He’s not a pretentious guy, this Dan Zdilla. At least he swears he is not. He’ll serve you Lite beer when you come to visit – he’s not much for stemware – but don’t trip over the construction debris in the “vestibule.” He’s currently renovating the Lancaster Victorian he shares with his fiancé and upstairs roommate. “Or is it foyer, or foyay? Never mind, come on in,” he says.
The work is coming along well. Zdilla is an artist by training, and teaches elementary art in the Hempfield school district. But he probably has earned a wider public persona as “frontman” of The Slackwater News. He does most of the singing and about half the songwriting, but if you’ve ever seen the band in all their vaudevillian boogie glory, you know he is merely one member of a very engaging quintet – and probably the shyest of the bunch.
With four other players – really good ones at that – it might seem curious that Zdilla found the need to record a solo album. But today sees the release of Behold and Lo, an LP-length collection of eight songs that are both immediately familiar to Slackwater fans yet push Dan’s songwriting into new territory.
So you’ve got a killer band, why do these songs on your own? “I started out thinking these just wouldn’t be good for a full band,” he says. “And also, it’s sometimes a tough thing to corral the whole band. People have careers and lives.”
Rather than backlog the songs, Zdilla decided they could exist in an entirely new context. It was not a rash decision. It took him two years to finish the album, although he’s quick to assert that he took a break in the middle of the process to buy a house.
Folks who know and love his Slackwater tunes will not find Behold and Lo a jarring experience. At the same time, they might hear something new in Zdilla’s songcraft as well.
One common theme that never goes away is an unfiltered love of 1960s British pop. Obviously the Beatles are the top of the list, but British 60s pop in general is what crawls under his creative skin: the bright, gauche, melodic, airy stuff that oldies radio used to play but doesn’t seem to have interest in anymore.
Think less Animals and more Chad and Jeremy; less Stones, more Zombies. “I like really chordy, melodic music, even the stuff that borders on being pretty cheesy.”
Running concurrent is an absorption of Tin Pan Alley song structure. He loves those 7th, augmented and diminished chords. Loves ‘em. This is classic pre-rock n’ roll pop music. The backbeat may have been different, or not even there, but the songs were essentially the same.
“I never really considered what I was doing from a theory standpoint until people pointed it out to me,” he says. “I just found chords that sounded good together, that sounded interesting and gave the melody a different place to go.”
There is still that undeniable Dan Zdilla sense of chord structure and melody. It’s some kind of pastiche with Stephen Foster, Paul McCartney and Louis Armstrong trading musical bitch slaps sprinkled with a liberal amount of some unnamable Americana. The best example on the new record would probably be the album’s third cut, “It’s Alright” – brash, jazzy horns all mixed up with big, boomy drums.
“I also love writers like John Prine and Johnny Cash, who can write perfect songs with three chords,” says Zdilla. “I just cannot do that. They just don’t come out sounding very interesting.”
But in his defense, several songs on Behold and Lo venture into that more stretched-out, moody forum in a very pleasing way – less about inventive melodies and passing minors and more about a feel, a place where different things can happen sonically.
“As It Begins” however, marks fresh ground for Zdilla. He lets the chords take their time in passing, throwing in fewer minors and passing sevenths than he might normally. The result is a rising sense of drama, and space – space that is then occupied by accordion, harmonica and horns to create sound combinations atypical to Zdilla’s usual songwriting.
The album’s penultimate track, “When the Hammer Falls,” is an equally ambitious number, beginning with acoustic guitar and vibraphone but eventually grows to include piccolo horn, saxophones and sawtooth synth. And just to make sure the whole thing doesn’t turn into a self-indulgent symphonic noodle fest, it ends abruptly with studio chatter… “Thank God!” echoes Dan’s voice from the control room.
This isn’t a set-the-amps-up-and-hit-record album. It is carefully crafted, tactical and deliberate yet with no signs of fussiness.
Production was by Chad Kinsey and the playing of Paul Murr, Mike Bitts and fellow “slacker” Matt Johnson also contributed. It’s clear that Kinsey and Bobby Gentillo (Right Coast Recording) took their time in the mixing process to make the record sound the best it possibly could. And there was a lot to sort out.
It all shows Zdilla unafraid to be ambitious, with both his arrangements and the way he writes songs. “I know my songs can be a bit weird, but I’m getting more experience at it.”
Catch Dan Zdilla’s album release show tonight at Tellus360 (24 E. King St., Lancaster) at 8pm. No cover. 21+. Click here for more info.