ZOX: Line in the Sand

[14 February 2008]

By Tony Sclafani

Here’s a quick summation of this review: this is an excellent CD, with songs that sound both memorable and significant, stellar musicianship, and an overall impassioned tone. Everything else that follows is an elaboration on that basic idea.

ZOX is a reggae-influenced indie quartet that’s gotten favorable press, but flown mostly under the radar since releasing an ambitious debut CD, Take Me Home, back in 2002. The band followed it up with a relatively more popular effort, The Wait, in 2005 and was eventually picked up by Side One Dummy Records (Flogging Molly and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones). For this new CD, ZOX hooked up with producer John Goodmanson, who’s helmed records by Death Cab for Cutie and Sleater-Kinney. The band, formed at Brown University five years ago, is probably best known for having a classically-trained electric violinist, Spencer Swain, in the place where most bands have a lead guitarist.

But there’s little in the band’s past that could have predicted it would come up with a CD that’s as start-to-finish brilliant as Line in the Sand. Here, ZOX moves beyond the basic reggae rhythms of its first album and leaves the hyper-kinetic ska beats that dotted the second effort in the dust. Those elements still lurk in the background of ZOX’s sound, but they’re now less of a direct influence, and, instead, seamlessly melded into the band’s more ambitious rock assault. What ZOX and Goodmanson have done is to open the music up, making it bigger and more spacious. They’ve also played up the band’s 1980s influences, making no bones about wanting to play like its 1983 (a touchstone year for U2 and the Police, two bands ZOX recalls). All four musicians have also become much better players, breezing through rhythmic changes and contrasting dynamic textures with an ease that belies the music’s complexity.

Singer-guitarist-lyricist Eli Miller’s voice has grown to sound like a more down-to-earth version of Bono. And Goodmanson’s production manages to liven up each number without overkill. It’s the band’s top-flight songwriting, though, that puts the group over the top. Whether writing personal anthems like “Line in the Sand” or tear-jerking ballads like “The Wait (Part II)”, Miller sounds like he’s firing on all cylinders this time around, filling every verse, chorus and bridge with memorable hooks and lyrics. It helps that Miller has Swain to weave sinewy violin lines around his melodies and guitar work. The innovative combo of Swain fiddling while Miller burns is what pushes ZOX out of the category of revivalists and into the realm of innovators. ZOX’s mix of classical and rock elements doesn’t push the sonic envelope the way the Velvet Underground did, but the violin does more than just create a droning backdrop, a la Arcade Fire. And bassist Dan Edinberg and drummer (and band namesake) John Zox chime in with their usual flair.

Maybe the band knew it had to push itself with this release or risk second-tier status forever. Miller’s lyrics on the title track show him casting about for a change in his life: “People keep on saying that I’ve got potential / Lately I haven’t been feeling all that special / How I’m gonna turn it around”. ZOX may just start to feel special when the CD’s first single, “Goodnight”, hits college radio. An acoustic ballad of the highest order, it reworks the cynical kiss-off vibe of Green Day’s “Time of Your Life” into a more positive message of also finding something better ahead. The mix of minor and major chords is gorgeous, and its laundry list of descriptive phrases as evocative as the Jam’s transcendent “That’s Entertainment”. Swain’s violin sounds like it’s sobbing during its solo, and there’s a synth line that glues together the verses that’s as unexpected as it is catchy. Judging from a clip on YouTube, it’s already a concert favorite.

As good as “Goodnight” gets, it’s bested by “I Miss You”, a frantic anti-love song that sounds like early U2 taking on “Take on Me”, the 1985 hit by Norwegian stars a-ha. Here, a ska-influenced beat melds with the band’s trademark guitar-violin interplay and culminates in a triumphant chorus that’s celebratory even as it waxes pessimistic about a romantic breakup. I hate to repeat a cliché, but if the pulsating rhythm of “I Miss You” doesn’t get you jumping out of your chair, check that pulse, baby.

“Seventh Avenue Prophet” puts Swain in the spotlight when it slows down for a Baroque bridge that has him and guest cellist Phil Peterson playing criss-crossing lines, before Swain fires off a howling solo. The other first-rate tracks are so plentiful it’s impossible to expand on them all. “Another Attack” hints at both Linkin Park and hip-hop with its choppy robo-rhythm. “The Wait (Part II)” is a sequel to either the previous album’s “Can’t Look Down” or “I Am Only Waiting”, both of which it echoes in its theme of longing for the past. Whatever the case, it’s a gorgeous acoustic ballad that breaks new ground for the band with its finger-picked acoustic riff. The lyrics manage to be poetic without coming off as syrupy: “And in December all the questions finally stopped / My friends came by when I was out and put your pictures in a box”. If anyone involved with TV’s Grey’s Anatomy is reading, this is the type of song that should be used to underscore scenes, not the flavor-of-the-second product with which the show usually hammers viewers.

If there’s any problem with Line in the Sand, it’s that it leaves a reviewer with little clever to say. “Towards Los Angeles” has a killer chorus, as does “Don’t Believe in Love”. The band plays the hell out of both of them. Where’s the interest in that? “Lucky Sometimes” closes the album on a note that blends the political with the personal. Here, Miller remembers and old friend now in the army, and admits to looking in the newspaper each day waiting to see his name appear. It’s yet another heartfelt song with a soaring chorus. No, folks, this does not make for interesting writing, but it makes for great listening.

The reference to the Jam a few paragraphs back wasn’t incidental. Line in the Sand broaches comparison to that band’s classic third album, All Mod Cons, because it pulls together obvious influences to force a distinct voice. Like the Jam, ZOX makes no bones about using ingredients from older music, but the band recasts these elements in more aggressive settings. Similarly, ZOX is often able to top its influences with more emotionally-compelling songs and hotter performances.

ZOX has been compared to ‘80s revivalists, and while it’s easy to pick out influences in the arrangements, the actual songs aren’t just vehicles for the band to make cute references to XTC or Game Theory. Strip away the ornate instrumentation, and Miller’s confessional, hyper-literate lyrics wouldn’t be so far away from those of, say, Paul Simon.

ZOX’s slow success trajectory should speed up if Line in the Sand finds the audience it deserves. Maybe ZOX needs to take a hint from Good Charlotte and Kings of Leon and get itself into the public’s consciousness by dating Hollywood types. Thoughtful love songs and anti-war diatribes aren’t enough anymore. It’s a tabloid world out there these days. The counter-culture has been replaced by the Clinique counter culture. If ZOX wants to get heard by the masses, it has to forsake the former for the latter—draw a line in the sand, so to speak.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/zox-line-in-the-sand/