It’s no surprise that there is a bounty of talented good musicians out there, working the clubs, recording music and not garnering any sort of major acclaim for their efforts. As such, it’s a fair bet you’ve not heard the music of Saul Zonana, even though his music merits attention.
Guinea Pigs is the sophomore effort from the New York-based multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter. Few realize that guinea pig babies are born as miniature adults, fully furred, eyes open, able to run around within an hour after birth. In the same way, Zonana arrives on the scene ready to claim his place with the pros—the sound and musicianship is as professional as you’ll find—no amateur hour here.
Of course, Zonana is not a stranger to the music biz—primarily having played bass and written songs with many bands over the years (perhaps most notably with the group Luv Junkies who released Smudge in 1997). More recently, he was part of Ace Freley’s band, and produced tracks for him as well. As a writer and producer, he has worked with the likes of Taylor Dane and Paula Cole (and has co-written and produced an upcoming album with Nicole McKenna).
Playing guitar since age seven, Zonana later attained proficiency on the bass and keyboards. Still, his strongest suit remains a pleasant voice that, at times, has the sort of rasp and timbre of a Don Henley (check out the vocals on “Afraid of Dying” and/or “So Much Better”—though this isn’t Henley-type music). It’s the kind of voice that commands attention, emotive and perfect for the type of pop/rock that Zonana delivers.
In the 10 songs on Guinea Pigs, Zonana offers up a wide selection of moods and styles, ably backed by strong musicians (most of whom will be supporting Zonana’s CD in live performances). The supporting team is comprised of Jack Petruzzelli (guitar, keyboards, vocals), Andrew Carillo (guitar), Tom Hammer (keyboards), Kevin Jenkins (bass), Dave Johnson (drums) and Kevin Hupp (drums, percussion).
The CD opens with the strongest track and targeted single “Bette”, a wonderfully infectious classic of a pop/rock tune that is married to lyrics about a modern romance between a man and his inflatable doll who never lets him down: “Her name is Bette and she tides me over / Inflates and then I’m her Casanova / And truly Bette helps me get you off of my mind.” I particularly like the vocal hook toward the song’s end.
“Fool on a Bicycle” is more modern rock, a bit heavier on the instrumental production and layered guitars, pitting soulful vocals and bass together on the quieter verses and building to the choruses. In this radio ready tune, Zonana tries making lyrical sense of a traumatized world gone awry since the events of a year ago—and chooses to flee his own special way: “Innocence is gone and we’re moving on / Earth’s a new place / Nothing’s certain now, riding anyhow / I set my own pace / All the way to the moon on a bicycle / I’ll be there soon, you’ll see / They call me the fool on a bicycle / but I know where I’m going, do you?”
While Zonana seems to prefer the tuneful melodic rock that seems so out of vogue now, he is capable of a wide range of style and shows this to good advantage here. The upbeat tracks “All Together Now” and “Riled” sound like they could be at home on any CD of the sound-alike modern rock groups that currently manage to infiltrate major radio markets, while Zonana’s voice sets them apart.
The touching “Joel’s Song” is a memorial tribute to Saul’s older brother, while the ballad “The Same” might be the prettiest offering, Zonana’s soulful vocal styling offering a soft argument against change.
Toward the latter part of the CD, Zonana finds more of his funk/soul mojo, with vocals that seem to serve up more emotion than the words being sung. “Pour” has a great jazzy bass line propelling it forward, telling the tale of a mystery chase in a dream world where reality is too much.
This self-produced CD on Zonana’s own 20/20 music label was recorded largely in his professional home studio, and mixed/engineered with the help of Peter Moshay (Hall & Oates, Paula Abdul, Mariah Carey). The production is impressively clean and professional, full and dynamic with effects employed as needed, though never overdone.
The young but prolific Zonana (already laying claim to having penned hundreds of songs) emerges like a guinea pig, a real musician arriving on the scene knowledgeable and ready to run. Whether Zonana’s melodic rock can find a home in today’s musical world remains to be seen, but Guinea Pigs is an impressive exhibition of his songwriting talents, putting his expressive voice alongside a fine supporting band to good effect.