Source: The Daily Vault
Writer: Jason Warburg
Mike Zito has the word “Blues” tattooed on his right hand.
For an up-to-now relatively unknown St. Louis blues guitarist, this might seem like either an affectation or a serious attack of hubris -- at least, right up until you’ve actually listened to this disc. After that, all you can really do is mumble “yeah” -- if you can say anything at all. Frankly, the first time this album finished I just sat and stared at my speakers for a good ten seconds.
Today is that stunning. Zito sings like John Hiatt, plays guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughan, and writes songs that sound like a blend of the two, insight-rich, boldly personal hard blues. It’s not what you might expect from a guy who’s kicked around the blues scene for a decade, self-releasing three albums and playing about a million club gigs. But Eclecto Groove Records found a diamond in the rough here, and gave Zito the chance to pair re-recorded versions of the best tracks from his previous discs with a batch of new material and assemble a formal debut album that absolutely kills.
Kickoff cut “Love Like This (Song For Zach)” is all groove, and pushes Zito’s gravelly roadhouse vocals right up front. And why not? Zito sounds just like a blues singer should, road-weary but full of fire and conviction. The best part, though, is that the song isn’t about romantic love -- it’s about the love between mothers and sons, and sons and their sons, a love that flows and sustains from generation to generation.
That sort of twist is what gives these 13 songs -- and Zito writes all but one himself -- a freshness not always found in the well-traveled blues-rock form he inhabits. The lyrics to cuts like “Superman” and “No Big City” have a texture and nuance and resonance that again makes you think of the ever-impressive Hiatt.
Still, what ultimately makes this album -- what ultimately makes just about any blues album -- is groove. And Zito knows it. You think tattooing “Blues” on your hand is gutsy? How about naming your song publishing company “Delta Groove”? You’d best be able to back that one up, dude… and Zito does, no little thanks to a “dream team” studio band consisting of Bonnie Raitt’s rhythm section (Hutch Hutchison on bass and Tony Braunagel on drums) plus original Heartbreaker Benmont Tench on keys.
The sprawling seven-minute “Universe” in particular is all groove, with Tench’s piano carrying the melody as Zito sings a wide-open philosophical lyric until around 4:00, whereupon he erupts in a truly epic solo, full of twists, turns, bent notes and anguished sustain. It’s completely effing beautiful, it is, not to mention as a fine a tribute to Mr. Vaughan as you could ever ask for.
“Blinded” digs deeper yet as Zito delves into his own troubled past over a churning base of acoustic rhythm and electric lead guitar. Having faced and recovered from the same sort of sobriety issues that SRV did before him, the bluesman mines his own backstory for a lyric that’s his own “Tightrope,” a tale of being “barely alive / in the depths of the dark side,” and finding your way back out.
“Slow It Down” does exactly that, giving Zito space for a gorgeous slow blues jam, with Tench playing expertly understated piano accents under Zito’s smoking solos. The title track offers a relaxed acoustic blues that nonetheless finds a sweet groove and nails it, with Zito singing an upbeat, gospel-influenced lyric over the top. “Deep Down In Love” takes the hard blues template and adds horns and background vocals, while the swaggering “Hollywood” takes it even a step further with horns and saucy Hammond organ over a dirty funk rhythm that could make your hips swivel in your sleep.
So how do you close out an album this full of highlights? With an absolute knockout punch of a ballad. “Time To Go Home” is an autobiographical road song full of heartfelt moments and beautiful phrasings, whose closing lines explain as well as anyone ever has the essence of life as a working musician: “well it’s the music that drives my soul / it keeps me going when I’m getting low / and you can’t miss home, you can’t miss home / until you’re on the road…”
David Z (Prince) and Braunagel co-produce, and the sound is just right, managing to feel raw, organic, sharp and clean all at once. Nowhere is this truer than on this album’s one cover, a totally unexpected, slowed-down and blues’d-up acoustic version of Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.” Honestly, this track alone would have been enough to convince me to pick this album up -- “amazing” barely does it justice.
It’s May already, and I’ve been wondering for the last few weeks if this year might be a bit of a letdown musically. Not any more. Today is the first great album of 2008.