Martin Zellar & the Hardways

Owen Lee

If forced to prove that the right music can make you enjoy despair rather than forget it, I might start with the late, great Gear Daddies. And the Austin, Minn.-based band’s hard-luck lyrics and countrified bar-band aesthetic never sounded better than on 1990’s Billy’s Live Bait: Gentle guitar and sublime harmonica punctuate the ennui of “Sonic Boom,” a laid-back country beat perfectly matches the playing-possum motif of “No One’s Home,” and “Goodbye Marie” is nearly too bubbly for a song about an unfulfilled friendship. Then there are the bookends, the male-self-hatred anthem “Stupid Boy” and the boy-sees-Zamboni, boy-falls-in-love-with-Zamboni, boy-ain’t-good-enough-for-Zamboni hidden track. Not for nothing did some 20,000 fans flood downtown St. Paul for a one-off Gear Daddies reunion last August. Scattered, former Gear Daddies frontman Martin Zellar’s first studio offering since 1998’s The Many Moods of Martin Zellar & the Hardways, opens with the surprisingly affirmational “Here’s to Everyone” before mixing in a handful of slower songs (and a Neil Diamond cover) and a bunch of up-tempo numbers. Working more with piano and electric guitar than pedal steel and harmonica these days, Zellar and his band nonetheless hits some

Daddies-worthy hooks along the way. “Here’s to Everyone” is one of his catchiest tunes in years; condensed to 30 seconds, it’d sell plenty of Budweiser. Love-and-loss rocker “Everything We Had” and the quirky phone-call-from-Mom tune “So Far Away” could probably stoke consumer demand, too. It’s a shame most of the lyrics aren’t as strong as the music, though. However heartfelt Zellar’s musings are, they could benefit from more detail and context. Still, as Zellar weathers middle age, it’s interesting to hear him rethink old themes. When he sings, “It seems my fate, the dice are cast/As long as my liver will last” on “Barfly Blues,” the potent mix of regret and sprightly bounce that characterized earlier efforts such as “Drank So Much (Just Feel Stupid)” and “Ten-Year Coin” hardens into something more resigned, matched by a suitably dark and confining guitar shuffle. Perhaps that’s why the disc wraps up on two lighter notes: the quasi-idyllic “Summer Song” and the piano-ballad closer “Always Be Friends,” which Zellar wrote for his sons. Given the man’s current fondness for jangly guitar solos, the former’s references to twister sirens, mosquitoes, and fireflies are about as country as Scattered gets. You might say that Zellar has gone from the Byrds circa 1968 to the Byrds circa 1965: three years back, but by no means a regression. —Joe Dempsey