Sunday, November 12, 2023

Martin Zellar: “Head West” (2023) CD Review

Martin Zellar is a singer and songwriter known for his work in Gear Daddies. His new solo album, Head West, features all original material. In addition to lead vocals, Martin Zellar plays harmonica on this release. Joining him are Dominic Ciola on bass, Scott Wenum on drums and backing vocals, and Wilson Zellar on guitar. Wilson Zellar is Martin Zellar’s son, and in addition to playing guitar, he engineered, mixed and mastered the album, with help from his younger brother Owen Zellar, who assisted on the engineering part of the process. Martin’s daughter Clementine Zellar plays percussion on one track, and Martin’s wife, Carolyn Zellar-Beaudot, is responsible for the album’s photos. So it is very much a family affair, which makes sense, as the songs on this disc came out of that time early in the pandemic when things were shut down and people were re-evaluating their priorities. For many people, family and friends came out on top of that priority list. The album is dedicated to Martin Zellar’s mom and dad. Head West was produced by Martin Zellar.

The album opens with its title track, “Head West.” California has long provided a destination point in music (and outside of music, for that matter). There is always something appealing about getting on the road, and California retains its allure, even for those of us who made that trip a long time ago and have been living here for decades. It still feels like it will somehow cure whatever it is that ails us. “I wanna see the Hollywood sign/The palm-lined boulevards/Wind through Laurel Canyon with the windows down/See all the movie stars/Come on, baby, let’s head west.” Adding to the song’s positive vibes are some sweet and pleasant “Sha la la” backing vocals toward the end of the track. That’s Ali Gray on backing vocals.

And speaking of the road, Martin Zellar follows “Head West” with a song titled “The Road Led Here.” This one also has positive vibes. And those who love the road will love the song’s lyrics, especially lines like these: “And the road was winding, the path unclear/So many wrong turns and we still got here.” As long as the road leads us to the people we love, where else would we want to be? This song has such a good feeling about it. Brian Beken is partly responsible for that, playing both mandolin and banjo on this track. And this is the track to feature Carolyn Zellar-Beadot on percussion. This is one of my personal favorites. Then Presley Haile joins Martin Zellar on lead vocals for “Better Off Apart,” delivering a strong performance on this duet. This song is about a relationship that is at that place where perhaps it should end, and the two are looking at it and each other. She sings “And I feel like maybe I never knew you/Could it be I simply outgrew you/It hurts to say, but I know/Deep down in my heart/We’d be better off apart.” Martin Zellar then replies, “You say that you’ve changed/Yes, some people do/But I don’t think it’s fair you’d expect/I was gonna change too.”

During the pandemic, I started to think of old friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, some of whom I hadn’t seen since childhood. “We Ran Wild (Back In The Day)” is about looking back at those people who were with us during our formative years, and learning what’s become of them. We all do that, pick up little nuggets of information from those we are still in touch with. “He said, I ran into Danny/And he was saying/That you moved away/But you’re still out there playin’/Good for you/Wish I was still playing too.” It’s about looking back to a time when we weren’t thinking of the future, and there are both positive and negative sides to that. “Talked about old friends, dead and gone/And we both grew quiet as we realized/That the list was heartbreakingly long.” Even if you haven’t pursued a career in music, as the character of this song did, you’ll be able to relate to this song. That’s followed by “Boats Slowly Sinking,” which is fitting, as this one addresses the loss of someone from his past. No matter how we know that we’re all going to die, and that everyone we know will die, it is no easier to handle. We are, of course, heading toward death from the moment we are born. Thus the song’s title, we are all boats slowly sinking. “Yeah, we all know it’s coming/Yeah, we all know the ending to the tale/We’re boats slowly sinking, my friend/Yeah, we’re sinking from the moment we set sail.” Beautifully sad lines. And matching the feel of those lines is some really nice work by Randy Broughten on pedal steel. Presley Haile provides some moving backing vocal work. This is another of my favorites.

“Texas Just Won’t End” is another song about heading west, trying to get to California and having to get through Texas first. If you’ve ever made that drive, you know the feeling. That goddamn state just doesn’t end. This song feels like being on the road, those moments when you’re a bit weary, but finding hidden reserves of strength, when you’re out there in the middle somewhere, looking forward to the destination. And there is a good energy, particularly toward the end. We’ll get there, won’t we? Geoff Queen plays lap steel on this track. Then Geoff Queen plays mandolin, pedal steel and lap steel on “Goodbye Wild Bill,” one of those great character sketches that say something not only about the person who is ostensibly the subject, but about the author as well. “We were a rag tag band of outstate boys/Drank too much, and made a lot of noise/Each and every one of us a mess/And one day Wild Bill stumbled in/No one remembers where or when/He just blended in with our excess.” This track features one of the album’s best, most compelling vocal performances. I also love that guitar work.

A beautifully sad tone is established at the beginning of “Much More Than This” before those first lines, “We call out to our angels/When the pain’s too much to bear.” But soon it is clear that where there is sadness there is also hope, and that becomes what we focus on here. Check out these lines: “Won’t you sing to me that sweet sad song/That calmed my fears/And hold me in your arms/Wipe away my tears/Ease my pain with your kiss/Remind me that I’m so much/More than this.” Absolutely beautiful. And I think we can all stand to hear lines like “Whisper in my ear/It’s not too late/To fill my heart with love/Not hate.” These days it seems that hatred is a uniting factor for many people, trying to draw strength from their loathing rather than their love. But of course that can never last. That’s followed by “Anyone But Me,” which has a much more cheerful country vibe as it starts. This one is also about heading west on the highway, but it is in the character’s mind as he is growing up listening to the big rigs on the interstate, dreaming of leaving, of being “Anywhere but there/Anyone but me.” These are lyrics most of us who love music can relate to: “Music fed my soul/Gave life meaning/Made me whole/Became my everything/I hung on each and every word/Studied every song I heard/I’d close my eyes and sing.” And it’s still true for most of us, I’m guessing. Randy Broughten adds some nice work on pedal steel.

Some cool percussion work gets “Big City Man” off and running. This one too takes us back to our youth. “Dumb and dirty/A long way from thirty/And feeling bulletproof/Ass pocket bottle of whiskey/Full pack of cigarettes/A little money in my pocket/And none on the docket/Still far too young for regrets.” And, perhaps because of its youthful subject, this song feels like summer to me. For some reason, it is always summer in my memories of childhood. And Martin Zellar sings, “It was a perfect day.” That’s summer, right? By the way, that’s Pat Manske on percussion on this track. You might know Manske’s work from albums by Jeff Plankenhorn and Terri Hendrix, among others. The album then concludes with “Forty Years Along.” This one begins with these lines: “When the sun is out I feel all right/But my whole world falls to pieces/When I’m alone at night.” It seems a lot of thought was put into the order of the songs on this album, the way a thought or feeling will take us from one track to the next, and there be changed somewhat. This track features a moving vocal performance, and Geoff Queen plays pedal steel. This song has a sweet, sad sound. Halfway through, we are treated to some nice work on harmonica. “I know sleep will bring reprieve/Until then the sky is gonna fall/And everyone I love will leave.”

CD Track List

  1. Head West
  2. The Road Led Here
  3. Better Off Apart
  4. We Ran Wild (Back In The Day)
  5. Boats Slowly Sinking
  6. Texas Just Won’t End
  7. Goodbye Wild Bill
  8. Much More Than This
  9. Anyone But Me
  10. Big City Man
  11. Forty Years Along

Head West was released on October 6, 2023, and is available on both CD and vinyl.

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