Although named after Jim Elkington’s self-described “darker and more doltish” lyrical approach on the Zincs’ second full-length album, Dimmer, the title could also refer to a dimmer switch. The album casts shifting moods with similar ease, at times nearly imperceptibly (as between “Moment Is Now!” and “New Thought”) at others with abrupt and disarming clarity (“The Meagre Prick”). Employing an army of different textures and a cadre of Chicago’s finest players, Elkington keeps his unique melodic and lyrical perspectives constant throughout, as his skills have grown quietly but considerably since 2002’s Moth and Marriage.
Opener “Breathe in the Disease” rocks unconventionally. The drums, courtesy of Jason Toth (Manishevitz, Fruit Bats) are pushed far forward in the mix from the relatively mild first few verses all the way through the cacophonous final act. Abetted by bassist Nick Macri (Euphone, Bobby Conn), the playing is forceful, but also spacious. The bruising, stutter-step fills that gradually rifle in are effective because of the pauses and hiccups incorporated into the rhythm. A nervous tension is expertly built up, string arrangement and Elkington’s laconic vocals playing counterpoint to Toth/Macri, and Nathaniel Braddock’s toothy lead guitar. Even at five and a half minutes, it’s an explosive and inviting way to launch the record.
In addition to sharp and occasionally caustic wit (or blunt: “You better fucking leave me the fuck alone” on “Oh Dream” (from the Forty Winks with the Zincs EP) Elkington’s weapon of choice is a Spanish guitar. The combination of nylon string tone, and classical/ jazz informed playing, give Zincs’ songs a fluid quality in direct contrast with the legions of guitarist/songwriters who rely on traditional rock technique. “Bad Shepherds” is velvety and lounge-ish, with brushed cymbals and zooming upright bass. Braddock also shines here with a guitar line carved out of warm weather. It is not the kind of song your guitar toting neighbor or dorm mate will be able to tab out after one or twenty listens, though they’ll no doubt be taken in by the song craft.
Songs begin like novellas: “Do you remember when / We smoked cigarettes like we were Vietnamese? / We spent our summers swimming in piss warm seas.” Later, Elkington croons “You’ll be sorry when you’re too old to clean your behind.” The writing is undeniably smart, but the humor never holds it over your head, instead it engages. Confronted by contrasting and conflicting moods and ideas, you’re never sure what you’re getting exactly; new interpretations avail themselves with every listen. How refreshing to hear a record where the overall emotional gist sits in the middle of a see-saw. A simple harmonica solo (“Passengers”) or watery organ (“Stay In Your Homes”) has the power to tilt a song in an opposite direction.
Before I became a smoker,
I used to sniff paint in my father’s shed.
And with a passion for ingesting toxins
I felt by 30 I’d be dead.
Could what they tell you be true?
“It will derange you,
Make you asocial and slow,”
I can’t say so:
It makes you laugh
Like a giraffe.
It’s funny, but it’s not a joke. The potential silliness of laugh/giraffe is undercut by a sinister and discordant guitar just as the lyric injects humor into the lines that precede it. Similarly, the odd turn of phrase in “Sunday Night” balances well with the steady, golden aura conjured by Janet Bean’s harmonies, malleted drum work and the gently rising and falling melody.
Their first release for Thrill Jockey should bring the deserving Zincs a wider audience, many of whom will imagine the band to be fresh-faced newcomers to the scene. But while they are in fact fresh-faced, Elkington and Co. have been honing their sounds and songs long enough to make Dimmer sound less like an auspicious debut and more like the fully-formed, top-of-game record that it is.