Graded on a Curve:
Those Pretty Wrongs,
Zed for Zulu

Those Pretty Wrongs, the collaboration of Jody Stephens, formerly of cult titans Big Star, and Luther Russell, a founding member of The Freewheelers who’s responsible for a slew of subsequent projects, issued their self-titled debut back in 2016. ‘twas a good one, at times a great one even, and their full-length follow-up doesn’t falter. But those familiar with Stephens and Russell who haven’t heard them in tandem shouldn’t assume they know what Zed for Zulu sounds like. While there are moments that unwind in the proximity of the expected, there are just as many surprises on a record loaded with solid writing, singing and playing. It’s out now on LP, CD, cassette, and digital through Burger Records.

Before a minute elapses, Zed for Zulu’s opener “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” offers up a stunning string arrangement by Chris Stamey played by Leah Peroutka on violin, Aubrey Kessel on viola, and Leah Gibson on cello. Given the background of the duo’s older half, this might insinuate Third/Sister Lovers, and as the song progresses that album did come to mind, though just as prevalent were fleeting thoughts of Thunderclap Newman, Badfinger, and early solo George Harrison; hell, there’s even a brief little string flourish reminiscent of The Beatles in its neo-psych regality.

But its bedrock is a likeable slice of guitar-pop songwriting, and it’s not especially evocative in sensibility to the work of Big Star. Neither is the crisp Byrdsian chime-pop (with a backbeat of sturdy simplicity) of the next track “Ain’t Nobody but Me,” in part because it offers a downtrodden sensitivity that’s distinct, at least in the context of this record (and its makers).

“Time to Fly” presents a strumming singer-songwriter wrinkle that shouldn’t perplex anyone familiar with Russell’s post-Freewheelers work. To elaborate, it’s a soft-rock-tinged number replete with touches of gentle psych. The choruses are nice, and the delayed entrance of the drums and bass even better. Moving more forthrightly into psych-pop, “The Carousel” is florid if not quite foofy (it begins by referencing that warhorse of children’s bedtime prayers).

The chorus really underscores a shared Anglophilia across Zed for Zulu, as the beginning of side one’s closer “Hurricane of Love” is vaguely in the mold of Abbey Road-era Beatles. However, as truly inspired classicists, Stephens and Russell conjure precedent without getting consumed by it, and as the vocals emerge The Beatles similarity begins to wane. By the time Jim Slake dishes his clarinet solo, the song has become its own thing.

Side two’s opener “You and Me” easily wafts the strongest Big Star fumes of any cut on the album, although probably due to Stephens’ actual involvement in the group the song transcends the (perfectly fine) general standard for this sorta influence. Think of it this way; nearly everybody else impacted by Big Star is to some extent approximating (if not downright aping) Alex Chilton. Jody Stephens (and by close proximity here Luther Russell) assuredly is not. He’s just being himself.

“Life Below Zero” offers more acoustic strum as it solidifies into a ’70s singer-songwriter-descended pop auteur move. At its core, as detailed in the extensive promo notes for the album, Zed for Zulu is a personal record, though it may not immediately connect like it, since the duo rely upon long-established pop phraseology.

And that’s alright. “A Day in the Park” is the sorta tune most young outfits of a guitar-pop constitution would blindside a passerby to obtain. What they’d still be lacking is the veteran panache to really put it over the top. That aspect is here in spades. Speaking of which, “Undertow” is a late-album stylistic curveball featuring Russell’s post-ragtime piano and (what sounds like) banjo strumming from Stephens. It’s all in service to a later-period Nilsson-esque ditty that sounds like it could’ve been produced by Rupert Holmes.

Better said, the panache blooms into full-on chutzpah that doesn’t totally dissipate as “It’s About Love” ties up Zed for Zulu’s stylistic strands; there’s guitar glisten, some singer-songwriter vibes, hints of psych, and even some late ’70s FM pop radio swagger. Perhaps the strongest aspect of Jody Stephens and Luther Russell’s latest is how it refuses to settle on affirming expectations.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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