First Impressions: Goddaughters by Zach Phillips

This is my 750th post, and I can think of no better soundtrack for passing that mile(stone) marker than the latest long player from singer-songwriter Zach Phillips, Goddaughters. It’s a sublime set of songs. (Cool cover, too.)

On a strictly sonic level, it’s a ricochet in time due to its polished sheen, conjuring the adult-oriented folk-rock and pop of the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Think Jackson Browne’s Hold Out (1980), Crosby, Stills & Nash’s CSN (1977) and Daylight Again (1982), and Dan Fogelberg’s Phoenix (1979) and Innocent Age (1981), as well as Fleetwood Mac’s Mirage (1982) and Paul McCartney’s Tug of War. There’s nary a note out of place, in other words. At the same time, remnants of 1990s-era dream pop are carried ashore with each sonic wave—think Mazzy Star and Curve, among other practitioners. It’s a dense yet airy production, heavy yet light, with the warm tones that he achieves with his vocals and guitar seemingly splashing to the fore from the unconscious mind. On the lyrical side of things, Phillips shares what he describes on his website as “an interior travelogue that maps out journeys of longing, seeking and, ultimately, redemption.” He yearns, observes and learns hard truths by surveying the world around him as well as the world within.

The album gets under way with “Cassiopeia,” a short instrumental that’s one part “we have ignition” and two parts—to borrow a phrase from Steve Earle—“heavy metal bluegrass.” The first proper song, “Worshipers,” delves into the waiting game played by folks who put so much faith in what’s to come that they miss the here and now. “New Star” turns the focus inward and to the existential: “A new star is born/But I’m out here all alone/With only words.” He could be an astronaut adrift in space, a dreamer lost in a dream, or even an aging artist elbowed out of the picture by a newbie. The uptempo “Harmony Grove,” meanwhile, explores the final stage of love and commitment, when there’s no turning back. (“Harmony Grove, it’s a wayward sight/It’s grown so pretty, and it’s old as night/I fell in love in a fated glance/In Harmony Grove, I’d given up my chances.”)

“Psychics,” for its part, chronicles how calamity is always nigh for some soothsayers, yet they never seem overly perturbed by it. “Goddaughters” follows; it’s the first single from the album and either celebrates the demigods among us or those children linked to us by baptism. Either/or, “they don’t ask for anything/but a song to sing.”

An acoustic/electric guitar interplay rings forth on “Curses,” about the setbacks found on the path to achieving true love; Phillips’ duet with himself—his main lead and a higher, more frantic vocal—adds to the drama. The subdued “The Hour When I First Believed” could be about love, God, Beatlemania or even one’s self: “And the hour when I first believed/It didn’t last, but it made such a scene/It was real as hell, then it faded to a dream/But I can’t let go.” “Courtesy of a True God” delves into faith and song again, with a guitar solo near the end swirling and twirling like Natalie Merchant in her 10,000 Maniacs days. “The Big Mountain” finds Phillips on a ship while in a fading dream. “Ocean of Song,” on the other hand, dives from that ship’s perch into the sea to celebrate the enduring majesty of song. The album comes to an end with “Cassiopeia in the Stars,” another brief instrumental.

As I listened again to Goddaughters again this morning and early afternoon, I couldn’t help but to think of another comparison: Our Time in Eden by 10,000 Maniacs. It’s a lush, hook-laden affair that’s often accented by Rob Buck’s guitar playing off Dennis Drew’s keyboards. Along with Gregg Montante and Bobby Cressey, Phillips achieves the same sonic grace here. It’s well worth many listens.

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