ZANE STAFFORD – Lighting Up The Black

Zane Stafford is a musician from Stockton, California. His general sound is very much acoustic based, but instead of taking the sappy confessional route, he strives for something more concerned with moods and atmospheres. Across the ten songs featured on 2011 his release, his work combines airy vocals with a slight indie/emo edge and, naturally, this produces varying results.

With down-tuned sounding chords and a slightly alternative vibe, ‘Jericho’ suggests immediately that this disc isn’t just another run-of-the-mill piece of acoustic sappiness. Stafford’s chosen chord pattern is from the nineties school of song writing, but he combines the alternative feelings with ringing, clearer chords and a soft, natural vocal leading to something which makes for a strong opener. By the time the track reaches a climax, he’s also backed by organ and synth strings which both help give things a fuller sound. ‘The Signal’ follows with a rhythmic number, showcasing the more straight ahead elements of Zane’s sound. The song writing is solid once again, with Stafford breaking up the wordiness of the verses with a somewhat punctuating cry of “hallelujah!” The track also introduces a few electric guitars, which like most other elements on this album are concerned with mood rather than any kind of showiness. While these songs are enjoyable, there are others featured on ‘Lighting Up The Black’ which are a much better showcase for his talents.

‘Down With The Ship’ is such a number, and even though the core of the song remains with the previous acoustic vibes (and this time with a few great harmonics thrown into the intro), the performance is far stronger. The acoustic elements are underpinned by a far more effective use of echoing electric reverb, while Stafford’s unobtrusive voice stays in the realms of wistful. With a light influence from Iron & Wine, this recording has the scope of a movie soundtrack, and as such, brings a whole extra dimension to his breathy style. Similarly moody is the almost purely acoustic ‘Into The Black’. It’s a number which makes the best usage of the gently picked guitar, but it’s during the second half where the arrangement really comes alive, as the acoustic sounds get swamped by echoing electric guitars and a chiming piano chord. Meanwhile, Zane’s vocal holds its own, eventually meshing with backing voices to create a climax.

The use of relatively simple rhythmic chords ensures ‘Walls’ has potential, especially once those acoustic lines are juxtaposed with a few electric jangles. While the vocal isn’t quite as assured as that of ‘Down With The Ship’, when Stafford’s lead voice is coupled with a selection of backing voices (in a busier arrangement than those heard during ‘Into The Black’), it becomes one of his fullest sounding numbers. The return of a hallelujah refrain creates somewhat of a low point, since an idea can be overused; but on the whole, ‘Walls’ still a very agreeable number. ‘The End’ is a little more straight ahead acoustic alt-pop than some of the previous outings, with a tiny hint something Smashing Pumpkins would have toyed with back in the mid 90s. Since over the shimmering chords Stafford sings of “a glass for pouring poison in, if I’m the beginning then she will be the end”, maybe it’s the slightly darker lyrical content that occasionally makes this reminiscent of something from the bands of that period… Without too much analysis, though, this closing number stands alongside ‘Down With The Ship’ and ‘Into The Black’ as reason enough to listen to this album.

On the negative side, it could be said that Stafford’s arrangements feels somewhat one-paced when the album is listened to as a whole but, when listened to individually, each of the album’s ten songs comes with enough depth of feeling for them to stand up individually. If you find some connection with Zane Stafford’s music and occasionally dark and questioning song writing, it’s likely you’ll find this an enjoyable listen, though the moody atmospheres of ‘Lighting Up The Black’ may not appeal to everyone.

August 2011