I have to admit, I’m as lost in Joan Zen’s world as I am in a fabric store—a wide-eyed newbie in a strange and earnest universe. Or rather, a Youniverse.
That’s the title of Zen’s new CD, 10 tracks of R&B-flavored songs celebrating the Buddhist ideals of harmony, peace, love and connectedness. The lyrics are straight-up and irony-free in their message, almost to the point of didacticism.
“I wanted to write a good, poppy, feel-good record,” says Zen, aka Deborah Hicks, in a recent phone conversation. “I wanted to get people thinking about happiness.”
She adds that Youniverse is more accessible than her first CD, Intramission, which was introspective and brooding. That first disc “wasn’t meant to be commercial,” the Bitterroot resident says. “I was still finding myself.” With Youniverse, she and her Zen Band are, she says, “definitely coming into our own stylistically.”
The Zen Band is professional, tight and play with tons of confidence as they veer from soul to R&B to reggae. Zen is hoping this CD will garner some interest from major league reps, and the band sounds like they’d fit squarely in the adult contemporary radio format with its punchy, pristine production.
Zen sings with plenty of passion and emotion, and she’s got a great soul sister voice that can go from a whisper to a growl faster than you can say “pass the vegan burrito.” This, people, is a real singer with a powerful instrument. Zen’s command of restraint and dynamics sets her apart from so many “American Idol” divas and their hand-waving pseudo-gospel histrionics.
Fellow Bitterrooter Huey Lewis plays some great mouth harp on “The Usual Scene,” and Missoula’s David Horgan lends sublime guitar and lap steel here and there. This added spice helps break up a generic, lounge band feel into which the Zen Band sometimes lapses.
One standout in particular is “Mother Terra,” a catchy, white-boy reggae/rap anchored by a synth-bass that sounds like a didgeridoo played through a wah-wah pedal. At a recent show, Zen said, there were “50 cowboys out there, line dancing to this song.”
Overall, Zen’s newest is a polished, professionally packaged effort that exists almost wholly on the love/peace/environmentalism plane. It should fly off the shelves of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center faster than hemp T-shirts at a Michael Franti concert.
Neo-hippies, if you need a potent musical manifesto, this is your Youniverse.
Joan Zen plays a CD-release show for Youniverse Friday, May 4, at Sean Kelly’s. Call 542-1471.