For many songwriters, home is where the art is. Americana songs have been nostalgic for "those hills of old Virginia" since the first banjo was plucked, John Denver begged for country roads to take him home, and modern-day pop stars like Michael Buble and Daughtry carry the torch with songs called "Home" that are inexplicably popular.
After bailing out of his home state of Maine for a vacation in San Francisco, former As Fast As guitarist Zach Jones was similarly inspired, teaming with AFA drummer Andrew Hodgkins and itinerant bassist Stu Mahan to record a suite of songs he penned on the West Coast and release them as a solo album, Fading Flowers, that's out now and will be celebrated with a release show next weekend.
With a resume that also includes sideman work for Pete Kilpatrick and a reputation as one of the smoother players in Portland, you might be expecting a guitar-heavy record, but Flowers is actually more than a little vocal-oriented, as Jones moves through tunes that mine themes of girls, family, and geography left behind. In fact, there are only two true guitar solos on the disc, and he traverses the six-minute, slow and sultry "Sweet Insomnia," a song that's dying for a searing, extended solo, without giving any kind of satisfaction on that front.
Many of the songs here will be familiar to As Fast As fans in their style, very McCartney pop with sweet melodies, ahh-ahh backing vocals, hand-claps, and clean guitar tone that gets crunchier for some of the more rocking takes. It must be said that the chorus to "Easy Way Out" is very similar in melody to Spencer and the School Spirit Mafia's "Opportunity Knocks" — that's what happens when you write together for a while; it can be hard to carve out your own sound. Just about every tune follows the traditional pop-song structure of verse-chorus-bridge and the choruses are strong on singalongs.
Jones branches out, though, too, as a songwriter who doesn't seem yet to have decided on a signature style, and these songs are generally his best. "Play it by Ear" is a cool Elvis Costello take, where he drops his vocals down lower in the register and vamps out. "Until I Hear from You" is even better, opening with a Lenny Kravitz vocal style and a killer strut in the verses accented by cool rhythm-guitar work that's melodic and interesting. The R&B bridge is a nice transition, too.
In fact, the very R&B-flavored "Back Home" might be the album's best song, as well as its heart. Leading with a falsetto-filled lead vocal, Jones laments "the charms of the winter have lost their appeal/Cold, cold days and nights, I can't change how I feel/I think of the people I miss back home (back home)." There are times here and elsewhere when you wonder how many takes it took for him to nail his vocals, the higher register seeming to be a challenge for him, but it's hard to disagree or not be pleased when he promises, "I know that I'll be back again, and I'll see you there . . . nothing will have changed, Portland always stays the same."
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at email@example.com.
FADING FLOWERS | Released by Zach Jones | with Spencer Albee + Dominic Lavoie + Dan Connor + Jon Nolan + Dean Ford | at the Empire, in Portland | March 27 |www.zachjonestunes.com