There’s an impressive amount of diversity on Garrett “Sleepy” Zuhoski’s debut album Better Haze, but he’s never over his head with any of the album’s dozen cuts. He’s apparently lived with these songs for some time before recording them and that gestation period is reflected in how generally polished and completes each of the tracks sound. Produced by Salim Nourallah, renowned for his work with the Old 97s, Nicholas Altobelli, and The Damnwells, Better Haze is further elevated by musical skill working itself deep into listener’s minds and expertly playing on their emotions. The songwriting focus is strong on this album and there’s never any sense of Zuhoski succumbing to the perils of ego and self-indulgence. Instead, Zuhoski has clearly set the bar high for himself with the release and expects us all to follow him wherever his Muse takes him. Better Haze is definitely a musical journey and swells with confidence.
One of the loveliest things about the album is it never has to rely on bluster or overwrought musicality. Instead, nearly every second of Better Haze is distinguished by Zuhoski’s refusal to pursue the obvious unless he can deliver it in a way that feels true for him and his songwriting sensibilities. Two of the album’s folk-inspired numbers opens the album with “Asleep for a Year” and “Sour”. The two songs take slightly different approaches to the vocal, the latter eschewing any sort of noticeable effects in favor of a clean and emotive lead vocal, while the opener has a much more poetic flavor. The guitar playing in both songs, and across the album as a whole, is important for the final results, but the drumming places an emphatic punctuation mark for each tune.
“Muscle Memory” will prove to be a real sleeper cut for some because it doesn’t have a highlight position in the track listing, ala the opener or a closing slot, but rarely does his potent mix of alt rock, folk, and electronica come off as well as it does here. Zuhoski seems aware of this as well and turns in one of Better Haze’s best vocal performances. “Daydream” is cut from a similar cloth, but has an even strong traditional slant and less of the distinctiveness that makes so much of the album a memorable listening experience. “Voices”, however, is a deeply melodic turn into retro sounds with a modern sheen and ranks alongside the earlier “Muscle Memory” as one of Zuhoski’s most effective vocal performances for this release.
“On a Cloud” reveals another stylistic modulation in Zuhoski’s range and definitely owes a debt to Radiohead, without ever sounding imitative. “Hate to Sleep” is much like that, in this regard, but Radiohead’s fingerprints on the song’s inspiration are much more clearly discernible. Zuhoski brings Better Haze to an end with the track “Books” and it’s a final surprise from the songwriter as he returns to the folky inclinations of the first two songs with a more pronounced purist air. It’s an appropriately poetic ending for an album brimming over with thoughtful and often eloquent songwriting.