Martin Zellar Born Under

Of the ten songs originally released as Born Under in 1995, nine paint a sombre picture of Middle American hope deferred, of the dull ache of hand-to-mouth existence, jarred only by moments of misdirected anger or repentant pride. There's a Shakespearean quality to the way Martin Zellar's characters can see their inevitable ends, but are powerless to resist. But track ten, which for a decade was where Born Under’s curtain closed, is a cautiously optimistic exhortation. "Let Go" is a dare — with bombastic guitar and organ swells — to defy destiny, or at least to not dwell on it. The album proper shows Zellar in similar strata as Springsteen or even Escovedo as a powerfully articulate teller of the shadowy and often uncomfortable stories of defeat and hopelessness. Vocally, he's at first reminiscent of fellow nasal Minnesotan Dylan. But there's peculiar throatiness too, whose source is revealed on the first bonus track. The bonus material on Born Under consists of three covers and six live tracks recorded at South by Southwest in 1996. The live material is strong, but doesn't especially add anything to the studio versions already on the album. The latter two covers (the Cars' "Best Friend's Girl" and Buck Owens's "Love's Gonna Live Here") are fun and show a lighter side to Zellar. But the cover of Neil Diamond's "If You Know What I Mean," for all its latent sentimentality offers invaluable insight into Zellar as both singer and songwriter. Most obvious is the throaty growl, but after making the Diamond-Zellar connection it's hard not see the optimistic underpinnings of his previously bleak tales. (Rykodisc)