Joan Zen, a collaboration of Missoula life-mates Jason and Deborah Hicks, just released a five-song EP following their first two albums from years ago. As is their wont, the disc features Joan Zen’s powerful vocals coupled with Jason Hicks’s sterling production to create a soulful, thoughtful sound.
The couple has been songwriting together for 20 years. Their creative spark comes from their Buddhist faith; they strive to bring the tenets of love and compassion to their music as a guiding rule. Their success comes from marrying their lyrics to terrific melodies and rhythms, creating a pop-rock feel that’s downright habituating.
Joan Zen describes it as “modern-day dharma pop music.” She adds, “I’ve never been interested in writing about boy-meets-girl or break-ups, but rather suffering on a larger scale and offering commentary on how we all cope with it.”
Unlike the full-blown sound of their rockin’ quintet, this CD is a quieter, more introspective presentation of these principles. Besides Joan Zen’s tremendous vocals and Jason’s drums, percussion, synthesizer, keys and sax, contributors to the effort are Eric Hutchins on guitars, percussion, trumpet and bass (on one song); and Josh Farmer on keys. Phil Stempin adds bass on “Don’t Be Concerned,” and the Pure Vida Choir, led by Farmer, sings on “Every Stream Leads to the Ocean.”
Joan Zen’s title tune, dedicated to her father, reiterates the band’s positive message. It’s got a rock-steady beat, and I hear wisps of Patti LaBelle in her vocal nuances. Mandela Leola Van Eeden plays didjeridoo on this one.
“Being Mindful” is an infectious pop-rock tune with layered instrumentation. Jason Hicks’s “Don’t Be Concerned” is exotic and gently reggae-fied, with a surf-guitar intro. It’s got gobs of reverb and gauzy ooh-oohs of sleek harmony. This one could be a hit.
The duo’s lyrics are prayerful, teaching without being preachy. If that’s not enough, Joan Zen’s powerful pipes invite one to have a “Lis-ZEN.”
– Mariss McTucker