You can tell a lot about a man by his musical influences, and Mike Zito's stated heroes - folks like John Prine and John Hiatt, Neil Young and legends like Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray - are a heady bunch, indeed. Still, the young soul-blues singer does these predecessors right, his skillful guitar work and powerful, soulful vocals often threatening to overshadow the talented singer/songwriter's finely-crafted tunes.
Mike Zito's Today
Today is Zito's Eclecto Groove label debut, and a strong showing it is, indeed. Zito is no neophyte to the blues world, however. The St. Louis native began singing at the age of five, and by the time he was nineteen he was firmly entrenched in the regional music scene. The typical ups-and-downs, trials and tribulations that plague every artist hit Zito as well, and with a new perspective, the experiences of three independently-released albums under his belt, and a group of seasoned studio veterans at his side, Zito recorded the triumphant Today.
The opening guitar notes of "Love Like This" paint the song as a John Campbell-styled swampfest, but by the time the band kicks in, the song has changed into a soulful rocker, Zito's gritty vocals wrapped around intelligent lyrics that connect childhood and fatherhood with a clever arrangement of events. Zito's heartfelt vocals are drenched in the sort of Southern-friend soul that John Hiatt has made his stock-in-trade with, perhaps, a bit more blues music added to the palette. Zito's songwriting style is similar to Hiatt's as well, meaning that the man has some serious chops as a wordsmith, stringing together phrasing and choruses for maximum effect and emotional impact.
Little Red Corvette
This is, really, the blueprint for what follows on Today: Zito's warm, sandpapered vocals are accompanied by whipsmart lyrics and a lush rhythmic backdrop against which he layers on subtle six-string nuances. "Holding Out For Love," for instance, features a classic throwback guitar line (think Ernie Isley), a slow-paced shuffling rhythm, and low-key vocals crooning a tale of unrequited love. "Universe" is a big-sounding, expansive song with a rock & roll feel, Zito cutting loose his inner Jimi with a magnificent shambolic guitar solo that infuses the song with reckless energy.
The album's lone cover, a dynamite reading of Prince's "Little Red Corvette," recreates the song as a muted, down-tempo soul-blues number with jazzy brushwork on the drums and punctuations of slashing guitar. Still, Zito manages to imbue the song with a sort of bubbling-under power with his vocals, the song threatening to explode at any minute so that when it finally just fades out at the end, it comes as a relief rather than a disappointment, like you've dodged a bullet.
Blinded By The Darkness
With exotic rhythms and a vocal fervor, "Blinded" tells of Zito's years in the darkness and eventual redemption, his potent vocal phrasing and piercing six-string work cutting through the song's sober subject matter with a joyous edge. "Slow It Down" follows much the same lyrical path as "Blinded," but with a darker hue, Zito's atmospheric vocals complimented by Benmont Tench's Al Kooper-styled, '60s-flavored keyboards and Zito's soaring fretwork. His solo here reminds of Stevie Ray Vaughan in that it channels the same emotion and power, delivered with Zito's own individual tone and phrasing.
Journeyman drummer Tony Braunagel is front-and-center on "Deep Down In Love," perhaps the album's bluesiest number. With plenty of cymbal-brushing and a steady rhythm interrupted by flurries of swaggering drumbeats, Braunagel plays off of Zito's scorching guitarwork and the dashes of swaying background horns. With a sweeping, swinging SRV-styled guitar intro, "Hollywood" tells the story of the fabled city, from its sinners to its saints, Zito's strong albeit playful vocals playing out above a horn-driven big-band blues soundtrack, accompanied by a few choice guitar licks.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Mike Zito is being marketed as a blues singer, and that's fair enough, given the dynamic mix of blues, soul, and rock that you'll hear on Today. In reality, however, Zito has taken blues music dangerously close to mainstream territory with his smart, accessible lyrics and rough-hewn, potent vocal style. I could easily see several songs from Today crossing over to, say, Adult Alternative radio, or to movie soundtracks, and that's a good thing.
Zito is a skilled songwriter whose construction and imagery is solid, and getting better with experience. A talented guitarist, Zito doesn't try to dominate his material with superfluous solos, knowing when to pull back and let the entire band shine. Most of all, Zito's vocals say more with the silence between the words than most singers can muster throughout an entire song. Zito's Today is a solid, entertaining work with more guts, passion and soul than 99% of the pop music that will be released this year. (Eclecto Groove Records)