By many people’s standards, naming your band Zeus is a somewhat pretentious move. While shows of extravagance aren’t exactly unheard of in the world of entertainment, coming out and implying that your musical skill is Olympic in nature could definitely rub some listeners and critics the wrong way. Given the name, then, it’s surprising just how unpretentious and understated Zeus sounds on their debut full-length, Say Us. The album is refreshingly absent of self-aggrandizing statements and pomp; Say Us instead delivers subtle bolts of lightning in the form of catchy, creative sounds that are often gritty but never a grind to get through.
Say Us begins with “How Does It Feel,” a bouncy track that features piano and percussion at the outset, then gradually expands to include fuzzy, 70s-era guitar accompanying Mike O’Brien’s vocals. The entire track feels as though it is from another era, with a retro vibe that somehow doesn’t sound dated at all. Perhaps it is the close bond between O’Brien and Zeus’ other mastermind, Carlin Nicholson, that allows the band to make great songs slide out of the speakers so effortlessly. What is certain is that songs such “How Does It Feel” sneak up on listeners with subtle greatness and make a great case for liberal use of the ‘repeat’ button.
“Fever of the Time” offers more piano and guitar, with light acoustic strumming accompanying O’Brien’s recollection of the disorienting nature of a relationship: “Locked in a feeling, lost in the meaning, feeling the fever of the time.” Some great backing vocals on the track will undoubtedly remind some listeners of The Beatles, and the seemingly simple yet deceptively complex pop aspect doesn’t discourage that comparison either.
The next song, “Kindergarten,” begins with driving distorted guitar building momentum before the song reaches its breaking point, soaking listeners in light pop-rock like a crashing wave. O’Brien seems to be yearning for a simpler time on this one, singing, “All I want to do is clap, all I want to do is sing, and I don’t want to sing another song in anger – oh, but I do, because I have to.” Of course, it’d be hard to tell if he actually was angry, because O’Brien maintains a comfortable, controlled tone no matter what notes he’s hitting. “Kindergarten” also offers brief glimpses of Zeus’ poetic side, with lines such as “it makes me think about things I shouldn’t be, takes my voice like fire under water.”
“The Renegade” follows and drops the tempo a bit, with a pleasant, meandering acoustic guitar riff backed by some simple piano. The brief, bouncy choruses bring to mind the Grateful Dead, and the electric guitar licks that flow through the song are a great addition. While O’Brien sings repeatedly, “I’m not telling you anything,” listeners won’t expect him to, as he, Nicholson and the rest of Zeus offer plenty to listen to. The song ends with a rousing horn section that emerges from nowhere but definitely sounds as though it belongs.
“Greater Times On the Wayside” is more of an interlude than anything, clocking in at 59 seconds, though it doesn’t feel like it should have been left on the cutting room floor. Instead, this musical phrase works as a great segue to weave “The Renegade” to the following track, “The River By the Garden.” This one is a somber ballad, working as a modern counterpart to “Down By the River” – perhaps it’s a Canadian thing, but Zeus takes a page from Neil Young’s book here and produces a piece of greatness based around simple guitar riffing, emotional singing and the tale of a relationship that ends near a river.
The next song, “You Gotta’ Teller,” is a fuzzed-out offering that features O’Brien raising his voice for the first time on the record. And while he sounds so comfortable crooning everywhere else, the aggression doesn’t sound forced at all here. Even the guitars seem to kick it up a notch on this track, harmonizing nicely with the keyboard at times, and tearing off on some eccentric, Wilco-esque solo runs at others.
“I Know” changes the mood completely, opening with some spacey keyboard before O’Brien enters. This one offers a much more modest array of instrumentation to match the subdued tempo, but it doesn’t feel as though it’s missing anything. While the Olympic god may have been all about creating spectacles, this Zeus seems to be more adept at creating surprisingly full musical landscapes out of very little.
The following track, “Marching Through Your Head” is a bouncy, poppier track, but it still retains the retro/garage-rock feel thanks to some driving guitar and plenty of hand claps. Piano also plays a major role here, and the lyrics tell an interesting story of watching a friend trapped in a relationship: “I think about your lover, and all the times she’s done you wrong. I know you could do better, but you’ve been waiting too long.”
“The Sound of You,” is another slower track, but again it doesn’t drag – it just provides a nice contrast to the driving fuzz-fests of some of the album’s other tracks. Zeus shows time and again that they are capable of shifting effortlessly through a Rolodex of styles and sounds without ever sounding strained. Overall, this is a beautiful track, with great guitar and vocals shining throughout.
The album’s last song, “Heavy On Me,” once again finds Zeus letting the guitars off the leash, with a great opening section that unexpectedly drops into a bass-driven verse. The juxtaposition of the subdued sections with those featuring wandering guitar play off each other very well, and works well to show the range of skills Zeus brings to the table.
In a way, the name Zeus is fitting for the band – while not extravagant, their songs are in many ways epic, providing a rich spectrum of sounds and managing to be at once smart and catchy. And while Say Us may not sound entirely otherworldly, it does feel like it comes from a different era, with a retro flair and unabridged penchant for awesomeness.