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Although Tangletown's Seth Zimmerman grew up with Bob Dylan and the Band spinning on the family hi-fi, his vocal Dylanisms might stem as much from nature as nurture: The 28-year-old singer is Bob's nephew. Seth's father David even brought his brother Bob to Sound 80, a studio in South Minneapolis, to rerecord a few songs for Blood on the Tracks in 1974, and the two families have kept close ties for years.
Even so, Zimmerman, whose twang-rock band Tangletown easily reconciles Uncle Bob with Uncle Tupelo, cites the Beatles, the Clash, and the Jam as his early heroes. "I listened to [Dylan's] stuff in the same way, with probably less weight than I listened to the Beatles," he says over lunch near his home in Uptown Minneapolis. "I used to play Revolver over and over again as a kid. But at the end of the day, my uncle's records were still great songs. I loved that material."
Tangletown's debut album, Ordinary Freaks, is very much about songs rather than Revolver-style sonic mind games, and it's no surprise to discover Zimmerman is leery of all things self-consciously "quirky." With its big, Jayhawkish sound aided by extra hands such as Jimmy Peterson and Eric Luoma of country-rockers Bellwether, Freaks is full of performances that are as smart and subtle as the record is radio-ready. The opening track, "See Right Through," opens with Peter J. Sands's graceful piano riffs complementing Zimmerman's perfunctory refrain, "It's been so long/Yesterday has come undone."
But the small hooks and sparse lyrics build to a memorable whole, and familiarity soon leads to addiction. Freaks' organic feel is partly a credit to co-engineer David Z., whose brother Bobby Z. launches his Zinc label with this release. Despite the brothers' reputation as meticulous dance producers (Bobby with Culture Club and Ana Voog, David with Prince and Fine Young Cannibals), Freaks was recorded fast and live at Oarfin Studios in a mere eight days. Zimmerman wanted to get the organic sound of the Band's '60s classics Music from Big Pink and The Band, while retaining a Mellencamp-sized beat. "I really believe the drum sound sets the tone for everything you do in the studio," he says.
Tangletown's big-name financial backers and its main man's pedigree will inevitably have skeptics calling the band coattail surfers. But Zimmerman's career suggests otherwise. He cut his teeth in the bar scene with Tangletown bass player Dan Arden and others, all the while working on his songwriting. "We would play on the worst nights, changing our name every time," he remembers. "Dan was booking at the 400 Bar, and we ended up playing dates like the night after Memorial Day. We were just happy to be playing out."
As a result Tangletown hardly has the brash quality one associates with a band gunning for stardom, and the album's relaxed vibe would probably fade into forgettable pleasantness if Zimmerman's skills as a songsmith weren't so sharp. "Madeline Knows" and "One Time" are only the more obvious potential hits on Freaks, and even a high-powered bullshit detector can't help but be disarmed by the album's sense of unassuming rootsiness.
"Who you are in the music business only goes so far," says Bobby Z. when I ask him about the "next Jakob Dylan" tag. "It opens doors, but you've got to deliver the goods. I got involved with Seth because the songs are there."
With his clean-cut good looks and a Kermit-like speaking voice that sounds nothing like his raw, scratchy singing, Zimmerman seems the product of his quiet, suburban Twin Cities upbringing. He was somewhat shielded from the whirlwind around his uncle, and Zimmerman says he finds the clichéd rock lifestyle unappealing.
That in mind, he has worked hard to expand his scope, freelancing as a video producer (his direction credits include a video he shot as a favor to his friends in Bellwether) while maintaining a formidable golf game. And although he's no longer touring in golf's minor leagues, Zimmerman still stays in postcollegiate practice by teaching golf lessons to a small group of clients. "It's strange that after Tiger Woods, everyone's getting into golf just when I'm getting out of it," he says. "All the Jayhawks golf--and also John Casey and some of the 400 Bar people."
As ruefully unhip as that may sound to some, Zimmerman does manage to find a rock metaphor in America's slowest game. "It's kind of like having a guitar that's precisely in tune; there's some perfection about it," he says. "There's not too many things you can do perfectly, and in golf you get that one shot a year where you couldn't have done it better.
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