Dale and the ZDubs want you to feel good about feeling bad. Need proof? Their latest LP, “Leave the Drama,” provides more than you need. Catering to the pop-jam crowd, the set is a gigantic mixing pot filled with ingredients that range from reggae to ska to funk with only a tad bit of rock sprinkled on top for extra seasoning. It’s a tried and true formula for many a music festival side stage act, yes, though rarely has it ever tasted as good as it does when this Delmarva outfit serves up its signature dish.
Better yet is the inherent opposition that comes along when a bright-day approach is set behind some decidedly cloudy sentiments. The style has spawned some of the most affecting music popular culture’s mainstream has seen in the last, say, 50 years (cough, Bob Marley, cough), and because of its variance in texture, the end product is typically as appealing as any one genre can get. Sad tales. Major chords. Fun-loving demeanor. Inner turmoil. Reflective observations. Cynical optimism. If you can’t find at least something within the fabric of artists who confront and combine these elements, you either have no ears or no heartbeat.
Dale and the ZDubs clearly have both, though, and these 11 songs insist they will never shy away from making the most out of either.
Setting these guys apart from other faux-free-spirits is their versatility. “In Go the Lies” is an odd combination of a bluegrass train-beat with some impeccably placed horns and an impossible-to-forget hook. It’s also the most emboldened singer Eric Abrams sounds throughout the entire collection, his personal doubt soaking through a relatively upbeat feel as he finishes the chorus by admitting he “can’t believe I fell for you.” “In go the lies/Out go the truth/Judgment day’s comin’ and it’s comin’ too soon,” the singer quips, his flow sounding impossibly natural.
Intuition is the theme here, though, and each song inches closer and closer to perfection partly because of its spotless presentation. “Never Land” is as crunchy as the Zdubs get, sounding kind of like The Click Five (remember them?!) would have sounded if they ever decided to form a 311 tribute band. It works because of its competency and ease. “When She Smiles” then takes a Galactic groove and actually makes it — yes, this is not a typo — funkier in spots, utilizing a wah-wah pedal to its maximum potential and creating a structure smothered in accessibility.
The track doubles as a showcase for the group’s most important weapons: Abrams’ smooth, brown-eyed soul croon and a buried, not-used-nearly-as-much keyboard. Presented primarily as an organ, that B-3 tone does wonders for any group, let alone one that creates music tailor-made for its inclusion. “Nothing At All,” for instance, features some brilliantly subtle keys that vault these guys above their local peers. Echoing the fingers of Steve Nieve (he of Elvis Costello fame), you have to listen hard to find the noodling, but once it begins to peek through the sunny vibe, Dale and the ZDubs earn a whole new level of points for their attention to detail.
More impressive is the band’s reggae music chops. “Man In White” is the rootsiest they get, the cross-stick drum pattern making it as authentic as anything Sublime or O.A.R. have ever done. Abrams’ voice falls in line wonderfully with the genre infusion, too, his laid-back utterances recalling a tone somewhere between Jack Johnson and Bradley Nowell. This plays perfectly whenever they decide to veer more toward ska music, such as on the album-closing title track, when the energy knob is turned up exponentially and the quick upstrokes make any traditional skank smile with satisfaction. “Too Smooth” is equally as fun, pulling off regular tempo-shifts with inordinate proficiency, reveling in a smorgasbord of its own musical influences all the while exploring a story about a girl “who thinks she different, but she ain’t nothin’ new.” Rejection hasn’t sounded this happy since Bob and his Wailers sang about a corner stone all the way back in 1970.
But that’s what Dale and the ZDubs do — they take what could be outlandishly predictable and also-ran formulas, add their own spices into the mix, and make the main course taste excitingly original. And for a debut full-length record, “Leave the Drama” is one heck of a fulfilling four-star meal not only for its substance, but also for its promise. More, please.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***