Martin Zellar – Head West
Well, Mr. Zellar has always had a distinctive voice & on this 11-track CD (his first new set in 11 years) he continues to lay out some interesting tunes with an expressive voice. It’s not a strong baritone or a thin tenor it’s simply an impressive storytelling voice with a tint of Gene Pitney but not as high. I like Mr. Zellar. His technique is creative, his application with acoustic guitar clarity has lots of glue in each tune. The melodies & backup singers make it delightfully accessible.
Martin allows the wonderful Texas backup vocalist Presley Haile a lead vocal spotlight on the fascinating “Better Off Apart,” followed by Martin’s vocal answer. Beautifully rendered delicious duet. John Prine would’ve been proud. Their voices were perfectly suited. Ms. Haile’s vocals project with dazzle. Not as gruff as Lucinda Williams but a mix of Williams with the suavity of a Shawn Colvin or Mary Chapin Carpenter. It’s just simply well done.
All songs were written & produced by Martin Zellar (vocals/harmonica) with the 42-minute Head West (Dropped Oct 6–Owen Lee Recordings) recorded in his own studio in Central Mexico. The songs on this 9th solo CD were performed with his eldest son Wilson Zellar (guitars/engineer) & youngest Owen (as assistant engineer). His daughter Clementine Zellar-Beaudot added percussion while his wife Carolyn provided the color photos & image above.
The ballads are primarily heartfelt & sung with poignancy. Surprisingly, some songs lean & bristle heavily into Tex-Mex country. All done with expertise. “Goodbye Wild Bill” is a distant cousin to The Beatles’ “Rocky Racoon,” & “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.”
Minnesota native Zellar goes deeper with the solidly melodic “Much More Than This.” Martin’s vocal when firmly in gear as here — tips the scales. Superb stuff. A lasting sense of personality in the composition is lifted by the acoustic guitar accompaniment.
Going a little John Denver & John Hartford is “Anyone But Me.” There are times Zellar’s voice has an urban city tone (Willie Nile) but applied with zest, his fluent country inflections keep it south of the border — frybread balladry, tasty & delicate. Then he skips effortlessly into Jimmy Buffett territory with “Big City Man,” & the danceable tune adds special sauce to the album.
Judging from the pictures in the CD he should’ve written a song called “Roadside Pink Desert Sofa.” Maybe next time.
Highlights – “The Road Led Here,” “Better Off Apart,” “We Ran Wild (Back in the day),” the beautiful “Boats Slowly Sinking,” “Goodbye Wild Bill,” “Much More Than This,” “Anyone But Me,” “Big City Man” & “Forty Years Along.”
Musicians – Dominic Ciola (bass), Brian Beken (mandolin/banjo), Randy Broughten (pedal steel guitar), Ali Gray (bgv), Geoff Queen (mandolin/pedal & lap guitars) & Pat Manske (percussion).