EdTang & The Chops - Goodbye, Zen 5, Sushi Dinner
Release Date: January 1, 2013
Record Label: Self-Released
On the spectrum of album titles, Goodbye, Zen 5, Sushi Dinner is either the greatest head fake in the history of folk music or the worst album title of all time. You expect ridiculous titles like that from metal bands or trippy electronic artists, not from guys who list Frank Turner and Ryan Bingham as primary influences or bring the studio engineer responsible for a bunch of My Morning Jacket and Sufjan Stevens albums on board to master their disc. Such is the case, however, with EdTang & The Chops, an “aggressive folk rock” band out this year in support of their sophomore album (that of the aforementioned ridiculous title). The band’s 2009 disc (or EdTang’s 2009 disc, I suppose; it’s not immediately clear when “The Chops” came into the equation), titled Songs from Under Weigh, has apparently been sitting on Tang’s website for the past four years, just waiting for listeners to come along and discover it via free download. I haven’t yet gotten the opportunity to travel back in time to the debut, but I can say with confidence that Goodbye, Zen 5, Sushi Dinner is the work of a band that deserves to be heard.
Within about two seconds of the record’s first notes—a crackling vinyl sound and the boom of Tang’s gruff, weather-worn voice on opening track “Vaya”—I was thinking, “Well, of course these guys are from Jersey.” For whatever reason, the shores of Asbury Park seem to be a breeding ground for throwback, folk-tinged rock ‘n’ roll. From Bruce Springsteen to Brian Fallon, there might as well be something in the water in New Jersey that produces street-rat-poet rock heroes. Don’t get me wrong though: I’ve only been listening to EdTang & The Chops for two days, and I’m hardly ready to anoint them as the next in that legendary line.
Still, it is worth making the comparison and noting that, throughout the half hour that makes up Goodbye, Zen 5, Sushi Dinner, EdTang & The Chops make precisely the kind of music that early Gaslight Anthem fans may have wanted to hear after Sink or Swim (or maybe after the Senor and the Queen EP). It’s loose, it’s lyrically nuanced, and some of the choruses (particularly the gang vocal refrain in “My Whole Life”) feel tailor-made for communal concert sing alongs in dingy bars on the Jersey shore. The tempos may be slower than what Gaslight traditionally trades in, and the emphasis in this particular folk-punk mix is tilted greatly in the folk direction, but it’s not hard to imagine these guys playing a hole-in-the-wall club on the same streets where Springsteen, Fallon, and countless other rock ‘n’ roll talents once cut their teeth.
In actuality, EdTang & The Chops have a musical style more in line with Lucero than anyone else. Tang’s voice has a lot in common with the rugged drawl of Lucero frontman Ben Nichols. Sometimes, he’s a downright dead-ringer for the more experienced Memphis, TN-based troubadour, as on the penultimate one-two punch of “Pualei” and “Just Two Old Friends.” On both songs, Tang is joined by a female vocalist. In the case of the former, the girl takes the lead, with Tang’s voice burning like a cigarette-charred ghost in the distance.
The latter, meanwhile, is the album’s finest song, a classic Americana opus of mournfully nostalgic storytelling and swelling, memory-laced musical texture. A harmonica, a withering steel guitar, and a recklessly-strummed acoustic provide the backdrop, but what makes the song incredible are the verses, two dense lyrical passages that paint a portrait of a young love that, for whatever reason, had to end. The first verse finds the lovers locked in the spontaneity of a summer fling: an escape from the house in the dead of night, a forbidden rendezvous beneath a street light, hours spent sitting together on a playground structure, the wind blowing down across Ocean Avenue with the promise of endless possibility grasped within its arms. And then, the second verse hits: the summer’s gone and those blissful nights are a thing of the far-off past. The romantic summer streetlight encounters have been supplanted by convenience store meetings, a symbol of the mundane slog that their lives have become. They want to escape, to get out of this town and see what else is out there. Maybe they do escape; maybe they don’t. We never learn their ultimate fate beyond the bittersweet strains of the title refrain—“we’re just two old friends now”—and the song is all the more powerful for the details it leaves out.
The perfect, poetic minimalism of that one song overshadows the rest of the album a bit, but like most folk releases, Goodbye, Zen 5, Sushi Dinner only gets better as you listen more and let the lyrics sink in. Musically, some listeners will find Tang’s sound too repetitious: almost every song has a similar strumming pattern, and it could be argued that the use of pedal steel on this album is actually too ubiquitous. However, those are small gripes for what is, on the whole, a fantastic record from a band that deserves to be heard. I was a fan well before I reached the last track—“Bill I Believe This is Killing Me,” named after a lyric from Billy Joel’s signature song—and since both of EdTang’s albums are available for free download, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to sleep on hearing these guys any longer.