“Perfection” is a very hard metric to measure when it comes to music. As a subjective art form, what is perfect for some and what falls short for others is often in the eye of the beholder. Country music is no Chinese piano box, or acrobatics routine. But if your measure of perfection is how well you re-interpret and reinvigorate the classic styles of country music from its bygone Golden era, then Zephaniah OHora’s second record—similar to his first one—scores a 10.0.
From the way the songs are authored down to the very word, to the sounds and instruments rendered down to the very note, to the exact amount of reverb and chorus employed, to every single one of the production elements and decisions—and most importantly Zephaniah’s voice—everything is meticulously crafted with persistence to be right in line with what you think about when you think classic country music. Regardless of what one feels about the songs or the outcome of this record itself, the accuracy here is a spellbinding all its own, and an achievement worthy of high regard.
And for an artist such as Zephaniah OHora, he doesn’t have much choice but to get it perfect. As a New Hampshire native based in Brooklyn, no liberties will be extended his way from the fickle, speculative, and often ornery traditional country fan that Zephaniah looks to appeal to. As much as made about diversity and inclusion in today’s country music, regionalism is still just as much a worry as sexism or racism, with a negative bias weighted against those from north of the Mason-Dixon, especially from cities, and specifically from New York.
But delivering undeniably and resoundingly with a reverence, tenderness, and studious appreciation for country music in a way many Southern boys can’t even come close to, you can’t help but welcome Zephaniah into the fold with open arms, and in a way that tears at the very idea that where you’re from limits your ability to make good country.
Comparisons between Zephaniah’s voice and style are often made to another outsider who had to prove his muster in country music and didn’t have a natural twang to his voice to fall back on—Merle Haggard. A convict from California who rose to popularity at a time when a cultural revolution coming from the West Coast was roiling country music’s conservative core, Merle ingratiated himself immediately through his music, as does Zephaniah.
But his new record Listening to the Music isn’t just a Haggard tribute act. You certainty get a shiver down your spine like you’re hearing a ghost when you pipe up “All American Singer” that reminds one of Merle’s patriotic era, or the equally-eerie “Black and Blue.” But within that 60’s Countrypolitan era Ohora looks to evoke, he finds ample latitude to explore other styles of the era, like the country folk pop style of the brilliant “Not So Easy Today” indicative of perhaps Glen Campbell, or later in the record with “Planned To Have It All” complete with saxophone, which as Merle aficionados can point out, found its way into many a Haggard song as well.
Zephaniah OHora proves that classic country music isn’t just timeless. It gets even better with age as the more modern interpretations of country continue to prove their inferiority. Songs about love, longing, and heartbreak never age, and even though Zephaniah clearly writes to summon up as sense of nostalgia in the listener, this in no way impinges on the quality of the writing itself. The devastating feelings captured in “When I’ve No More Tears To Cry” prove this.
Zephaniah’s songs are perfection, and will find great favor with those old soul classic country listeners. But it’s only being fair to say that for many in a much wider audience, the songs and style coming from Listening to the Music will be considered … well … hokey. Even more so than his debut album, This Highway, the genteel nature of the approach can be too sleepy for some. But before you render your opinion conclusively, make sure you check out “Living Too Long,” which gives this record a needed upbeat jolt, and even captures the otherwise reserved Zephaniah cutting uncharacteristically loose a little.
Zephaniah Ohora took a big risk after the production of his first record went so well choosing to go with Neal Casal this time instead. But the results are the same, if not even better, with no corners cut. The strings on the record are actual strings, not a mellotron. And you still have top notch players bringing these songs to life like steel guitar player Jon Graboff, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, and Courtney Jaye and Dori Freeman singing backup.
Sure, Listening to the Music won’t spirit the legacy of country music forward like some of the groundbreaking conceptualized works regularly cited as some of the most important in history. But it’s interpretation and preservation efforts for classic country are of high importance all the same, and the record is so expertly executed, it’s worthy to elevate it into the elite class of recorded works. Now with two of these such albums to his resume, Zephaniah OHora is also worthy of recognizing as nothing short of a modern master of the classic country realm.
Two Guns Up (9.5/10)
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