Jeff Zentner: A Season Lost
Cities of the Plain Records

Any album that receives an implicit endorsement from Arborea is undoubtedly worth checking out, and so it is that Jeff Zentner's third album A Season Lost, which features Buck and Shanti Curran on one of its eleven songs, rewards one's attention with its haunting folk settings. The forty-five-minute collection builds on the sound captured on 2007's Hymns to the Darkness and 2009's The Dying Days of Summer, the titles of which offer a clear indication of Zentner's sensibility. As its title intimates, the new album likewise explores themes of loss and transience, and specifically in this case the way a season can seemingly vanish during a particularly tumultuous period in a person's life. Zentner bundles his songs in lush arrangements, with steel guitar, acoustic and electric guitars, and violin the dominant elements, along with an occasional dab of electric piano to offset the acoustic sound. His guitar playing is often raw, even grizzled, which helps lend the ballads a harder edge.

A key thing the Nashville-based musician does to make his songs stand out is harmonize vocals such that his voice is almost always paired with a female singer's, of which many are featured, including Elin Palmer, Rykarda Parasol, Josie Little, Sumie Nagano, and Hannah Fury. It's an effective strategy in that vocal contrast is created in the resultant blend between his rougher voice and the softer warmth of his partner's. Palmer's an MVP of sorts on the project, given that she not only sings but also contributes string playing to a number of the songs, and the way the vocal-like cry of her violin caresses the songs provides a constant source of pleasure.

The opening “The Motion of the Earth” is a good example of his approach in the way Palmer's soft voice accompanies Zentner's as, lying awake at night, he ruminates on time's passage and life's cycles. A creeping undercurrent of desperation seeps into “Skies of Blue,” which also includes a rare solo spot for the accompanying singer, in this case Sumie Nagano. The brooding title track's already haunting character is intensified by Arborea's presence, with Shanti's whisper and Buck's harmonium and electric guitar stirring complements to Zentner's aggressive guitar playing. Heavier by comparison are “Fire in My Bones,” a bruising workout where plodding drums appear alongside the vocals, strings, and guitars, and “Devil's Eyes,” a darkwater folk blues featuring Matt Bauer. Less ominous in tone are the wistful reverie “Home” and sunnier song of devotion “Bleed for You,” which communicate their sentiments in direct manner. Lyrically, the songs are chock full of evocative imagery (as proof consider the sundazed visions recounted during “White Horses”) in a way that reveals the influence of figures like Cormac McCarthy, Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, and Michael Ondaatje on Zentner.

September 2012