The mighty Vansaders mellow with their outstanding new acoustic LP, “Standstill.”
One of the things that founding Vansaders singer-songwriter-guitarist Doug Zambon is awesome at is writing about regret in a relatable way that makes you realize you’re not the only schmuck in the pack. It’s a very cathartic approach to music with a release of emotion lyrically rooted in the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash, as well as with a punk zeal cut from the edge of Social Distortion and The Clash.
On The Vansaders’ new nine-song LP, Standstill, they trade in punk for acoustic Celtic-Americana that increases the intimacy of seven songs previously released on an LP and two of the band’s three EPs. The collection also features two covers. A much improved version of Jawbreaker’s “Kiss the Bottle,” a sad tale about a down-and-out drunk who brings his girlfriend down with him by breaking her heart, better captures the essence of the lyrics with a beautiful arrangement inspired by Lucero’s country-punk cover. The Vansaders’ version also is improvement over that with exquisite fiddle and accordion tracks respectively played by Zach Doyle and Jake Garbe, two local traditional Irish musicians. Their work is among several exceptional guest performances expertly captured behind the board by Bouncing Souls guitarist Pete Steinkopf, who also produced The Vansaders’ four previous releases. With Steinkopf at the helm, the band’s take on “Kiss the Bottle” has a warm, edgy Celtic-like Flogging Molly vibe, yet the delivery also recalls “Tim”-era Replacements.
The other Standstill cover is “The Monster,” a chronicle of a toxic relationship for which the protagonist takes the blame and from which he is reluctant to break free. Written and originally recorded by the late No Use for a Name front man Tony Sly, the Vansaders’ version resembles a Dylanesque take on Social D.
The remainder of Standstill is redone originals, all wonderfully arranged and performed in a deeply moving way that defies the stagnant inspiration of the album’s title. Throughout, The Vansaders — also guitarist-vocalist Deaglan Howlett, bassist-vocalist Kyle Zupe and drummer-percussionist Jay Maranzino — prove that they are massively talented band who otherwise play punk rock not because they have to but because they want to. It’s hard to make acoustic music this precise, intricate and intimate.
It’s even harder to keep up with the caliber of musicians involved. Ryan Gregg of The Shady Street Show Band contributes an achingly beautiful piano to a haunting version of “So Long Ago” from the 2015 Jumping at the Shadows EP. The regret of Zambon’s original solo acoustic recording is recalled rather than the “fuck-it, fuck-you” vibe of the snarly, punk-fueled full-band live version. Zambon sounds like a young Bob Dylan as he sparingly picks and strums his acoustic guitar alongside Gregg on the album’s most painful, yet cathartic track.
Blues harp veteran Kenny “Stringbean” Sorensen adds a scorching solo and accompaniment to “Ripped It Apart,” a fun, driving roots-rocker featuring a Levon Helm-spirited encounter with a she devil that also first appeared on Jumping at the Shadows but with a lineup different from Zambon’s current band mates.
Another deep track is the closing “Handshakes & Pity” from the 2014 debut LP, Stuck in New York City. This is perhaps the greatest of the catalog’s makeovers with Black Flamingos’ guitarist Robbie Butkowski turning in a surprisingly sweet trumpet run on the tale about outgrowing the bar scene. The impeccably arranged remake features Brazilian-favored guitar and trumpet accompaniment ala Antonio Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz.
Another standout is an acoustic version of “Sunrise” from the band’s most recent EP, 2017’s No Matter What. Strings and vocal harmonies initially give the retake a Beatles/Beach Boys feel, especially on the beloved “bye bye bye to Bond Street” line. But then the tune breaks down into a sweet Mellencamp-like roots jam and continues as an anthemic sing-along, like it is live when the entire club nearly drowns out the band on the final chorus.
Standstill also features a Beatles-in-Ireland-like take on “No Plans” and a touching “Everything We’re Not,” both from the debut LP, and a fiddle-driven “Christine” from Jumping at the Shadows. But the highlight of the album are the last four tracks: “Kiss the Bottle,” “So Long,” “Sunrise” and “Handshakes & Pity,” the best end to an LP I’ve heard in quite a long time, what 20th century radio used to call “a perfect album side.” Nothing against the rest of Standstill — it’s great — but these four tracks made it a fun challenge to pick out the Makin Waves Song of the Week. However, the new version of “So Long Ago” is one of those rare songs that after reviewing it for a week, I went back to listen in my free time for the pleasure of it.
Yet, the best part about Standstill is that these more intimate, precise and lyrically clear versions will make it all the easier to participate in the festive sing-along that is a Vansaders show, which fans can enjoy three-fold on Jan. 19 in celebration of the album’s release. At 1:45 p.m., the band will play an acoustic set at Lifestyle Fitness. Then Zambon will play a solo acoustic set at 3:45 p.m. at Lola’s European Cafè. Both are on Cookman Avenue and part of Asbury Underground’s Light of Day edition. That evening, The Vansaders again will play Light of Day with an electric set at The Saint. That show also will feature The Morgan Freemasons, Geena & the Dragster and The Board Lords. The band also will be play Feb. 16 at Asbury Park Yacht Club.
Bob Makin is the reporter for www.MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves at www.facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.