Zed For Zulu
The weight of the past lies heavy on the shoulders of Those Pretty Wrongs, whether they like it or not. And that's a crying shame. Let's be honest here; if you've heard of the band at all, it's because one of them was in one of the biggest cult bands to ever walk the earth. The good news is that Zed For Zulu would still be great, even if your next-door neighbor and his chiropractor had made it.
What shines through this gorgeous collection of tunes is the ease and simplicity of it all. Luther Russell and Jody Stephens made this album not because they had to – they made it because they wanted to. No record company gun to the head, but a desire on the part of the musicians to write some great songs. Mission accomplished. You might find a better collection of understated pop/rock tunes released in 2019, but I really doubt it.
There's a lovely handmade feel to Zed For Zulu. Imagine a Roger McGuinn solo album produced by Matthew Sweet, in a shack in the countryside. No synthesizers were harmed in the making of this album, that's for sure. The theme of the album hangs on a line from "The Carousel" – a tune that starts by channeling James Taylor and ends up sounding like the Posies. In his plaintive and earnest voice, Stephens sings, "There's a world out there, and I can't make sense of it." You can almost imagine him opening the door just a few inches, peering out into the madness and malaise of 2019 and just saying "nope". Who can blame him?
There are ten songs on Zed For Zulu. All of them are imbued with a wistful yearning that's almost irresistible. All of them are simple, honest, and utterly devoid of artifice. The influences are obvious – the Beatles and the Byrds loom large, but Russell and Stephens neatly sidestep plagiarism. "Hurricane of Love" manages to combine Rubber Soul and Abbey Road on a song that could have been written by John or Paul or George, while "Life Below Zero" sounds like a less grizzled, Tennessean Neil Young. But this isn't just a road trip mixtape for baby boomers; it's a collection of beautifully structured songs that could have been written any time between 1963 and yesterday.
When the power-pop-tastic "You & Me" transitions from the jingle jangle introduction to the restrained but forceful chorus, even the most hard-bitten cynic would crack a smile. And that's the unique selling point of Zed For Zulu – neither Russell or Stephens are spitting righteous indignation at anyone who'll listen. Instead, they've made an album of melancholy, heartfelt love songs. "For me," says Stephens, "the lyrics are a walkthrough of day-to-day emotions and experiences." It's nice to hear a quiet voice now and then, isn't it?
Only once during Zed For Zulu might the listener whisper "what the..?" under their breath. The penultimate track, "Undertow", has a Harry Nilsson, show tune feel, with a middle eight to die for. The balance is restored on the final tune – "It's About Love"- a song which in the wrong hands, could have been as limp as a dishrag, with lyrics to match. Rest assured that Those Pretty Wrongs pull it off beautifully. You have to take your hat off to a band that can sing "it's about finding good intentions in a misdirected mess, it's about love and happiness" and not make it sound like something from The Waltons.
If you're sick of people shouting at you about why they're annoyed with something, and you want to hear something that's simple and sweet, but not sugary, you could do a lot worse than Zed For Zulu. Gently positive, understated and serene, it's probably the most subversive record you'll hear all year.