Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Avery Set: Returning to Steam

No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself
- Friedrich Nietzsche

Make no mistake. Returning to Steam is the embodiment of Chris Zehnder’s artistic vision. Music informed by personal discovery and the preservation of a youthful perspective. Through an inspired loneliness Zehnder comes face-to-face with a felt sense that his life is no longer the sum of other’s prescriptions. In this body of music Zehnder acknowledges that he and his world have changed. The original Avery Set disbanded. Brant became Charlie and sat in with the 78s and learned full well that Whitey can sing like Waylon but he’ll never be a Honky Tonk Zero. For Chris all these Michigan memories exact their own brand of revenge especially in those quiet Nashville moments when aloneness is his only muse.

Zehnder’s music is part of an internal dialogue, a dialectical conversation to create music as a means of taking care of himself while still giving it a universal message. Zehnder discovered his greatest strength is also his Achilles heal. His search for identity can be a very lonely journey… as it should be. How could it be otherwise?

Zehnder’s legacy is more than a family name; it is the story of his elders; the heroes and the villains, the success and the failures and the unique Bavarian individualism and self-reliance that has been handed down for generations. It’s in his blood. Yet Chris Zehnder refuses to follow those footsteps. Instead he took the fork in the road and stuck it in the rear-end of a dead chicken, well seasoned and delicious and never looked back. Sure, he could make a good living following his father’s vision and taking over the family business but he wasn’t born to follow. He was born to make music. Zehnder is one of those rare people who have learned in the early phases of his journey about the inherent emptiness in the acquisition of wealth.

This is one of the most cohesive bodies of music I’ve heard in a long time. It is a near masterpiece with its world class writing, superb singing, overall musicality and attention to detail in production and instrumentation. The players on this disc are MONSTERS. Drummer Jake Bartlett has been playing with the Avery Set for over 5 years and knows every nuance, tempo shift, and accent that Zehnder throws his way. Jacob Johnson is an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist. He plays the incredible stand alone piano scales on Set My Weight on Me and that cello sound on Wandering shoes is Jacob playing the standup bass with a bow. Together they are a first-rate rhythm section, tight in the pocket and able to create powerful crescendo and decrescendo effects in songs like Blown Away.

Zehnder is like a dancer that goes deep inside himself and allows his body to respond to the music in its own way. He steps outside of the circle of imperfect connections and returns to the stream of his youth. He closes his eyes and sees a world that is completely unlabeled.

And the music he creates is pure and beautiful.

Wandering Shoes opens with a moody cello followed by Zehnder’s circular acoustic patterns that create movement. The music and lyrics co-create an overall meaning of the song. It is a modern folk/blues shuffle that points to the glory and adventure of the road. This kind of music is subversive as it represents freedom of thought and expression. Zehnder writes about his longing and restless spirit and a terrible sense of losing his muse, feeling uninspired and disheartened:

“I roam this mighty country
I stand motionless in the Great Lakes
When I conquer you
I’ll be delivered from these blues
And I can throw way these wandering shoes”

Zehnder’s song repeats the theme of longing and with each repetition he goes deeper inside himself beyond the normal and rehearsed way we conduct our lives or sing our songs.

Gotta Move is another travel song, an adventure without a road map. Spin the bottle and follow the neck. A soft whispered intro segues into a powerful electric lead trills using the bass strings for a deep-end sound that underscores the urgency in the lyric;

“Dripping Heat in a dusty room
I’ve gone and burned my bridges in the wind
But she’s a friend I cannot lose
So I’m putting on my hat
I got to Move
She don’t like it
But I gotta Move”

Bible Belt is an irresistible country rocker with cool cat rockabilly guitar and a walking bass line. Zehnder does country-emo on this cut. He almost screams the lyrics. Zehnder sings with such an emotional intensity he pulls you into the dark nasty of mid-Michigan, you can almost smell the rot. His lyrics are a rebel yell that underscores his tangled emotions.
“Say Goodbye to the good times

Buckle down for a damn long ride
Put down the moonshine pick up the red wine
Find yourself a trophy wife

Blown Away and Stranger are about different aspects of loneliness.
Stranger is written from the perspective of the reptilian brain –
Can I eat it? Can it eat me? Can I have sex with it?
Zehnder shakes off the blues like you do the rain but it ain’t that easy. Sometimes it feels rather desperate:

“I don’t care if it breaks my heart
If I lose my mind
I’m finding love tonight”

Stranger evokes the sadness and longing in being alone…

“Take this empty seat
It never stops reminding me
Of the vacancy…

Stranger, Stranger
Don’t walk away
Lend me your ear
Tell me your name
Are you lonesome, lonesome
In the flashy parade
Thousands of eyes
But not one can relate”

Goosedown Misery is an existential bump and grind wrapped into a country two step, a wall of sound filled-in by a powerful Hammond B3 background and syncopated be-boppin’ guitar trills up front. Zehnder’s lyrics contrast music and poetry with ecstasy and intoxication. He is really speaking to the tension between individualism and wholeness:

“Spare my soul from sleep tonight
Before these dreams replace my life
Please, Please
Give me rest with reckless highs
A picket fence and a faithful wife
Please, Please

Zehnder’s motivation is imbedded in a deeply held belief that we all end up where we belong - our own made end.

Hello Georgia is a country shuffle fueled by some sweet circular chicken-pickin’ country licks by Brandon Harris (a standout player throughout). This is the tune that anchors the themes of this CD – travel, the joys of youth. Zehnder sings it with a tongue-in-cheek irony while that insistent shuffle beat has your toes tapping and chair dancing. Zehnder’s favorite line is a gem:

“Hello Georgia I have yet to meet your friend Carolina
When you’re lonely do you peel away the border?
Go swimmin’ in the warm Atlantic water?
Skip across the islands south of Florida?”

Hole in My Head has an almost hymnal quality. It’s a country waltz with keyboard and guitar combine to create a baroque musical landscape. Zehnder’s tortured faltering reading provides a powerful emotional valence to the lyrical content:

“Silence alone, you put a hole in my head
The lion was kept in her cage
Avoiding the war does it always mean peace?
My how the madness is great
Don’t ask me to lie; never ask me to lie”

Salt Mines. Harris serves up some tasty rockabilly guitar, riffin’ like Bill Kirchen doin’ Don Rich, diesel fueled and bottom heavy. This is exuberant honky tonk boogie-woogie at its rockin’ best. The joyous tongue in cheek refrain is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. We’ve all been there:

“Blowing up the salt mines
Help me rig the dynamite
A perfect plan to be free again
Tell me when the boss is gone
Light the fuse and we can run
Far away from this awful place”

Soul and Song is the conscience of this disc. It neatly captures Zehnder’s celebration of youth and artistic vision while he rejects those who would attempt to suppress creativity. This song has an impressive energy. This is a no nonsense Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe stomper thrust from the rockpile with a brutal force that is both rebellious and joyous. The suit in the song represents any form of authority that stifles original music in favor of big hooks and trite devices, and sells disposable music, quickly forgotten or confused with the next big cliché. The chorus reveals the depths of Zehnder’s anger:

“Dug my records up from the riverbed
Found my guitar dusty in the tool shed
Screaming like a preacher to his crowd”

Two States Ago appears to be a song of travel and escape. It is. But it’s also a metaphor for internal discovery, casting fate to the wind and navigating through uncharted personal boundaries. At some level we all realize that we must face our fears in order to reduce their power over us. Zehnder’s searing vocal gives urgency to the lyric.

Cross the border
Where we’re going, I don’t remember
But I got you and you got me”

‘ Set My Weight on Me is the centerpiece, the heart and soul of Zehnder’s vision. This is a modern spiritual wrapped in a simple sepia-toned piano riff, unfettered and unadorned. Beautiful. Chris Zehnder’s masterpiece.

“Time has me troubled as it starts gaining speed
It demands something better than the life that I lead
I trained like a soldier to fit in the mold
That was cast on my body on the day I was born”

So this is it. A moment of truth. Many others have come before Chris with a similar longing. It’s a common irony that we find our deepest problem and fall in love with it. Loneliness is a problem for Chris but it’s also his strength and his muse. He’s in that golden moment of awareness in which the clarity of his vision creates opportunity. And as he prepares for his show at Pit & Balcony, Chris’ mind wanders back in time. He can smell the air of the home he was born into. And return to steam.

Perhaps it’s a long shot. But you never know…

In the late fifties ‘Ol Mack Vickery was performing in Pontiac playing some sweet country blues at the Drayton Inn, gaining notoriety and getting’ laid on a nightly basis. He had this phenomenal cross-eyed guitarist by the name of Wild Bill Emerson who played left handed and set his guitar on fire years before Hendrix. By the early sixties Mack Vickery and the Driving Band featuring a very young Dick Wagner on rhythm guitar took the nubile and willing coeds at Michigan State University for an extended spree of Dionysian delights and debauchery. As a result, the collective GPA of the class dropped precipitously during the spring semester of ’62. The point of all this is that Vickery summoned up the courage to give up this lucrative gig in Michigan and move lock stock and barrel down to Nashville. He worked the clubs down Printers Alley sold some songs and eventually became a sought after writer, penning hits for Jerry Lee Lewis, George Strait, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and others.

Dreams can come true

Bo White

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