Often the pool of fairly homogenous influences that inform West Philadelphia’s ever-so-insular DIY tend to set consistent guardrails on the sonic exploration of the musics within. None may pass through here without first embarking upon a voyage on a lazy river of consonant 7ths, 9ths, the occasional chromatic nod (gotta keep the jazz instructors at Drexel happy, after all), and a thick and juicy chorus. A loose tempo is laid, and four people in pocket tees croon a Marlboro soliloquy. Order is restored. That is, until West Philly pop-rockers Z by Z hit the scene. Z by Z ask the question, “What happens when you throw a polished American Idol contestant into Philadelphia’s raunchy DIY scene?” (literally, they ask this in their Facebook bio) and, while there is so much to unpack from that question, it can be answered somewhat concisely. Through “Drown You Out,” Z by Z have, in full circle, actuated the ultimate irony of “alternative rock.”
See, this song begins as “alternative” as any other. Picked (or at least picked sounding) bass accompany a familiar chordal palette, and we’re walked through a potable bedroom rock groovy-groove. Nothing at this point had defied expectation but, then again, I’d yet to taste of lead vocalist and guitarist Harrison Cohen’s sweet-ass American Idol pipes… and I would not remain in my seat for much longer. Because while this song begins in the West Philadelphia tradition, it is gradually supplanted by rock sounds that are, by comparison, much more straight ahead, perhaps even slightly dated. The vocal arrangement is decidedly more reminiscent of late 2000s Casey Crescenzo projects than it is of any Homeshake-y or DeMarco-lite tendencies. The irony therein is palpable at this point—Z by Z have created a sound that breaks from local norms by incorporating normie composition tropes into their writing. They’ve created an “alternative alternative,” or perhaps an “alternative alternative alternative,” and its effect has an undeniable charm. The (uh oh) juxtaposition of self-serious kitsch and different, normie self-serious kitsch liberates the listener to enjoy the fact that they’re listening to something that is, in true essence, silly and fun (those two words being far too absent from the mouth and mind these days). However unsure I may be that this was the intended effect of “Drown You Out,” I think this song is worth this listen, and I think a Z by Z set would be a strangely fresh breath of air to the musk of ye olde basement show.
Unfortunately, the strength behind this fairly whimsical concept starts to fall out of phase with tracks two and three. Track two “Replay” is the particular offender in this instance, considering it’s basically a zeppelinized Ska banger. I am to this moment perplexed at many of the compositional choices made in this song. It essentially functions as a pastiche patchwork constantly hard-switching from triumphant Ska declarations, to big dick 1978 breakdown riff hours, to quick rim-shot refrains straight out of your favorite production of RENT. While my praise of the precedent track relies on a certain level of cheese, “Replay” is simply too much cheese for me. Final track “Boomerang” puts Z by Z’s early 2010s indie influences on full display, especially those pesky Arctic Monkeys. Any shred of track 1’s twee-leaning sonics are gone, and the song instead leans maximally into its more dated charms. Highest praise for this track is in its production assuredly, delivering some of the tightest vocal editing I’ve heard from a band this early in development. It exemplifies what Z by Z do best: the ability to unapologetically deliver a well arranged, well mixed, straight-ahead rock tune. No questions asked.
- Superb production quality given the relative obscurity of the band
- Unapologetic in its pop-mindedness
- Tight arrangement/Good performances
- Well designed cover art (kudos, unnamed designer!)
- Track one could be a minute shorter, easily
- A little heavy handed at times with the parmesan
- Too derivative at points