Out There

Letter from home
Martin Zellar and the Hardways
Martin Zellar and the Hardways

A singer-songwriter on stage is very much like a boxer in the ring, except that there's more than one opponent: You're up against everybody else in the arena. You can try to subdue with naked honesty, but that's an overvalued commodity these days. Far more effective is the construction of a world, a context, from which you can croon or howl at your fellow bipeds: It might be a fuchsia house trailer (I said rock lobster!) or a towering black castle festooned with skulls and femurs (hiya, Mr. Danzig!), but people would rather hear about a place than a problem; nobody really has to imagine a problem.

Martin Zellar addresses us from the heart of the everyday--that territory defined by a line of empty beer bottles on the bar, the job in town, the snowplow blade rusting in the barn, and the whitewashed halves of old tractor tires between the mums and the driveway, lifescapes that his previous band, the Gear Daddies, mapped earnestly but erratically. Zellar's voice distills all that and winds up recalling the voice of actor Jimmy Stewart: distinctive--yet universal--and palpably sincere. On his debut with new band the Hardways, his songwriting continues to mature and meet the promise of that voice; the music extends itself (more or less) along Gear Daddy lines, pointing to a world where "jangle" has never been a pejorative.

From the disc's opening line, "Girl, you're so pretty," Zellar posits himself as a blond Springsteen, the Magic Rat in a Co-op gimme cap, but he lacks the overblown heroics necessary to avoid coming off like a real person. In the past he's been bold enough in his writing to put a remorseful drunk literally at the feet of Jesus, and he's not lost his ambition; his songs reveal complex emotional centers, updating and expanding on the old Gear Daddy archetype of the blowsy fuck-up who means well but just can't deliver. Older and wiser now, his head still hurts, but not from excess. From experience, maybe: a split with a son ("Brown-Eyed Boy") sung with a heartbreak tone usually reserved for lost loves, or a "been there" sense of another's peril ("Hammer's Gonna Fall") accented by a downward-falling riff played on a child's piano.

Like anybody who's left eight hours of their life behind them in a place they'd never enter if they didn't have to eat, Zellar by turns visits celebration ("I Can't Believe") and morose introspection ("Ten-Year Coin"), but he's too tied to his world--the drive home, the smell of his love on the pillow, his friends--to accept the doom of the angry killer in "Guilty Just the Same" who recounts a litany of abuse and then observes that "no one ever cried for me." Zellar knows better, and it strengthens him.

--Matt Weitz

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Matt Weitz