The Early Years

(Absolutely Kosher; 2005)

By Peter Hepburn | 26 January 2008

Last summer I got to talk with Carl Newman for an hour or so about his music and the challenges of going solo, especially after the success of the New Pornographers. I mentioned that all the copies of The Slow Wonder that I had seen were adorned with a not-so-small sticker proclaiming, more or less, that the CD was in fact made by “A.C. Newman of the New Pornographers.” It didn’t seem to bother him much, perhaps rightfully so, but it makes me wonder what position Jason Zumpano is in.

Way back in the mid-‘90s, Carl and Jason lead the fantastic pop group Zumpano. They released two records on Sub Pop, Look What the Rookie Did and Goin’ Through Changes, then parted ways before finishing their long-rumoured third record. Those albums would have languished in obscurity, or at least more obscurity, if Carl Newman hadn’t also been an integral member of the band and later, you know, done his crazy “Letter from an Occupant” thing.

Jason kept a low profile for a few years, and then in 2003 released the self-titled debut from Sparrow. It was charming, by all accounts charming if not particularly great. Now we have The Early Years, a more polished project, but still with some flaws. I’m curious if there’s enough name recognition for Zumpano (hopefully) to push this one into the indie consciousness.

Jason sticks to what he knows: solid pop hooks, standard instrumentation (though with a good use of strings), and a vocal style that seems like a mix of Newman and early Ben Folds, though with a more psychedelic aspect than either of those two. All in all he pulls it off well on The Early Years, but ith only nine songs, the album feels pretty light --- though at the same time there are a couple songs here that could stand to be 30 seconds shorter.

When he does nail the formula, he does quite well. The title track bops along happily, with a perfect little drum track and a chorus that will lodge itself in your brain. The “Crazy in Love” breakdown is a bit odd, but certainly prevents the song from becoming dull, even if the same effect could have been achieved through making it a bulletproof two and a half minute song rather than a very good three and a half minute song. “Late Last Night” lets Zumpano alter his delivery a bit, and the organ intro to the irresistibly poppy “I Wouldn’t Mind” matches out wonderfully with the subtle string section playing throughout the song.

Still, though, some weaknesses become clear as the album proceeds. All too many of these songs just flow together, with melodies sounding disappointingly familiar. Lyrically Zumpano is interesting; not in a Bejar-weird sort of way, but certainly avoiding some of the pop-gibberish we’ve had from Newman. A lot of the songs seem to have a natural end-point that is passed by in favor of a simple breakdown followed by one more time through the chorus. If Zumpano could write himself a couple more killer hooks he would have quite an album here. As it stands, however, The Early Years is pleasant but a little too light on new ideas.