Monday, February 12, 2024

Mike Zito - Life Is Hard

Track four on Life Is Hard gets right to the heart of the matter.  ‘Forever My Love’ is a song that Mike Zito wrote for his wife Laura several months before she finally succumbed to cancer.  It’s a personal and passionate blues ballad, a soulful affair on which Zito delivers a soaring, heartfelt vocal.  A simple song at heart, it’s beautifully arranged, with subtle French horn contributions and some transcendent Zito guitar, and boy does it have emotional impact.
The moods of the songs on Life Is Hard may vary – they’re not all as emotive as ‘Forever My Love’.  But in essence this album is a memorial to Laura Zito, a concept the couple agreed on before she died, on which Zito undertook to open his heart through the blues.  It’s a catharsis, if you will. And holy moly but it delivers.
Mike Zito - finding a light in the black

If ‘Forever My Love’ is a keynote track, ‘These Eyes’ is another.  A heightened, deepened overhaul of a 1969 song by The Guess Who, it’s a wonderful, soul excursion fit to compete with anything on Springsteen’s Only The Strong Survive album, and then some.  Over a patient beat, washes of organ, moans from those French horns, and marvellously Motown-ish harmonies from Jade Macrae and Danielle Deandrea set the tone for Zito to take the spotlight. It’s sweet and dreamy, but never saccharine, and is set off by some gorgeous, FX-treated guitar.
The album gets under way with something less intense, mind you, with the vibrant, funky boogie of ‘Lonely Man’, a Little Milton tune that’s upbeat in spite of its protagonist’s tears, and which features a lush organ solo from Reese Wynans and a zinging Zito guitar break.  The lazy swing of ‘Have A Talk With God’ is a similarly easy-going, with breezy backing vocals and guitar soloing, and if I don’t really go with the lyrical sentiment that’s just me; given Mike Zito’s status as an alcoholic in recovery – a process in which his wife was pivotal – it’s a philosophy he’s entitled to follow.  Meanwhile ‘No One To Talk To (But The Blues) provides some different light relief, of a rock’n’rolling, Texas blues kinda variety, more muscular and immediate than the 2019 reading by Jimmie Vaughan.
But this album ain't titled Life Is Hard for nuthin', and the title track is the first to look into the void. Another blues ballad, it comes with more soul-drenched organ from Wynans, while Zito is absolutely in the zone both vocally and on guitar, as he laments that “I can’t count the tears I’ve cried, ‘cause life is hard, and then you die.”   ‘Darkness’ is more solemn yet, a solemn blues over a dragging beat that shifts in tone from sparse to epic, Zito’s guitar swirling and darting around like a kite in the wind.  And at the very end there comes the stark ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’, which starts with Zito singing alone, unaccompanied and staring death squarely in the eye. Gradually the voices of Steve Ray Ladson, Macrae and Deandrea arrive to add an even deeper moaning-the-blues vibe, and then the song swells further, spooky guitar notes evolving into a writhing danse macabre until it comes to a sudden stop.
There are some other flavours along the way, like the tough and fuzzy ‘Dying To Do Wrong’, with its grinding riff and eerie middle section with washes of organ and sparse, reverb-inflected guitar notes.  And the cover of Walter Trout’s ‘Nobody Moves Like Me You Do’ is a strident declaration of love in a gritty blues-rock vein, with a ‘Mistreated’-like riff and a wiry guitar solo.
Life Is Hard was co-produced by Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith, and credit to them for capturing Mike Zito’s vision to life with a perfect sound palette, while the assembled musos all contribute to a marvellous ensemble effort.  But it’s always Mike Zito who is in the spotlight, as singer, guitarist and interpreter.  God knows how he pulled his off, with the emotional baggage he must have been carrying, but he did.  Life Is Hard is an open-hearted blues triumph.
Life Is Hard is released by Gulf Coast Records on 23 February, and can be ordered here.

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