Brock Zeman’s an impossible artist to classify; there’s not a genre that can contain him. Not that he gives a damn; the eight CDs preceding Me Then You just sound a lot like whatever Zeman was thinking and feeling when he hit the studio. Some artists, described that way, feel they’re being short sold. Doubt that’s the case here, not with this guy. Catch him live once and you’ll see he’s passionate as hell about what he’s singing. It’s just a multi-textured world he’s living in, and his music reflects that. The contrast hits you quick on this record; the swampy, moss-ridden, damned spooky and a little scary boogie of “Push Them Stones” gets lost immediately in the reflective and shimmering prism of “Until It Bleeds.” Two tracks in and you’ve got a handle on the musical range Zeman routinely rides.
The common thread through Zeman’s body of work boils down to introspection, sometimes personal, sometimes through the lens of lovable losers or lost and shipwrecked posers. If a mistake’s ever been made, one of this guy’s characters was at the front of the line. But every now and then, just often enough to provide a little air pocket underneath reality’s crushing weight, there’s something to remind us sometimes the neon actually is enough:
So buddy pick your poison
It ain’t free but it’s close
And there’s beans and there’s brisket
Out on the patio
Tear the hands off that clock
Shoot it right off the wall
It’s been happy hour since I got here
How the hell are we gettin’ home?
Throw a dollar in the tip jar
Won’t you buy the band a beer
I’m goin’ lookin’ for that Austin girl
With the pretty red hair
How a guy from Canada gets that intimately familiar with the Triple Crown bar in San Marcos is a mystery to anyone who doesn’t realize Texas is infatuated with the guitar slingers from the land of the snow. And every last damn one of those fellas is a thinker, usually with a bit of a homicidal streak. See “Eaglesmith, Fred” if you’re in need of a primer. There’s a lot of great music coming out of Canada these days, and in Zeman’s case, much of it’s in the vein a guy named Bryan Adams used to mine before he went all pop-rock pussy on us. Go dig up some tracks from Into the Fire, maybe “Native Son” in particular, you’ll see what I mean. Zeman’s got the same sandpaper-and-whiskey growl in his throat that Adams did, but you’re not gonna hear Brock’s tunes on a Disney soundtrack. Which means he’s worth money that Adams no longer warrants. And don’t go looking for anthems about summertime in ’69 on a Zeman record. You’re more likely to find cousins of Mellencamp’s who understand what it means when there’s blood on the scarecrow, or if your mind’s eye is just sideways enough, you might see Johnny 99 out on the blacktop.
What’s maybe unique about Brock Zeman is that even when he’s surrounded by the demons, he’s not the least bit shaken. If anything, hell, he’s inspired. As if all the chaos and tragedy this life can unleash are nothing more than fodder for some cool lyrics Zeman can pen and slap a few riffs onto. Me Then You has songs about everything from dreams found and then lost in Texas bars through the apocalypse. And even when it’s the no-shit damned end of the world, he finds a beauty in it. Almost makes you wish you were there:
The rich were drinking martinis
On a spaceship to the moon
While the poor pulled out their hair
And wrung their hands
And waited for their doom
And God shook his head
As his voice shook the sky
He said I told you once, it wasn’t gonna be water
But fire next time
You held my hand as the sky ripped in two
Before it all came crashing down you said
I love you
I knew right then these’d be my last words
So I said kiss me quick, baby,
It’s the end of the world
Maudlin as the lyrics may look sitting there all naked on a cyber-page, they strike at the flint of the soul when filtered through Zeman’s musical interpretation. Difficult for any artist to take what Hollywood has made mundane and revive its tangible, living, suffocating depths. Or its impossible, implausible, yet undeniable optimism. Perhaps Zeman’s greatest gift is the ability to see the beauty in the smallest of moments, to find the truth at the heart of every lie. His music as a whole might not fit into any particular style you claim to love, and truth be told in some cases his sonic bombardment can be hard on your ear. But most of the time that gravelly voice fits like an old pair of jeans and the arrangements bring full voice and life to lyrics of pain. When your soul’s crying, Brock Zeman’s your man. He’s tapped into something all of us could use a little more of in our workaday lives. Go north, boys. Or make it a point to go see this guy when he makes his semi-regular trips south.
~ Dave Pilot
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Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas.
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