Max Zaska is an artist very much in love with his craft.
At least, that’s my first big takeaway from his debut LP It Takes A Village. There’s a few reasons to speculate as much. The first is purely logistical. At 16 songs total, ITAV is a long album. Yet, the record never feels cobbled or meshed together. There’s a loving care and acute consideration in its composition and running order.
Zaska seems like the sort of personality that enjoys the bitty details, the tongue between the teeth tiny moments. ITAV features contributions from over 25 artists. Exactly the sort of colossal collaborative ambition that makes for dizzy heads. It takes an artist with a head for coordination and a passion to fuel it to pull so many disparate elements together into a cohesive whole.
Scan through the feature list and any Irish music head will recognise plenty of names. Jess Kavanagh of Barq makes an early appearance on ‘My Body’. Loah is there, as is Louise Gaffney (Come On Live Long) and Wyvern Lingo. Booka Brass provide some stellar horn work. Yet, good features does not a good album make.
If anything, a more cynical mind could look at the features and render them a gimmick, something used to prop the album up in the absence of real substance. A feature on many major label hip-hop albums from artists lacking inspiration. Thankfully, this is not so.
Instead, Zaska must be commended for the vision he brings to the table on his debut. The features, bar none, bring something unique to the narrative and vibe the album presents. Wyvern Lingo’s gospel-styled vocal harmonies on ‘Wear’ are the stuff of goosebumps. A touching addition to an already tender moment in the album’s arc. Charlie McCabe’s subdued vocals on ‘Close To You’ serves to the make this love song all the more intimate. Loah’s proud delivery on ‘Cannot Will Not’ is exactly the reaffirming touch the track needed.
Each of these artists has done good, even great, work in their own right. Yet, none of it is really relevant in It Takes A Village. Zaska nails the unenviable job of assigning the right voice, instrument and part. The song is primary, whoever’s on it is secondary.
It Takes A Village is surprising and continuously so. For an album and an artist so inspired by more puritan breeds of guitar and non-commercial music, the overall mix is supremely clean and crisp.
‘Close To You’ is an excellent early example. Zaska’s knots the bass and kick drum together neatly. This makes for a punchy, if not slightly understated, low end. In its stead, a splash of organ lead and bright horn swells provide the main body of the track in the high-mids. It’s an airy, uncongested sound. One that is characteristic of the entire production ethos throughout the LP.
Despite these aesthetic commitments, It Takes A Village falters on occasion. The same time and attention it takes for a project of this magnitude to gel ends up polishing so much of it’s material to a gleam. I felt myself craving a little less compression, a little more experimentation in melodic composition.
This will not bother many listeners, few ever complain about an album being too clean. Yet fans of more leftfield music won’t find a whole lot adventurous or innovative on this debut.
On certain moments, like ‘Swan’ or ‘My Body’, some of the songwriting can phoned in. Not a huge issue, but there’s definitely room for Zaska to expand and experiment with the core of his sound going forward.
Another big surprise is the theme and tone of the album. ITAV is a love story. In fact, it’s a few love stories blended into one. Between Zaska and his significant other primarily. Tracks like ‘Close To You’ and ‘U’ are unabashedly romantic, charmingly so. The music and words blend naturally, especially with Carly Coonagh’s delivery on the latter. The refrain of “Paint your starlight/ now in plain sight” is archetypical of the idealism which bouys the first half of this LP.
In case you won’t guess from song titles like ’12 Weeks’ and ‘The Final Push’, It Takes A Village also charts Zaska’s transition into fatherhood. There’s a genuine closure in the difference between the person presented in the beginning and end of the album. ‘Introducing..’ finds a sleeping Zaska dreaming of having his name sung out by the many. ‘Cannot Will Not’ is a reaffirmation of the admiration he has for his mother and a tribute to the importance of family in a broader sense. It’s a touching shift in priority and a modicum of why Zaska is viewed as one of Irish music’s nice guys.
It’s worth talking about the few instrumental tracks on ITAV. Max Zaska originally made his name and reputation as a bit of a virtuoso guitarist (correctly awarded the mantle of best in the country), so it’s fair to assume the foundation of his songwriting is in his guitar work.
Take one of the album’s deeper cuts, ‘The Final Push’. On a spiritual level, the track feels closer to the music his inspirations made than the singles. Particularly, the very tangible Pink Floyd influence on this one. Both the rhythm section and the larger than life organ sound come out of the Wish You Were Here playbook and the icy delayed guitar leads are a Gilmour staple, check out ‘What Do You Want From Me?‘.
Yet, these more instrumentally indulgent tracks on It Takes A Village are firmly in the minority. This is not an album that will only appeal to rock or funk puritans. Fans of more commercial stuff won’t have to wait out a 4-minute solo with gritted teeth. Instead, Zaska has made the wiser choice of transcending some of his more immediate influences. ITAV is a pleasure to listen to, with plenty of tracks that boast a natural radio-friendly appeal.
It Takes A Village is released everywhere on Friday the 1st of February. Zaska & friends will be performing a launch gig in the Button Factory on February 8th. Tickets, at €15+, are available here. Further event details are available here.
Listen to It Takes A Village In Full