ZZZZ – Palm Reader

Palm Reader

This band might surprise you, as its apparent leader, Steve Sostak, comes to ZZZZ from Sweep the Leg Johnny. STLJ was known for its big sound and powerful live sets. ZZZZ, on the other hand, plays an interesting mix of excited, sax- and piano-driven music. In addition to sax and piano, you have drums and bass. But without a proper guitar in the band, you get most of your melody from the horns and keys. Nobody would accuse ZZZZ of being a reincarnation of STLJ, unlike the Braid/Hey Mercedes or Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave couplings. ZZZZ, instead, has made a playful but sometimes dark album with Palm Reader.

For instance, the instrumental “Ultratumba” rumbles along in 7/8 time with a repeating sax line to carry it from one passage to the next. Alternately, the piano follows the lead and digresses, giving the song a little bit of a Phillip Glass touch. “Bandit King and Queen” begins with an easy, tribal beat before it segues into a jaunty verse and chorus. The keys and sax, as on “Ultratumba,” lock onto each other here and there, as if to emphasize the melody.

There were times in MX-80 Sound’s songs where the combination of jazzy drums and spiraling horns worked well together, and some of that is repeated here. But if you’re not into the alto saxophone or electric piano, you might want to look elsewhere for your next album purchase, as it can feel like calliope music at times.

The vocals are handled by Sostak and Ellen Bunch, the pianist. Bunch has classical training on her instrument and joined ZZZZ to replace a departed guitarist. Her gentle voice – especially in combination with that of Sostak – gives the proceedings a nice counterpoint. The combination of the sax and Bunch’s vocals brings to mind Romeo Void. However, ZZZZ’s musicians don’t seem to take their subject matter as seriously. That’s not to say that ZZZZ is a joke band by any stretch, but just to say that these folks have invented this project to have fun and experiment with some novel approaches.

“Second Hand Smoke” sounds like it could be a single. It’s spirited and memorable, with enough variation in its structure to keep everything interesting. “Forget It,” though, might be the most lively track on Palm Reader. It’s fast and fun, and its chorus finds Bunch and Sostak trading the line “Forget it!” as if they were a feuding couple. Album opener “Assassination Polka” hints at its dangerous underpinnings, but at the same time it sounds like something people might swing dance to.

“Buncerto” closes the album with some solemn, sustained vocals atop a gyrating horn line. Bunch handles most the vocals, almost whispering the verses and then backing Sostak during other parts. The beat and the instrumentation tend to give all of the songs an upbeat feel, even when the thrust of the message is otherwise. Having given themselves a name that guarantees them to be the last entry in anyone’s alphabetized collection, let’s hope they don’t get forgotten without being given a chance.