n their debut album Take Me Home, Zox proved they could make b-level college rock that, aside from the inclusion of a violin (which isn't unusual at frats in the post-Dave Matthews era), was completely forgettable. The album was more or less flawless, but only because you need substance before you could have a blemish. I assume tipsy undergrads scooped up enough copies of this record to encourage the band to keep going. Most of those same kids probably with their eight bucks had gone toward another case of Natty Light.
Something has happened since 2003, though: Zox have gotten interesting. They haven't changed format, they haven't been listening to Gang of Four, and they haven't appreciably improved their musicianship. What they have done on The Wait is drop the reggae influences, darken their overall sound, and write more creative songs. I'm also guessing they've worked their asses off: two years ago they sounded like a bunch of boys trying to get laid, now they sound like a band who doesn't have time for groupies.
The group maintains a pop identity and doesn't care about being arty, but that doesn't mean they neglect craft. The chord progressions move smoothly but often unpredictably, allowing vocalist Eli Miller to sing memorable and easy melodies. Zox appears to be more comfortable in (or have spent more time in) the studio, adding more textures and fleshing out their relatively straightforward sound with guitars and effects. As before, Spencer Swain's violin adds an important element to the aesthetic, but it's often held back; you could get through a couple tracks without noticing where that extra tone is coming from.
Although Zox has made a big and unlikely improvement, they still take too many steps into mediocrity. They too often slide toward middling Counting Crows. "Satellite" (which references that band in title) shows the band at its blandest. The track centers around the phrase "You're my sun and I'm your satellite," creating, if not astronomical confusion, then a simultaneously odd and trite metaphor. The song further devolves when Miller tries to extrapolate the imagery to the relationship in question: "I wrap my world around your body." He attempts to maintain the encircling imagery, but he mixes the metaphorical with the literal, and posits an impossible situation in his depiction of the real. Beyond the analytical pedantry, though, it's just a dull phrase near the mild climax of a vapid song.
But if it was all like that, I wouldn't be praising Zox. The group does better when it stays more straightforward, as in "Better If It's Worse." On this track, the group rails in favor of boredom. Rather than chasing an escape from the mundane, Miller voices a desire to sink back into it. Although the opening language is a bit overblown ("This is he place where dreams are unmade, cut into pieces and left in the rain"), the song grows into an effective answer song to, well, pick your pop song. While the singer gives up and argues that boredom is better than hurt, the music sounds like his conscience venting. The song carries an emotional complexity, and the ambivalence plays out formally between musical aggression and literal hopelessness.
Zox still aren't going to show up on year-end lists and snobby message boards, but that doesn't seem to be their intention. They're trying to make good pop, full of real emotion and with enough hooks to drive a basement party. Even if they overdo it sometimes, they've managed to achieve those ends. Zox makes a strong statement to everyone (including me) who wrote them off two years ago, and will likely increase their fanbase considerably. That's bad news for cheap beer.