Warren Zanes Biography
There was no reason to expect Warren Zanes' remarkable debut, Memory Girls. Seventeen years old in the mid-1980s when he joined his brother Dan Zanes' acclaimed Boston band the Del Fuegos, Warren was the kid who stole your drink off the bar and then tried to make off with your girlfriend. As his mother puts it, "He was much too young to see what he saw." And then, somewhere along the line, after three albums for Slash/Warner Bros., the younger Zanes disappeared from music. There were rumors, including the one involving a Governor's daughter. But nothing could be proven. And now this: from nowhere, Warren Zanes delivers a collection of pop songs so fresh, so infectious, and so right for the moment that they seem like an inevitability. It prompts the question: was he ever gone, or was it us? Without a doubt, there are questions to be answered.
A few links have been uncovered. For instance, sometime after quitting the Del Fuegos, Warren Zanes was in an apartment in New Orleans (rent $120), doing work toward a bachelor's degree. He got it. An obsessive by nature, he then went on to the Universities of Wisconsin and Rochester, racking up two master's degrees and a doctorate. His explanation? "I wanted my mother to be able to say, 'My son, the doctor.' I owe her more, but I thought she'd settle for that." His carefree irreverence aside, Zanes proved a serious academic, presently teaching at Manhattan's School of Visual Arts and under contract to Continuum for a book due in the Spring.
But it was in the midst of his academic pursuits that some of Warren's songs ended up in the hands of the Dust Brothers, producers of the Beastie Boys, Beck, and others. The songs were recorded on 4-track with his friend Billy Conway of Morphine, a long-time neighbor of Warren's mother. Within weeks after hearing the tracks, the Dust Bros. signed Zanes to their label, Ideal Records. He took a leave of absence from the university. As he maintains, "Plot twists aren't for Hitchcock alone. I need them to stay interested in my own story."
So recording began, and in Nashville of all places. "Nashville," Zanes explains from his Brooklyn home, "is much, much more than Robert Altman's movie of the same name suggests. There's another Nashville, tucked somewhere in the shadows and packed with musicians who can play the straight stuff but refuse to eat it three times a day. They'll surprise you. Keep an eye on 'em." Once in the studio with co-producer Angelo Petraglia and his Nashville team, including guests Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin, it became clear that something special was going on. Not a concept album but undeniably cohesive, Memory Girls was described by one of the musicians as, "Warren's scrapbook, his little monument to youth, melancholy, and the pure joy of pissing whole years away being in love, often with strangers." Zanes offers another angle: "When I started writing for this album, I'd just gotten engaged to the girl I'd dated fifteen years earlier in high school [singer April March, whose recordings Zanes adores]. So, there I was, ready to embark on a future with her but not sure what to do with the dozen ex-girlfriends still rattling around in my head. As most people eventually--and rightly!--choose, I decided I should put all those former partners in storage. The only question was, 'In what medium should they be stored?' I chose the compact disc."
And then, the album completed, something happened that befalls too many great projects: Warren Zanes' finished CD got caught in a legal tangle, this time involving the Dust Brothers and Ideal Record's parent company, Disney. For two years, the tapes were locked away. When a copy of the recording was leaked to an Entertainment Weekly writer, an A review caught a number of people by surprise. And that's the kind of recording it is. When it was finally free and in Zanes' hands again, the project received a rush of interest, eventually landing in the hands of Dualtone Records, one of a new breed of record labels designed to counter some of the pitfalls of major label life.
Amidst the sounds of a great and happily unorthodox pop band playing in the studio (sometimes sounding like The Band), on Memory Girls one hears echoes of a number of artists: Randy Newman, the Kinks, Liz Phair, Badly Drawn Boy, Tom Petty, the Beatles. But those echoes never fully describe the surprising lyrical and musical voice of Zanes himself. In a pop gem like "Where We Began," described as involving "zero fiction," the story tumbles out with surprising candor: "My old man has brought half a dozen wives into the world / I met him last year, after twenty years or so with no words / What a strange look in his eyes." In "Scrapbook," introduced by Zanes as the "master key to Memory Girls," a whole shadowed past is compiled as the singer insists, "Let's put it all in there": "Let's put the things you stole / when you thought no one saw / and something strange took hold / your little fingers grew / let's put the pictures that you drew." Rare is the case that a singer-songwriter attempts to "put it all in there" and does so. Memory Girls is one such case. This is a project that reminds us what a pop record can be and, when it gets under our skin, what it can do.
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