“I ain’t thinking clear,” Martin Zellar repeatedly cries through flames of guitar before Kelly Willis’s sweet vocal collars him. The two sing the song’s title line, “running on pure fear,” back and forth to one another, and the flames seem to die. The seething darkness of bass and guitar lightens. By the time the accordion, mandolin and dobro of “Give and Take (All the Love You Can)” kicks in, it seems the song’s advice might just cure the running altogether. You can almost ignore the jagged edge in the refrain’s, “you gotta hold all the pain you can stand.” You can almost not wonder what happens when you can’t stand anymore.
That is until you hear the song “Roosters Crow.” The title track begins with Scott Wenum’s tom toms ominously beating under an alternating two chord guitar progression, Nick Ciola’s bass plumbing the lower depths. The opening sets the tone. “They say roosters crow to greet the dawn/What a load of shit.” This song’s in second person, and it could be the other side of “Running on Pure Fear,” calling out a woman who’s choosing an escape all too familiar to the singer. The darkness seethes again, Kevin McKinney’s guitar spinning black crystal to freeze over the path ahead, cracking and leaving jagged surfaces.
Soon the singer’s crying out wordlessly, agonizing against washes of that cold black guitar sound. He’s shouting his voice ragged, crying, “Ah there’s so much love/That you can’t give/So much love and pain/Ah, now they’re both so real.” The rhythm guitar and tom toms build walls around him, the lead guitar filling in the gaps, ending with a shimmering, lethal squall.
This is an album about life lasting longer than answers, not that answers don’t matter. “Where Did the Words Go,” makes the point well, a simple meditation over snared percussion, acoustic guitar, piano and cello. To this aging father, the song sounds like a husband and father puzzling over the growing distance in his marriage and his other family relationships. He knows the space is normal, but he thought his relationships would turn out differently. He wants to change what has happened but settles for a simpler dream— “I just hope you can see/how much I love you.”
The next song, “Seven Shades of Blue,” dares to dream again. Lloyd Maines’ supportive, shining-while-crying steel guitar encourages each modest desire for a relationship forged from loneliness. Similarly, Bukka Allen’s exclamatory Hammond B3 and Kevin McKinney’s sure-footed guitar encourage the singer to “turn to God or pack your bags and run” away from a town where “the skies are always gray.”
The album ends on a note that suggests that running always stops somewhere, and something like the first alternative needs to be considered. “Maybe I stumbled onto something that I can call God,” the singer acknowledges, but he quickly adds, “What it is I won’t say, but…it works for me.” This time McKinney’s playing both guitar and Hammond B3, so the sound echoes what came before. That running still tempts, but something new says it might not win.
Of course, this is a Martin Zellar album (one of his finest at that), and moments of clarity have to hold up against all of the unexpected complications of being human. “Wore Me Down” is a terrific upbeat acoustic attempt to turn the tables on a relationship which only winds up revealing the singer’s responsibility for the fall. “I’m That Problem” is a rollicking appeal to a lover that makes it clear it's a mistake to take him back.
Fittingly then, if you leave your CD player on repeat (as mine always tends to be), like that old Roy Orbison record Springsteen once wrote about, you’ll find the hopeful clarity of “It Works for Me” followed by the great “Poison.” As the record starts over, the singer’s voice entwines with Willis’s again to say, “I know you’re tired/So tired of me/So am I baby/Who wouldn’t be?”
Of course, the real irony is that fans of Martin Zellar never will be tired of him or his characters because his particular brand of self-deprecating blues serves as a balm to the lonesome while forcing us to look the causes straight in the eye. When we face our own mistakes (our ruts and our degradations), and when we share that confrontation with others, there’s potential for finding a way to move forward, if not with dignity... maybe with integrity or something like it. The musicianship of Martin Zellar and The Hardways, all of the players, and Pat Manske’s production make it easier. An album like Rooster’s Crow makes it exciting.