ZZZ's debut album Palm Reader keeps the eclecticism at just the right level. With a mix of gypsy mood, jazzy syncopation, and math-rock skills, the band keeps its sound surprising without ever bending to a gimmicky approach. The group just happens to have a collection of weirdos from splintered bands (Sweep the Leg Johnny and Tekulvi among others) who wound up making this odd stuff. Despite haphazard origins, the album contains highly-crafted material that almost succeeds for its full length.
I wouldn't hand Palm Reader to your Satchmo-lovin' uncle, but ZZZZ pulls prominently from jazz. The group plays with precision, developing interlocking melodies (led by Steve Sostak's saxophone) and utilizing a tight rhythm section. The other star musician in the quartet is Ellen Bunch [at this point I'm obligated to use the phrase "classically trained pianist"]. Bunch usually lets Sostak stay out front, but her playing never falters, and her electric keys keep the group leaning more toward jazz and less toward its eastern European roots.
The band trades off leadership, but they spend less time developing themes and making statements than you might expect. Instead, they make nods in various directions, circling around any kind of musical argument until they finally create more a mood and less an explicit song. They're not wanderers, though; the little motifs they work out are memorable and constructive, even if not always linear.
There's a hint of math-rock in the song structures, but with less emphasis on proggy displays of skills. These people show their talent without demanding that you notice it. Unusual drumming, smooth piano transitions, and melodic basslines make up the bulk of the sound, while Sostak's sax stays light, hopping through runs without ever settling down.
Palm Reader opens with its most effective track, "Assassination Polka." This up-tempo number contains several sections smoothly connected (one time by a very nice vocal segue). The opening theme returns to end the middle section and return the song to its full degree of energy. Here, as on much of the album, ZZZZ gives us a touch of a punk sneer, but at the same time they're inviting you to partner dance. It might be a challenge to figure out the best way to do so, though.
ZZZZ has done a great job of creating their own sound and distinguishing themselves from other eastern-European influenced indie acts (like the more graceful Devotchka and more expansive Black Ox Orkestar). The problem is simply that they haven't figured out what to do with this sound yet. The eight tracks and over 35 minutes are solid and the band's clearly skilled at song craft and interested in structure, but they've not really made a statement yet. I suspect it's in them, but it's going to take another album until we hear it.