[4 January 2009]
Don Chambers prefers the process of a journey to the destination or arrival. Formerly in the band Vaudeville, Chambers has concocted several Southern roadside tales, fuzzy, distorted dirges, and haunting tales of legends. Produced by Patterson Hood (Drive-By Truckers), Zebulon contains twelve songs with grungy arrangements and lonely dirt road musings.
Chambers takes notes on the road, writing down town, street, and business names and various anecdotes of occurrences for later visitation. The third album released with Goat, Zebulon‘s name comes from a sign for a town in southern Georgia that Chambers saw during a tour with the band. Chambers explains that this album is like the directions one gets from neighborly Southern folks who give way too many details. “Now, once you pass the sign with the bullet holes, turn left at the Doolie Hill Trailer Park, you know they say ole Doolie he had a predilection for vegetables, well, then hang a louie ‘til you get bored, and then look for the twisted oak tree with a pair of rotting converse sneakers hanging in ‘em, and then….” The curves and detours of following such a path become the importance of the journey. “You have no idea where he’s telling you to go. Hell, you forgot where you were going, but you’re fascinated with the rhythm of speech and details, your eyes are glazed over and you lose track of time. I like records that give you that kinda feeling, like you’re going somewhere and not sure how you’ll get there,” says Chambers.
Usually, the sound is rusty and weathered, and the accompaniment tends to keep to a minimum. At times, Chambers and his downtrodden banjo are the only sounds against rickety percussion. “I Can Waltz” begins with a slow, tannic, and staccato banjo picking against Chambers’s hungover croaks and moans. A metallic and hollow clunking helps keep time. Eventually, a moist and glassy percussion suggests muddy boots carrying a large pack over rough terrain. Chambers’s lyrics paint the dismal but buoyant picture of an old, rugged man, amidst his afflictions and meager means, still waltzing with elegance. “I can waltz with my wooden leg / My hearing’s gone but I know what you said / I can waltz though my rhythm’s off / I got faults / But I can waltz”, Chambers oozes with cigarette-stained creakiness. His grisly vocals sometimes search for the right pitch, adding another feeling of being lost, caught up in the road and the journey. Sometimes he conjures the tobacco-hued aura of David Lowery (“Falling Off the Edge of the World”), and other times he buzzes using a throaty lower register (“Ghosty Leg”).
The vocal harmonies added to many of the songs give a touch of softness to the overall grainy mixture. Patterson Hood lends his backing vocals to two tracks. In “Friar’s Lantern”, interweaving textured guitar parts give way to Chambers and bassist Kevin Lane in airy and bright (for them) vocal harmonies. Liz Durrett adds a soprano edge toward the end. “We hunched over cigarettes”, they speak and sing at the same time, telling a particularly vivid story of waiting. Matt Stoessel on pedal steel adds a seamless loneliness to the orchestration. This song perfectly showcases enjoying each and every syllable and note as it comes, loving the journey itself. The words they form become dry cracklings of the autumn chill the lyrics describe. “Through rusted buckshot circles and refrigerator door / Wheeze like an asthmatic’s trachea”, they sing, almost with onomatopoeia. The words do more than tell a story; they illustrate the sound. The listener can relish each moment as it comes, savoring the journey, misdirections, and short cuts all the same. The song is just another example of the disc’s attitude. As Chambers himself sums up, “Throw out the map and drive; the joy is in the journey”.