Spencer Swain (violin), Eli Miller (vocals/guitar), John Zox (drums), Dan Edinberg (bass)
From the beginning, Zox has managed to build cohesion out of contrast. You need look no further than the band’s twin frontmen to find these not-so-subtle differences: one being a tattoo-covered conservatory violinist with a history of trashing dressing rooms at Carnegie Hall, and the other a buttoned-down Type-A who turned down an offer from Stanford Law School to keep up the band. ZOX’s eclecticism has endeared them to their cultish following, but they have remained largely on the fringe of mainstream media. Instead, the band has thrived in the chaotic wilderness of the internet underground, developing the rare skill of writing meaningful, memorable pop songs that are genuinely interesting to listen to. Over the last four years, ZOX has sold thirty-five thousand albums, performed at the legendary Reading & Leeds festivals in the UK, and logged nearly 1,000 shows with everyone from the Warped Tour to Rusted Root. They’ve developed an unusual sound, which features an electric violin run into a guitar amp, earnest, vivid lyrics threaded through unadorned melodies, and a rhythm section that seems to swing effortlessly between making you dance and making you think. With the release of Line in the Sand, their third album and first on LA’s SideOneDummyRecords (Gogol Bordello, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Flogging Molly), ZOX demonstrates that contrast is, in the end, what makes this stand out.
Produced by John Goodmanson (Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney, Harvey Danger)the 11 songs on Line In The Sand seem equal parts 80s college radio, modern indie rock, and timeless folk. The band’s legendary live show has long been a dynamic mix of playful mayhem and emotional contemplation; this album is the first to capture both extremes. The triumphant title track, the despondent-but-uplifting “Goodnight”, and the gorgeous “Seventh Avenue Prophet” have a catchiness, a lyrical poise and an instrumental intricacy that make them resonate, listen after listen.
But let’s not forget how it began. The band formed in 2002 while several members were students at Brown University in Rhode Island, singer/guitarist Eli Miller, drummer John Zox, violinist Spencer Swain and bassist Dan Edinberg realized early that Miller’s poignant songwriting and Swain’s incendiary violin work created the spark for an unprecedented sound. After self-releasing their first LP, Take Me Home, the band hit the college circuit and began to build a regional fanbase, playing dizzying, supercharged live shows that turned bystanders into fans and fans into zealots. The band’s second album, The Wait, was mixed by underground hero Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Wilco); its darker tone and relentless DIY promotion attracted the attention of SideOneDummy, who re-released The Wait in 2006. Subsequent US and European tours with labelmates Gogol Bordello and Flogging Molly were met with enthusiastic reactions and an expanding fan-base; features on shows like MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules helped gain them additional exposure. In the summer of 2007, the band headed back to the studio to make another record.
As catchy as it is distinctive, Line in the Sand reveals new delights with each listen. Goodmanson carves out caverns of space worthy of his former charges Death Cab on tracks like “Seventh Avenue Prophet” and “The Wait”, and blazes trails through The Police’s volatile forests of rock on “Towards Los Angeles” and “When the Rain Comes Down Again”. Miller’s lyrics are by turns brilliantly personal, recalling Bright Eyes’ saner moments, and existential, as on the album closer “Lucky Sometimes”, in which he questions his dispassion in the face of war and suffering around the world. Swain, who the Village Voice once compared to “Eddie Van Halen meets Papa John Creach”, squawks like an angry 80s synth on “Line in the Sand” and then soars, transcendent, on the beautiful “Goodnight”. John Zox and Dan Edinberg lay down an obstacle course of rhythm on nearly every track, rife with eccentric tom hits and flurries of low end. Of course, there is also dance-ready sequencing, organ, and glockenspiel to contend with, but the album never feels overblown or hokey. Instead, Line in the Sand is the sound of musicians who have learned how to write intricate, layered pop songs that mean something, and how to make them sound easy when they’re hard.
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