A Season Lost by Nashville-by-way-of-Asheville singer-songwriter Jeff Zentnercontinues in his folk-noir journey through nightscapes, bird flights, cloud formations and lost love. The album was released just this week, and it's Zentner's first solo effort since 2009's The Dying Days of Summer — read a review here. (He also performs with alt-country band Creech Holler.)
"We have so little time," Zentner sings over and over on lead track "The Motion of the Earth," a moody and breathy expanse of strings and poetic musings, almost more of a spoken word piece than a song.
But the music of Lost does sing. Zentner's vocals are close to the mic, a dusky baritone that never cracks despite the palpable ache. Here, Rykarda Parasol backing vocals are more fervent accent than harmony.
The title track is the album's longest. It opens with a combination of harmonium (Buck Curran) and slide guitar that sound raga-esque. The lyrics, spooky and nervy, creep and slither along a landscape of minor keys and sonic experimentation. The tapestry here is part Appalachian ghost story, part post-apocalyptic sandstorm — simultaneously spine-tingling and beguiling.
The next two tracks ("Bleed for You" and "Fire in My Bones") are polarizing different takes on the love song. "Bleed for You" is simple — two voices and acoustic guitar, all warm tones and close space. The vocal effects lend a rosy glow to the sweet, if lovelorn, sentiment ("When you wake from restless dreams / do you turn and look for me?"). "Fire in My Bones," on the other hand, flexes electric guitar muscle, reverb, drum kit, cymbals and churning obsession. Here, Zentner's voice is a low growl submerged in the layered instrumentation. The song smolders and claws at its own walls, piling darkness upon darkness right up to the last crushing notes.
"Leaving" is a standout track, with its melancholy violin (Elin Palmer) and the lilting tempo of a doomed waltz. "I've learned about leaving a city / like a lover in the night" Zentner and Josie Little sing together. Though the mood of the song is forlorn, there's a pure-and-piercing romance to it. "White Horses," too, conjures dreamy romantic visions. But here, the panoptic soundscapes are those of mist-blurred moors as traversed upon the silver screen. Vocal effects lend a breathless and hazy cast to the song. And, while the vocals speak of sunlight and summer, this song is born of a land where the enveloping fog never clears.
"Devil's Eyes" is a feverish distillation of Appalachian folk-noir. Menacing low-tones and a chorus of male voices underscore imagery of serpents and raven-haired enchantresses; Matt Bauer's background vocal echoes, specter-like. But it's the addition of the Swedish nyckelharpa (Palmer) that elevates this writhing number into stylized nightmare territory.
The thing about Zentner (the musician), for all his mournful steel guitars, rain-soaked metaphors, smoky melodies and shuddering, broken-hearted portraits, is that Zentner (the guy) is actually a quick wit. He's among the top-five funniest Twitter-users I follow. Just today he remarked (via Twitter), "I'm mistrustful of anyone who makes dark music and (a) is not a funny person or (b) does not appreciate comedy." Considering that formula, Zentner is completely trustworthy.
But Lost proves, with each of its 11 tracks, that he's completely trustworthy as a musician, too. There's not so much as a stumble, let alone a misstep, and Zentner remains true to his vision from start to finish. Final track, "Birds Fly South," is an opulent anguish. Its melodic pathways wind through sparks of violin and low-shimmering guitars. The story of this song exists just beyond its frame. While Zentner and Palmer sing in a tuneful hush — not harmonizing as much as layering their voices like an embrace — of the migratory paths of birds, the sense is of love's dying embers. The song fades with the softest reverberation of strings, though it may just as well have culminated in a swoon.
If you're looking to pump up the jam, this is not your album. Don't plan your 10-mile jog around these tracks (though, Zentner is a dedicated runner, so it would be interesting to know what's on his iPod). This is music for reflection, for rainy days and firefly-lit nights. These are songs that flicker and sigh and recall lost affection and the brief fragility of life. In a good way.
Jeff Zentner: A Season Lost
Cities of the Plain Records
Any album that receives an implicit endorsement from Arborea is undoubtedly worth checking out, and so it is that Jeff Zentner's third album A Season Lost, which features Buck and Shanti Curran on one of its eleven songs, rewards one's attention with its haunting folk settings. The forty-five-minute collection builds on the sound captured on 2007's Hymns to the Darkness and 2009's The Dying Days of Summer, the titles of which offer a clear indication of Zentner's sensibility. As its title intimates, the new album likewise explores themes of loss and transience, and specifically in this case the way a season can seemingly vanish during a particularly tumultuous period in a person's life. Zentner bundles his songs in lush arrangements, with steel guitar, acoustic and electric guitars, and violin the dominant elements, along with an occasional dab of electric piano to offset the acoustic sound. His guitar playing is often raw, even grizzled, which helps lend the ballads a harder edge.
A key thing the Nashville-based musician does to make his songs stand out is harmonize vocals such that his voice is almost always paired with a female singer's, of which many are featured, including Elin Palmer, Rykarda Parasol, Josie Little, Sumie Nagano, and Hannah Fury. It's an effective strategy in that vocal contrast is created in the resultant blend between his rougher voice and the softer warmth of his partner's. Palmer's an MVP of sorts on the project, given that she not only sings but also contributes string playing to a number of the songs, and the way the vocal-like cry of her violin caresses the songs provides a constant source of pleasure.
The opening “The Motion of the Earth” is a good example of his approach in the way Palmer's soft voice accompanies Zentner's as, lying awake at night, he ruminates on time's passage and life's cycles. A creeping undercurrent of desperation seeps into “Skies of Blue,” which also includes a rare solo spot for the accompanying singer, in this case Sumie Nagano. The brooding title track's already haunting character is intensified by Arborea's presence, with Shanti's whisper and Buck's harmonium and electric guitar stirring complements to Zentner's aggressive guitar playing. Heavier by comparison are “Fire in My Bones,” a bruising workout where plodding drums appear alongside the vocals, strings, and guitars, and “Devil's Eyes,” a darkwater folk blues featuring Matt Bauer. Less ominous in tone are the wistful reverie “Home” and sunnier song of devotion “Bleed for You,” which communicate their sentiments in direct manner. Lyrically, the songs are chock full of evocative imagery (as proof consider the sundazed visions recounted during “White Horses”) in a way that reveals the influence of figures like Cormac McCarthy, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and Michael Ondaatje on Zentner.
I’ve had Jeff Zentner’s new album, A Season Lost, for weeks now and after listening to it more than a dozen times, I still can’t quite describe its beauty, but I can tell you what draws me to to it time-and-time again.
A Season Lost is overflowing with Southern Gothic layers and textures that haunt the dreamy arrangements with strings and hushed vocals. It’s an album made for the steamy, foggy nights of the Mountain South. The eerie tone throughout the album creates some sort of morbid romanticism that transports the listeners to a desolate, bleak world where tragic figures turned heartbroken ghosts search for solace.
There doesn’t seem to be an on-going theme except for the unearthly tones that pervades A Season Lost. Oddly, it’s dark and sad, but not too depressive. The album showcases Jeff’s deft and uncanny ability to put together a complex song with complex emotion. I know I’m supposed to feel melancholy and downhearted, but I’m not feeling hopeless either. I feel strange, but a good strange. I can’t recall ever feeling this way while listening to other albums.
And, then there is the matter of the many great singers and musicians backing Jeff, levitating the album with each whispering note and every draw of the violin bow. Magnificent.
I think the only complaint I have is the cohesiveness of A Season Lost. Every song but one has a dismal thread that binds the album, and that song, “Bleed For You”, lacks the mysterious tones of the other songs, but it is also one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s sad and nostalgic but does not possess the strange and otherworldly tones heard throughout the album. So, with the exception of this one complaint, A Season Lost is a collection of ghostly and gorgeous Southern Gothic.
Hello Jeff! Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule, music-related and otherwise, to do this interview with me. You released your third album, A Season Lost, this past July on Cities of the Plain Records, and it’s compelling, yet subdued, with songs steeped in reflective rumination and a foreboding frisson. A Season Lostwas created after a tumultuous period in your life. Did the creative process of this album help you to move past, or make sense of, the tough times you went through?
I’m sort of an unusual songwriter, I gather, in that dark times in my life are not my creative periods. Rather, it’s the times after the dark periods, when I look back, from a place of relative safety. So I would say that A Season Lost is my effort to make sense of a dark period in my life. I wrote many of the songs on this album during this period, but they didn’t resonate for me at the time as what they were. It was only after my dark period that they acquired their meaning for me.
You’re a magnet for attracting collaborative talent, working with some of my favorite female artists like KatieJane Garside (on “Where We Fall We’ll Lie” from your second album), Rykarda Parasol, and Hannah Fury. Can you divulge some details about working with each of these artists? Were you in the studio with them, or did the collaborations happen online or by the post?
Those collaborations are some of my proudest musical accomplishments, by far. In every instance, they recorded their tracks separately, and sent them to me digitally. I have never met any of these women in person, although Rykarda and I are currently working on a video. Collaborations like this are one of the wonders of the digital age.
The roster of your collaborators doesn’t end there. For A Season Lost you worked with a passel of other artists like Elin Palmer and members of Arborea, and those who weren’t on my radar until now, like Josie Little, Susie Nagano, and Matt Bauer. What did they each contribute to your album? Were any of these artists acquaintances of yours before their album assist?
Elin Palmer contributed strings to almost every track on the album, and without question, this album would not have been the same without her contribution. She’s one of the best musicians on the planet. She would nail her parts so intuitively, it was like watching someone breathe. We even got to play a few shows together, since she lived in Nashville for a brief time. She’s one of the few collaborators I’ve had who I got to record with in person. She also happens to be one of my favorite songwriters.
Josie Little has one of the most pure and beautiful singing voices I’ve ever heard. She’s far and away one of my favorite singers on earth. She lived up in Eastern Kentucky while I was working on this album, and traveled to Nashville to record her parts. Plus, Josie’s hilarious and generally awesome.
Matt Bauer is a great friend of mine, and I’ve been a fan of his music for several years. He contributed to a track on my second album while he was in town to play a show, and he contributed to this album while he was in town opening for Horsefeathers. He’s one of my favorite songwriters.
Arborea is Buck and Shanti Curran. These guys are also great friends of mine, and I’ve long admired what they do with musical textures. The song to which they contributed, “A Season Lost”, was a pure act of improvisation; lyrics and music. I just sat down and recorded it. And I knew immediately after recording it that Buck and Shanti would be the ideal collaborators for this song. I knew that they would add the perfect textures and harmonies, and I was correct.
Sumie Nagano is an amazing songwriter from Sweden. She is one of the most talented members of one of the most talented families I’ve ever known. Her father is an amazing visual artist, and her sister is the lead singer for Little Dragon. Her songs are absolutely gorgeous, as I’m sure you can tell from the song she sang on for A Season Lost.
You’ve written that your geographical location informs the mood of your albums and you’ve lived in both woodland seclusion and metropolitan hustle ‘n’ bustle. Do you find one locale to be more conducive to songcraft than another?
I definitely need both. Unquestionably, I need to be near wild places, with thick forests and deer. I spend as much time outside as I humanly can. I’m an avid trail runner. But I also love the energy of cities. I love to think about so many humans—contained universes of memory and stories—living together and interacting. I like having access to the things cities provide. Great libraries and smart, energetic people who are drawn to cities. I love Indian and Ethiopian food a little too much to live far from a big city. Nashville is the perfect compromise in this regard. It’s one of those cities that’s so densely forested, you get this sense that if humans didn’t keep cutting things back, it’d take about 10 years for nature to reclaim Nashville.
A vespertine aura pervades all your albums. Do you find that you are at the peak of your creative powers as the day’s light wanes, or does the diurnal cycle not matter? I find that my mind runs best late morning to early afternoon – and late at night too, but then it’s difficult to shut off the creative tap!
I am at my creative peak in waning times, in times of fading. I love twilight. I love autumn. I love the margins of seasons. I love the hinterlands between seasons. There’s something about the times of fading that reminds me of the way that time wears things down. This is a frequent underlying theme in my songs, either implicitly or explicitly.
Touching on what you just mentioned, recurring themes of your albums include the changing seasons, the passage of time, the transience of relationships, the cycle of life and death, and the persistence of memories. Your lyrics are sometimes bleak, or at least candidly realistic, like on “The Motion of the Earth”, where you state “We have so little time.” Along those temporal lines, I think Geoff Tate of Queensryche summed it up best on “Eyes of a Stranger”, when he declares “All I want is the same as everyone / Why am I here / and for how long?” Do thoughts like these haunt you frequently or are they diminished by the distractions of daily life?
These thoughts haunt me daily. I think a lot about how short life is. I think a lot about all the things I want to see, say, sing, read, and learn before I die.
Moving on to a lighter topic, I hope, if I were to say that vocally and lyrics-wise you seem like a cross between Mark Kozelek and Mark Lanegan, how would you take that?
I would take that very well, because I think both are brilliant lyricists and vocalists.
I must profess that of all the fine songs on A Season Lost, I am most partial to “Fire in My Bones” where you sing with Rykarda Parasol. You’ve mentioned that this is a direction you will be going in with future songs. Is your next album taking shape or is it too soon to be contemplating this?
My next album is indeed taking shape. It’s exciting, because I’ve never completed an album with a more complete idea of what I want to do as on my next album. My next album will definitely be taking a turn for the darker and heavier; lots of primal drums and serpentine electric guitars. It will occupy the same universe as the music I used to make with Creech Holler, but with a lyrical content more along the lines of my solo work. I feel like, for now, I’ve said all I have to say with the quiet, introspective, acoustic stuff. I’ll return to it someday, without a doubt, but for now, I want to make some noise. I’m working with my friend Clark Simmons, who did the drum parts on A Season Lost, and is a tremendous drummer.
I read the lyrics to “The Motion of the Earth” before actually listening to the song, and I find your lyrics read like stark, evocative poetry. Have you thought of publishing your lyrics in poetry book format? Are all your song lyrics available somewhere online?
I’ve never thought of publishing my lyrics, but I make a very concerted effort to write lyrics that can stand on their own as poetry. If a line looks ridiculous without music set to it, it gets cut. That’s why I still make the effort to release a physical copy of my albums with lyrics in the album liner. For now, that’s the only place that they’re published. But now that you mention it, maybe I should post them on my website.
You took up the guitar at the ripe old age of 21, if I’m not mistaken. Why did you wait that long?
Fear. The reason anybody doesn’t do anything. I was busy doing other things in the years from ages 15-18 when most people take up guitar. Then, from 18-21, I fretted about the fact that I was really starting to feel the ache to play guitar, but I was afraid to start climbing that mountain, and be a 21-year-old beginner. I didn’t want to do it halfway. Finally, one day I’d had enough, and decided that I would regret it forever if I let fear rule me. So I started playing the guitar with the sole goal of someday, clumsily playing the guitar in front of an audience. I thought that’s all that I could hope for. I had this poignant scene in my head of me as a white-haired old man, painfully ascending the stage at an open-mic and playing a few chords while the audience cheered my courage.
Of all the instruments you play, which is your favorite one, or does it depend upon the song?
I love to play slide guitar. I love the way it feels to play it; I love the way it sounds, that singing tone. But I don’t play it too much, because if you do, you get pigeonholed as a blues artist, which I don’t consider myself.
You’re based in and have played gigs in Nashville, which has quite a vibrant music scene. What have your experiences been like?
Playing in Nashville is difficult because everyone gets 12 invitations a night to come see friends play in bands. You learn humility very quickly playing in Nashville. You learn that you’re not a special diamond by virtue of the fact that you’re a musician. But I love playing in Nashville. I’ve never enjoyed playing anywhere as much.
You mentioned earlier that before going solo, you whooped it up as a member of the Southern Gothic band Creech Holler. Are you still a part of this band?
Creech Holler is on an indefinite hiatus. We had a great time and made music of which we’re all quite proud. We’ve all kind of become occupied with life and doing different things. We’re all friends.
I noticed that the song “Devil’s Eyes” which appears on Creech Holler’s The Shovel and the Gun from four years ago is also represented on A Season Lost. Why did you salvage this specific Creech Holler track, which you make your own to menacing effect?
This is one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever not really written. This song would have never come into existence, but for my wife waking up one day and telling me about a dream she had, where she watched a woman walk down a river levee singing “you’ve got the devil’s eyes, I can see you every time it rains.” She said it was the most beautiful and haunting singing she’d ever heard. So I tried to preserve it. I got the first line for free, which is always the hardest.
We’ve already gathered that you’re no stranger to collaboration, which can be further evinced by your contributions to the album We Are Only Riders – The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project, a tribute to the late The Gun Club frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce. You contributed to its sequel, The Journey is Long, as well. How did get involved in this project?
Cypress Grove, the gentleman who organized this project, reached out and contacted me. This is still one of the coolest bits of musical fortuity that has ever struck me.
The list of musical luminaries is long for We Are Only Riders and The Journey is Long. From what I understand, you contributed your instrumental prowess to songs that featured Nick Cave, Debbie Harry, and Mark Lanegan and Isobel Campbell. Were you actually in the studio working with these artists? Any stories you’re at liberty to tell?
I wish. These were all collaborations from a distance. For now, the improbability of me being on an album with Nick Cave and Debbie Harry will have to be story enough.
Speaking of Nick Cave, you’ve said that certain songwriters, like Nick Cave, and novelists like Cormac McCarthy, Townes Van Zandt, and Leonard Cohen have greatly influenced you. I’ve been listening to Henry’s Dream by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds recently and my fave track by far is “John Finn’s Wife”. What is your most fave Nick Cave song at the moment or for always?
I love “Into My Arms”. But some of my favorite work of Nick Cave’s, by far, has been his soundtrack work with Warren Ellis on The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and The Road.
It’s just hit me that your latest album was released on Cities of the Plain Records, which is also the title of a Cormac McCarthy book. I suspect this is not a coincidence… LOL Is Cities of the Plain Records your own record label? I can’t find any details about it online…
Cities of the Plain is indeed my own record label. I got the phrase from the same place Cormac McCarthy did—the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. I love Genesis. I love its stark poetry and the majesty of its language. But it doesn’t hurt that McCarthy’s book by the same name is one of my favorites.
I’m more into British classic literature by the likes of Thomas Hardy, E. M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf, but there are certain American writers that have struck me soundly, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J. D. Salinger, and Flannery O’Connor. I’ll never forget reading Good Country People way back in High School… I’m thinking you might be a Flannery O’Connor fan. If so, what story has stuck with you the most?
A Good Man is Hard to Find is probably my favorite of hers. I really need to read more of her. I have not explored her work as fully as I need to.
As far as ‘work’ is concerned, you’ve got so much going on in your life, and music is just one aspect of it. You have a family and a day job, volunteered as a guitar instructor and technician, been an adjunct professor at a university, and given inspirational lectures at certain events. How do you balance it all?
With great determination. By remembering how short life is, and how important it is to create something beautiful before I die. I eke out time wherever I can.
You gave a talk last year that was titled ‘A Walled Garden: Keeping a Sacred Creative Space in Your Life’, which I listened to and viewed online. The long title and possible religious connotations made me leery at first, as I don’t like being ‘preached to’, but your edifying speech was all about the creative spark and the survival of the human spirit. Can you go over the main point(s) here?
That was a talk I gave for a TEDx conference. My thesis was that the existence of primitive cave art is evidence of a fundamental drive to create that exists in all people, and that we are neglecting a drive as fundamental as the drive for physical survival. So we have to preserve a creative space in our lives to feed this drive. I conceptualize this space as a “walled garden,” that we protect from the incursions and demands of the world. I believe, and convey in this talk, that the drive to create is an instinct for the survival of our spirits, just like the drive to eat is an instinct for the survival of our physical being.
Lest we think that your life is all ponderous thought and grave regret, what do you do to let loose, besides getting a prominent tattoo of a tree on your arm?
I have a number of tattoos, all symbolizing chapters in my life. This new tattoo is a symbol of this past year, which was a very good year. I recorded with Nick Cave, Debbie Harry, Mark Lanegan, and Isobel Campbell, I put out a new album, I gave a TED talk. This was a good year that I want to remember.
You’ve posted some acoustic guitar ‘n’ vocals covers at your YouTube profile. At this moment, what song or songs do you crave to cover? I think you mentioned wanting to do “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode… That would be cool!
I want to cover “Avalanche” by Leonard Cohen. I’m working on a heavy cover of “Personal Jesus”by Depeche Mode. That’s one of those songs that sounds way heavier and darker in my memory than in actuality. My drummer and I are going to try to cover it with the same heaviness and intensity that it has when I hear it in my head.
Trochę zabrało mi zebranie się do napisania tej recenzji. Bardzo chciałam napisać o Jeffie tak, żeby zachęcić do wsłuchania się w jego muzykę i tak, żeby oddać jej sprawiedliwość. Muzyka Jeffa nie jest łatwa, jego piosenek nie można zanucić po jednym usłyszeniu i pewnie nie zdobędzie list przebojów, ale bardzo chciałabym, żeby miał szansę na większą rozpoznawalność niż obecnie.
Cudownie słucha się tej płyty w nocy, patrząc na zimowe niebo i zamrożony krajobraz w którym życie jest ciche i trudne do zauważenia, ale wciąż obecne i silne, pulsujące pod szarością i smutkiem nagiego świata. Brzmienie innego, tajemniczego miejsca.
Als het einde van het jaar nadert komt dat moment dat ik bedenk welke albums echt nog besproken moeten worden voor 31 december.A Season Lost van Jeff Zentner is er daar een van. Mag absoluut niet onbesproken blijven want hij is bijzonder èn mooi. Je kunt ook zeggen: bijzonder mooi. Zentner is in het dagelijks leven een van de leden van het gothic country-trio Creech Holler. Op deze soloplaat (z’n derde alweer) ligt het accent meer op filmische, donkere, americana. Omfloerste, soms een beetje spooky, zang, veel cello en viool (maar niet om de nummers glad te strijken) en bijna alles downtempo. Enkele nummers kennen ook Oosterse invloeden. Luister maar eens naar het begin van het titelnummer. Soms vliegt Zentner uit die rustieke toestand en levert een machtig folkrocknummer af (Fire in my Bones, een van de twee nummers op de plaat met drums). Opvallend is verder het blik, mij overigens onbekende, zangeressen dat Zentner op deze plaat opentrekt. Allemaal van grote klasse. Ook bijzonder is het gebruik van de Zweedse nyckelharpa die b.v. in Devil’s Eyes een belangrijke bijrol vervult. Het stemmige A Season Lost zou liefhebbers van Wovenhand en Matt Bauer (die ook een deuntje meezingt) wel eens erg goed kunnen bevallen.
Listening to Jeff Zentner’s new album A Season Lost, I had a feeling that Jeff would be an interesting person to talk to and get to know. And, I was right. When I asked Jeff if he would write a “Songwriter’s Point of View” he enthusiastically agreed, and asked if he could right about his favorite poet instead of a favorite album. And once I read about his inspiration, I definitely caught a glimpse into his songwriting, clearly seeing this inspiration in his lyrics. But not only can his inspiration be found in lyrics, it can also be felt. While reading this post, I could hear his songs playing as the soundtrack to each and every poem written by Joe Bolton. So, I encourage you to read on about Jeff’s inspiration and get to know him and his songs.
I discovered the Kentucky poet Joe Bolton about five years ago or so. I had played a show in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and a good friend, Jonathan Treadway, himself a brilliant poet, recommended him to me. His aim was true. The first poem I ever read by Joe Bolton was this:
Seven miles south of anywhere
You’d rather be, it is autumn
What sweetened shrivels,
What shriveled falls,
And what fell is leaf-rot,
A sick rich scent on the air.
You are paling, you are bored,
You are zipping up your jacket
And walking into a dynamo
Of twilight and raw wind,
Tossing your hair as a brief bruise
Of pink scores the horizon
Seven miles north, below the lights
From the bars and dance halls
Of small towns, the Ohio swells
With a cargo of barges,
And catfish twist through the bones
Of what never bothered to rise
These words hummed through me like I was a tuning fork. I resonated at exactly this frequency. I couldn’t get my hands on his book quickly enough. His poems have been collected in a single volume called The Last Nostalgia. When I got it, I could only read in small doses, such was the beauty and heartbreak it contained. Joe Bolton wrote of the landscapes and the heartscapes that I knew. He wrote of a building up and breaking down. He wrote of the beginnings and the death of love and life. He wrote about rivers and the pale twilight of winter evenings in the South. He wrote about desire and nights alive with the smell of wild honey. His poems were filled with wonder and despair in equal measure. His words made the most beautiful music I had ever heard.
…The old and the new songs of heartbreak sound the same
It’s only when the needle grinds in the grooves
That a sadness greater than your own comes on,
And the dead begin to live again, in you
– “The Prototypical Ghosts”
Joe Bolton is virtually unkown. You will never hear him mentioned in the same breath as other poetry greats such as Rilke, Rimbaud, Gilbert, and Whitman. But you should. He has soared to their heights.
…And when the sun, slipping
Behind a staggered row of pines
In Northern Mississippi or Tennessee
In late August,
Hangs the needles in its distant, momentary fire,
Then lets them go,
And the bickering cries of the gathering starlings
Rise in praise of the falling dark.
– “A Hymn to the Body”
I was asked to write this “Songwriter’s Point of View,” which normally features songwriters talking about the work of other songwriters. Make no mistake, there are many brilliant songwriters whom I love and who provide me with great inspiration. In fact, some of my favorites on earth appear on my latest album. But when it comes time to truly go to the well, so to speak, I look to my poets for inspiration. And Joe Bolton is supreme among them. I believe that a song should have lyrics that can stand on their own, and be read as poetry, without music. Lately, there is no music more beautiful to me than beautiful words in front of my eyes and the sound of wind in my ears. The Last Nostalgia is my lodestar for every phrase I write. It is gospel to me. I have never written quite the same way since. The title track from my album The Dying Days of Summer is a tribute to Joe Bolton.
After the many-colored but mostly blue
Seasons of our two solitudes – the hours
Of longing and the flight from longing, the years
Spent remembering as if memory were true -
We stand together on a balcony
Above the city of losses, the city of lights
Bouncing back off a starless sky, the city
Where we’ll try to save this night from the death of nights.
Ours has become a life in which the self
And the self’s other begin to anticipate the chances
Taken in the name of desire. Desire:
That sweet song the body sings to itself,
Or under the best of circumstances
The song two bodies sing to each other
– “The Name of Desire”
…Now, coming back to the place in autumn,
You watch rose- and wine-colored leaves swirl down,
And, seeing the stones now barely break the ground,
Think: So this is what it does to things, time.
The creek leaf-choked, you can hear the grass die.
Under the clouds, come. Sit. Hear the grass die.
– “Making Love in a Colored Graveyard”
Joe Bolton committed suicide in March 1990. He was 28.
Following 2009’s The Dying Days of Summer, Nashville singer/songwriter Jeff Zentner self-released the eleven track collection of southern gothic, A Season Lost. Zentner, who is also a member of alt-country group Creech Holler, has thrown himself into this singular effort, resulting in an impressive batch of dark, hazy, ghost stories. Zentner’s many talented musician friends perform alongside – Elin Palmer, Rykarda Parasol, Arborea, Matt Bauer, Sumie Nagano, Hannah Fury, and Josie Little – adding lovely and complex layers. Standouts on the album include the title track, “Bleed for You”, and closer “Birds Fly South.”
Questo album è un piccolo capolavoro. E lo rivela in fasi diverse: al primo ascolto, non si può non essere rapiti dalla sua atmosfera sognante e vagamente psichedelica; successivamente, è l'intima poesia che trasuda a prendere il sopravvento e il rapimento diventa incontrollabile. Non conoscevo questo artista e ne sono venuto in contatto per puro caso, ma so già che costituirà un punto fermo nei miei riferimenti d'ora in poi; e quest'album lo pongo già tra i miei preferiti del 2012. Come dice April Wolfe nella recensione a cui faccio riferimento, la musica di Jeff Zentner è oscura e triste, ma non deprimente; è di quella tristezza struggente, che può divenire più dolce e appagante della gioia. I brani sono quasi completamente frutto della sua vena artistica e l'album (che come dice l'autore, è stato completamente finanziato in proprio) vede la collaborazione di artisti del calibro di Arborea, Matt Bauer, Sumie Nagano, Josie Little ed altri, i quali prestano anche le loro voci, mai invadenti, a supporto di quella, profonda, di Jeff. Se vogliamo parlare di generi, l'ingrediente principale è un folk in chiave alternativa, ma non manca una psichedelia proto-sperimentale che, forse solo nella mia fantasia, rimanda ai Quicksilver (con la mediazione, magari, di Matt Elliott). Undici brani stupendi, posti in una sequenza mozzafiato, arricchiti da una strumentazione opulenta e variegata. Per ora, ascoltatelo in streaming, ma poi, anche in questo caso, fateci un pensierino, perché ne vale la pena (oltretutto, mi sa che non si trova in giro per la rete). Consigliatissimo.
Per me, almeno 8.5/10
"...Without fail, the lyrics read well in their own right as poems, and truly shine out when put to Zentner’s hypnotic, whispering vocals and dreamy arrangements. Beware though, this album does not make for easy listening. Zentner’s tales are tinged with black, and as beautiful as his prose is, there is a real underlying darkness that imparts a deliciously deep sense of unease. Conjuring images of desolate, rusty small towns, and compelling tales of human tragedy, love, and friendship, the listener is transported away into another world entirely."
"given my propensity to tagging bands, songs, artists with such lazy and sophomoric labels as 'awesome,' 'killer,' 'lovely,' 'great,' 'most excellent,' etc it may seem that my vocabulary is quite limited, but you would only be half right. sometimes, even i get hung up and such trite phrases just ain't gonna cut it. such is the case with asheville native, jeff zentner and his recently released, the dying days of summer. i have been attempting to come up with something, for the past 4 days, that not only intelligently but emotionally conveys the tone of this record. still the words escape me. as i was alluding to, zentner’s the dying days of summer emits visions and themes, and when words are lacking, resort to a picture. that is exactly how the record sounds to me. stumbling through the darkness and the moss that is seemingly everywhere in places like savannah, ga. this is definitely a very southern record, but not in a southern rock kinda way, but in a you may have to live here to understand kinda way. this is not to say if you don't live or have never lived in the south you won't appreciate or dig this record, in fact quite the contrary. the dying days of summer just sounds like the south. the sounds of the south that aren't really heard but felt."
"The wonderfully talented Jeff Zentner is back and better than ever with a new album “The Dying Days of Summer" . . . I’ve listened to the new album and it is definitely a stunner."
"These are dark, melancholic country ballads here folks - and I can honestly say they hit the mark. While many want diversity in an album in order to get a feel for an artist, it can leave you unaware of the true sound or an identity in general. This is the case with Zentner as you will know from the first listen, that his sound is to provide beautifully bleak soundscapes of Americana goodness. Think of a somber Ryan Adams with less piano mixed with Steve Earle without the anger."
"Zentner's cracked and smoky voice is more reminiscent of Jason Molina or J. Tillman's. He sings of abandoned cities and whispered relationships, taking simple acoustic guitar and lap steel and turning them into the tool of dark, almost mythic folk. It's no surprise that among the usual influences, the singer cites gothic novelist Cormac McCarthy."
"A disconcerting purveyor of caustic Americana, Jeff Zentner is an introspective young songwriter who conjures images of suburban desolation and despair through his dark lyricism and some stark, whispered vocals. Drawing on the bittersweet melancholy of Iron and Wine and the unsettling fragility of Mark Lanegan, Zentner sets about creating a hugely-affecting sound that echoes with desperation and a heart-breaking sense of youthful resignation. His debut album Hymns to the Darkness is a difficult, troubling but immensely rewarding listening experience. Alongside barren arrangements consisting of weeping lap steel and precision finger-picking, Zentner talks of forgotten, nameless towns, rusting industries and his frustrations at the dying heart of real world America. This is heart-wrenching, throat-drying melancholy that connects with the raw and primal fears of every intoxicated listener. Zentner is a truly breath-taking talent."
"Absolutely first-class, richly lyrical Nashville gothic from Asheville, North Carolina tunesmith Jeff Zentner. The instrumentation is mostly acoustic, very rustic in places but the lyrical vision is completely in the here and now . . .Zentner plays pretty much all the instruments here except the piano and harmonium, sparsely and elegantly arranged. The production is particularly smart, the music perfectly matching the brooding feel of the lyrics, an intricate web of stringed instruments awash in eerie, echoey reverb, pedal steel soaring mournfully overhead. . . Darker than Iron & Wine, more deeply steeped in Americana than Nick Cave, this nonetheless ought to appeal to both camps. . . Watch for this on our best 50 albums list of 2009 at the end of the year."
"I remember reading a short story by Ray Bradbury; I can’t remember what it was about. He wrote about leaf mould and mummy dust, cobwebs and old memories. In a couple of paragraphs, he was able to conjure a certain atmosphere. Jeff Zentner could be his musical heir. . . Zentner manages to evoke a bruised, battered and abandoned landscape comfortably sinking into the earth. With your eyes closed and staring at the back of your eyelids, you’ll see broken down machinery, tumbledown buildings and rain that can’t dislodge the soot and despair that covers everything. And that’s just the bright side of things. . .It’s amazing stuff and you have to experience it to really appreciate the craftsmanship that’s gone into each song. Strange and mysterious. Well worth buying."
"His dark and rustic Americana sound hits heavy but resonates deeply, with a voice that calls to mind Mark Lanegan and the ominous lyrics to match. The fourteen-track album runs sixty long minutes, demanding your attention and time. Don’t expect bite-sized, hook-heavy anthems with this one – these are songs you need to listen to and not just hear."
"Somewhere in the broad open spaces between folk and country, Jeff Zentner’s self-released second solo album The Dying Days of Summer echoes the sound of a voice against the rain, observes the mystery in far lights on a hill, sees the threat of a river rising, and remembers the smell of jasmine at night. The minimalist production brings to mind empty fields, abandoned farmhouses, and dirt roads meandering away from southern towns. Zentner accompanies his poetic vocals with guitar, slide guitar, dobro, banjo, pedal steel, lap steel, mandolin, cello, piano, organ in outrageously beautiful compositions. Fans of J. Tillman should should take a listen."
"This, the second solo album by local singer/songwriter Jeff Zentner (also the front man for Tennessee-based Creech Holler), hits its stride at the second line of the opening track. There, backup vocalist Josie Little adds her angelic voice to Zentner's own wispy-hushed singing. The 14-song disc is country — but only in the barest sense. Minor keys, 3/4 time signatures, haunting fiddle strains and the malevolent plucking of a banjo here and there underscore Zentner's poetic lyrics. "I've always loved summer's dying days / I've always been that kind," he sings on the title track. . . The overall effect — a somnolent, Southern Gothic soundscape — casts sweetly tattered imagery against a velvet-dark backdrop of exquisitely minimalist instrumentation."
"...Reminding me of a more embellished Nick Drake and recent folk-lovey Fionn Regan, these are beautiful songs that also have a hint of Morrissey about their lyrics. They may be dark, but there’s something wonderfully uplifting about them."
"Give this haunting, oddly disturbing enigma a listen. You may be a little depressed at first, but as you go along some pretty interesting and beautiful images will surround you."
"Lush, haunting, and sparse are just a few of the words I'd use to describe the music of Jeff Zentner. This North Carolina native has the whole Leonard Cohen melancholy thing down to a science. His songs are so beautiful that you won't even mind if they make you a little depressed. Unless you're like me and love depressing music, then you'll be elated at how depressed they'll make you."
"I see the ghosts of the days I spent loving no one else but you"
Highway forty is one of the longest interstates in the US. From North Carolina it drifts and winds through Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas, and the southwest all the way to California. Like a long highway, music can carry us to each other and lead us to venture on our own. Indeed, there are great distances between us and it' s rare that we' re together in one place in both mind and body. If you are a drifter, you will find that good road music is as essential as a pair of worn blue jeans. True, you could theoretically disco and metal your way through this life, but at some point your soul requires time to quietly reflect upon the miles traveled. Not to mention it may need a good look-see for what lay ahead. Even for those who don' t move about, road music still can transport you to far-away places. Jeff Zentner does exactly this in his song " Highway 40" . He is remarkably talented at inviting thoughts to drift for a while.
My experience in knowing Jeff and his music is personal. A year ago I was throwing things into a suitcase on my way to catch a train to Paris when I received an email saying " hello" . Jeff caught me on a very blue morning. I' d been up all night on the phone with California sorting out personal issues and was truly numb from shock of the disorder back home. My excitement for Paris was suspended and I was without family or friends nearby. To hear from a fellow musician was a deep comfort, I have to tell you. Moreover, to hear his songs created a sense of warmth and purpose, at least toward music, which I needed to pull me through. And it did. I hadn' t been acquainted with his music before, and if there is anything I can collectively sum up about it, it would be this: If you do take the time to listen to him, then it will inevitably be linked to some special moment with an image captured in your mind like a photograph. A souvenir of where you have been. I know this to be true.
" There are no angels whose company I prefer /
These lessons we learn under gas station lights"
Many years ago Highway 10 was a road I got mixed up with. I found my musical voice on and near its course. I can recall the moments when the most distance was covered. Every day I was learning and growing musically. Not playing so much, mind you. Just listening. The times I spent in Texas fed that part of my soul and I was lucky enough to have found a musical mentor that helped me build upon my sonic tastes, which delved deeply into traditional American genres: Soul, country, southern, folk, Motown and blues... I can' t say that I trust anyone who hasn' t got a Johnny Cash album in their record collection. You know? Even for me: a city dwelling fashion girl with glamorous friends and crazy parties… well, even Edie Sedgwick would' ve known that a disco ain' t a home.
My best friend and I would lie on his futon mattress in a small room in a duplex just south of the river, when that town still felt small and manageable. We' d lie together listening to Smokey, Hank, and Leonard. Two young rockers clad in black and in love with music and its curative power to make flimsy lives feel unreserved and connected. Amidst the humidity, a room fan would chug back and forth while we daydreamed. We' d let the songs consume thoughts and inspire creations. So much was never said, but in those days music said everything. Music was god and witness. That particular memory is one of my most precious. I know I can' t ever return there, but I suppose that I morbidly long for that sensation now and again. Like any good drug, it leaves you yearning for the first time that you embraced it. Maybe we got in the way of the music. Maybe music drove us to the things that tore us apart. Maybe you knew the music you shared with me would fill me up for the rest of my life and would carry me long after you' d gone. You may' ve not realized the impact your musical wisdoms had on me, but I know them to be endlessly giving. That wisdom fortifies my core and I cannot lose hold. There were lots of mistakes between us, but music was not one of them. I imagine, if you listen close, you can hear the chug of that fan in many a songwriter' s song. Sometimes I worry it grows faint, but I know it continues to blow me forward and sometimes pushes me back. I' m relieved that within Jeff' s music I hear the soul of song, of far away times and places we' ve surely all shared. Within it, I can still safely revisit such things, which is rare.
" This place I' m from its grown inside of me / its vines cover my heart / Its soul is on my tongue/ I carry it with me wherever I go."
I' m no longer able to love you the same nor do I long for love. Maybe love just ain' t for me. Time has passed and I' ve traveled on. But I share the above memory because the scene is so remarkably visible just now. I feel sad and joyful to have it again. I couldn' t help but think of this in contemplating the " Dying Days of Summer" . It rushed up on me. Just as a fragrance can make you recall childhood reminiscence, there are songs that will ignite a remembrance so distinctly that you feel cradled along on some highway you once knew -- amidst all the
tenderness and bitter beauty.
" The day has passed and gone / lay your head to sleep / the birds have gone to roost / I' ll be here when you wake / there aren' t words for how I love you / lay your head down to sleep / and in dreaming maybe I can tell you / and I' ll be here when you wake"
Jeff Zentner' s " The Dying Days of Summer" is a delicate and introspective sortie into intimacy, personal reflection, emotional and physical distance, and gentle goodbyes. As with some of the best storytelling, the balance between sparse instrumentation and narrative gives way for one' s mind to imagine the scenes, characters, and situations. The lack of percussion lends to a larger lyrical expression. If you' ve lived a life, then you will no doubt call up old flames, fires, and burned out roads. Jeff' s style is a familiar old friend and a calming presence despite all the heavy heart and break. Embedded in southern folk, Jeff' s sound is thoughtful and carefully drawn. No matter what' s scattered or torn, his gentle singing style seems to counter the dark thoughts with an appreciation for the experience. Trails, not trials. Tender music for souls who travel, but whose hearts are still where they felt loved the most.
Jeff likes to carry a lyrical line slowly. Thoughts take two, sometimes three or four lines to complete. If you've got a sense for the sticky heat of the south and know things move slower there, then you have time to sweat it out with him. Since I' ve had it on repeat, I will tell y' all quite honestly that the standout track for me is " Burning Season" . It' s wonderfully layered with male and female vocals, a haunting slide and a mandolin that swings things along. I' m no musical technician and I can' t explain all the mechanics as to why such things work together. Within this genre of southern folk songwriting, it' s easy for musicians to deliver clichés, but not with Jeff Zentner. It' s simply too authentic to get goopy on you and yet, it is sentimental. " The Dying Days of Summer" is of course, a melancholy and dreamy set of songs beset with warmth. I reckon " Your Siren Song" to be about a person, but it could just as well be about a place, inner struggle, or music. And the gentle lull of " I' ll be here when you wake" is undeniably sincere. All these tunes are a soft dialogue between just a few of us sitting sleepily in the dark, underneath an old oak perhaps.
I' ve never been to North Carolina, but I' ve held its brown leaves of autumn in my hands. They were waiting for me upon return from France, and arrived in the mail along with a couple of CDs. When I wasn' t a musician I may' ve loved music more. I want to love music like the way I once did. I' m temporarily a burnt out field, yet the charred foliage still resonates truths I know that have yet to be revealed.
" Maybe something new will arise from the ashes / maybe something that looks a lot like love / my angel desolation / I will love you again"
This past spring, I made another sojourn. This time, I was back south of the river near that old house where my best friend and I would lie listening to music. So many years had passed and I hadn' t realized the last time would be the last time for so long. I climbed down to the bank of the Colorado and I scattered some ashes along with a trinket or two. A burning season has been a long time coming… and old things pass away to make way for new. The ashes first hovered, then speckled in the water in every direction. The trinkets slowly floated down. I sat for a while and pondered the purity of music and other things too. If these were the olden days, the "Dying Days of Summer" would' ve lightly sung from the duplex' s old stereo. Between my best friend and I, the cat would nestle, as both our heads would rest upon a single pillow. All the day' s sultry heat would drift out in dreams and I would be right there when you woke. That summer day has long dissipated and flames no longer rise. As I prepare to go overseas again, I am set on taking my American road music with me. Some Jeff Zentner for certain. Maybe even some of my own. Music is still profoundly inside of me and it links me to the places I am from and places where I will land. But from the days in between, where ashes now dot rivers, it' s the only thing I have
left… and I go on singing.
"It' s not your fault I know / I am the only to blame / I am the one who gave / you free reign on my heart / you just keep drawing me in… keep singing your siren song"
Mariee Sioux – Gift for the End
Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
Ruby Throat – O Doubt O Star’s
Cian Nugent – Grass Above My Head/My War Blues
Marissa Nadler – Sister
Chistopher Paul Stelling – Song of Praise & Scorn
Jeff Zentner – A Season Lost
Cat Power – Sun
Six Organs of Admittance – Ascent
Ben Howard – Every Kingdom
Gary Clark Jr. – Blak and Blu
Robbie Basho – Twilight Peaks
Kemp & Eden – Black Hole Lace