with simple and tasteful acoustic guitars and perfectly balanced winds and keyboards (a sort of Klezmer clarinet solo is wonderfully unexpected) – minimalist beauty at its best. “You And Me” showcases the guitar mastery of Mr. Russell, both in his acoustic maneuvering and the timbre of the riffs from Chris Bell’s Gibson ES-330/Hi-Watt combo (used, for those uninitiated, on Big Star’s #1 Record and on Mr. Bell’s I Am The Cosmos); “Life Below Zero” is, again, one of those Third moments – a mixture of wonder and sadness, with yearning guitar arcs. And it cannot be overlooked that “Life Below Zero,” was part of a session in Memphis attended by Mr. Russell’s father Jefferey, in the wake of the sudden death of Luther’s mother Simohn. Said Mr. Russell, “You’re wondering how to cope. And Jody had just been through the loss of his younger brother. And the excuse of coming together for the final recordings of this album seemed like a good time to take our minds out of the dark cloud. We really had a great time, the three of us, and just being creative together seemed to help us all start to pick to the pieces.” That “great time” vibe is easily conveyed in the McCartney-ish “ragtime” of “Undertow”, which is buoyant and bouncy and (joyfully) unexpected.
So this leads me to a conclusion: I liked their debut album immensely. But I love this album – it’s a giant musical leap forward. It’s smart, confident, interesting, thoughtful and human. It touches you; moves you. And you can never ask for more than that.
Zed For Zulu will be released on Friday. September 6th, 2019