Anyone familiar with the roots rock movement in the mid 1980's will be familiar with Warren Zanes, former guitarist for The Del Fuegos. After making several memorable albums with that group, Zanes laid low for a few years and started a new life for himself - in that period it would appear he took a lot of time to hone the craft of songwriting. Memory Girls, Zanes' debut solo album has an air of sadness - a delicate youthful yearning. Zanes is obviously a veteran in the industry and knows the tricks of the trade - he also wears his influences on his shirt-sleeves from The Beatles (an influence on every artist these days it seems) to the golden crisp melodies and harmonies of Brian Wilson and his Beach Boys.
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Zanes also has the luxury of Emmlou Harris on background vocals and a tight, tight backing band consisting of a bevy of studio musicians and more notably Morphine's Billy Conway on drums (who originally helped Zanes record the demos and submit them), and Sixpence None The Richer's Jerry Dale McFadden on keyboards.
Right off the bat, "Everybody Loves You" with Zanes' spoken word (though not quite rap) lyrics bring a lazy Beck Hansen to mind. The song has a party atmosphere and very slick production - something unexpected - and each effect and unexpected instrument run prepare you for an album that is as surprising as it is delightful.
"Sidewalk Sale", perhaps my favorite tune on Memory Girls, blends the mid 70's piano smash of Elton John with some awesome harmonies and gives you a euphoric retro-head-rush that you'll love from start to finish. In particular, check out the George-Harrison-Like guitar solo (tunefully tasteful) around the two minute mark.
"First On The Moon" and "World Of Concrete" provide even more fun throwback material. "First On The Moon" a slow mover with a tender heart finds Zanes and company blending banjo and piano with dynamic results. On "World Of Concrete" Zanes sings "In a world of concrete / and frames of steel / things come down / but some stay on for real / for the clearest memory / like a photo fades / faces blur but yours has stayed the same."
"Did You Recognize My Love" finds Zanes in the middle of French Jazz - with backing clarinets and all. "Where We Begin" is a song about just what it sounds like - starting over, beginning anew. Meeting a father who's left you in the past and realizing what precious things are thrown away by being so careless - and wow, does it have a pretty chorus.
Another highlight, "If You Could Stay", a song that steals quite a bit from The Bealtes, not to mention its opening riff that's taken straight from their "Getting Better". It's a tune that reminds you of some of the best 60's and 70's pop tunes, with an update. "Scrapbook (Let's Put It All In There)" opens with sparse acoustic guitar plucks and Zanes' naked voice. What a gorgeous tune this is - it harkens back to Emmylou Harris' days with Gram Parsons and his simple-yet-complex soul scarring lyrics about remembrance, love and heartbreak. Harris is brilliantly understated here as always, and the backing strings add immensely to the feel of this standout tune.
"Hey Girl", the first single from Memory Girls has everything you might expect from a said first single. Horns, funky beat and a hummable tune. Unfortunatley, this isn't one of the more memorable tunes on the album, and I think "Sidewalk Sale" might have been a better choice for radio play. "Main Street" is a winding, pulsing tune with contained energy, that picks up some steam in the chorus.
"When The World Gets Weak" is perhaps the strongest song lyrically on the album. It deals with the crushing weight of the world and everything that goes on within its evil sphere. Don't worry though - even when the "local weather girl just weeps / and the camera turns off for hours" laying in your woman's arms in her mama's yard is good enough to bring it all back and make reality a bit more 'unheavy'.
It seems a lot of work was put into Memory Girls, mostly with stunning results. I wouldn't have guessed an album of this quality was possible from a guy who's been off the map for so long - I would have been wrong. Warren Zanes has a lot of life left in him. His creative juices seem to be flowing more freely than ever, and those who have stuck around long enough to catch this ride should count themselves all the more lucky.
Overall Grade: B+
Great Music to Play While: Hanging With Friends