New Jersey-based alternative piano rock band Zak Spade & The Love Enemies have an album out: First Time Lovers. Listen to it here. It’s pretty good! But it’s not without some fundamental issues the group need to address.
Frontman “Zak Spade” has a great punk voice not dissimilar to Billie Joe Armstrong’s, but the music is something more like Ben Folds. Indeed, the songwriting and voice work is strong throughout the album- although where Folds’ most recent record Way To Normal covers the bitterness and tragicomedy of divorce, The Love Enemies are looking at the upbeat opposite end of the spectrum.
The album’s first tracks feel almost like a rock opera, almost like a blues-rock inspired answer to Fucked Up’s brilliant David Comes To Life. The song Zak Spade has a nice narrative-driven melody which creeps into my head most days since I’ve listened to the record; it’s catchy and nicely written.
The problem is that while the songwriting is good and holds up pretty consistently throughout the album, the instrumentation does not. It’s not that any of the band are bad instrumentalists or that it’s badly written. Indeed, it’s clear that they are all talented at what they do. The issue is that it feels a lot like they are holding back on every track.
To dwell on that first track: the piano riff is nice, but doesn’t particularly go anywhere, as the dynamics aren’t contrastive or obvious enough throughout the track. The main thing about the album as a whole is definitely that the piano parts need a lot of work. The actual melodies and right hand movements are nice, but they don’t have the bottom line support from left hand and other instruments to sound whole. Later on the album, certain songs maintain a very weak riff throughout; the writer seems to have gone with the first progression or idea that came to mind, and hasn’t developed further or added more complexity to some of the base riffs. And unfortunately, reiterating, developing is the most important bit of writing anything. To make up for the sometimes lackluster instrumentation, it feels like they could up the BPM on most tracks and add a bunch more to the piano tracks; full chords, harmonies, faster and more intricate melodic parts. The band only half commit to the obviously complex music they are capable of making.
And on the other hand… The album has moments of genius. Out of nowhere, Home is a crazy hip hop house music instrumental track that careens out of nowhere and nails a complete, fully produced tone which the album seems to strives for elsewhere. The off beat high hat, nice reverb-ey piano part, and looping system of sounds all please the ear greatly. In an album populated with very well intentional, listenable piano rock, Home is something else altogether. Home is honestly a track which I’d hear at the “cool, hipster” parties which frequented my hometown’s student neighbourhood. It sounds like it was produced by Drake. It’s an accomplished piece of production which unfortunately is a phrase which couldn’t be applied to most of the record.
Another issue endemic to the record are that half the songs also seem to finish well before their time. Mystery Woman has a couple of flashes of brilliant songwriting, nice layers of string instruments and piano work- but then it drops out to finish after having gone nowhere, after not even providing the great anthemic chorus it feels like it’s driving towards. The “chorus” feels like a pre-amble, a pre-chorus and it’s followed by Reverse Shake Down, which has a piano part which is funky, but again, barebones. A piano part which should be accompanied by a rocking guitar, or string or brass section, or at the very least it should have a more complex piano part with full left hand chords to compliment.
Towards the end of the album, things get more and more out there. Good Day sounds pretty much like a Watsky half-rap song. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. But as usual, it feels like it could have twice the music depth and complexity on show here. And Latishaaa is a song which fulfills what I’d hoped the album would do earlier: tracks on the record like Zak Spade and City feel like “intro” songs or prologues. They feel like the kernel of a song which will become something else. Latishaaa starts like that, and then finally blossoms into a bigger song. It could still use more instrumentation, a guitar part, a bass part- but it develops nicely.
Good lord. That’s it. Bass.
This album has almost not a single bass part. Unless that’s just my questionable sound system. But I don’t think it is. Go and listen to a classic piano rock, or even an upbeat modern singer-songwriter rock album. The bass part is a huge deal to how almost any song sounds. A lot of the time it’s what makes the song. It adds a thread which the listener’s subconscious inner-ear follows (hence the classic adage that one dances to the bassline of a song, not the song itself). A prime example: go and listen to Ben Folds’ song Brainwascht. At 00:10, listen to the bass come in. It nails the song’s sound together. While I like almost all of the tracks on First Time Lovers- the lack of bass is a painful absence once you notice it, and could help add a lot to- maybe even fix entirely- all of the songs.
I really enjoy this album- especially Home, a track I will be playing as background music at parties for the indefinable future- but the band have a long way to go. Honestly, this is a fantastic step. The fact that they made the First Time Lovers at all is brilliant. I look forward to seeing where they go- I’d love to see some hints of Mose Alison or other classic Jazz-rock songwriters in there.
With this under their belt, I’m sure Zak Spade & The Love Enemies’ next production will take a leap into more complex instrumentation and sound, while retaining the writer’s spot-on ear for rock and roll lyrics.