The main problem with California, the debut disc from Zen Mafia, is that you're not quite sure if it's a novelty item or a serious studio venture. For Southern California musicians Victor Murgatroyd and Chris Johnson, this haphazard project came together when the two shared their home-brewed version of a Lynyrd Skynyrd classic with a friend. Before they knew what happened, an album was in the can with guest appearances by some well-known friends -- Ian Astbury (Cult), Christopher Thorn and Brad Smith (Blind Melon), and Charlie Paulson (Goldfinger) -- who in the end do little to add or subtract to its whole.
In theory, Murgatroyd and Johnson appear to be using classic rock hooks -- Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," Free's "All Right Now," Bad Company's "Feel Like Makin' Love," and Foghat's electrified cover of Willie Dixon's "I Just Want to Make Love to You" -- as a rap artist uses samples. "Sweet Home California" incorporates the infamous Southern melody with some modern scratching and deadpan storytelling.
But unlike a hip-hop act, Zen Mafia isn't building something greater -- the grooves and hooks here are too similar to the originals. Oddly, the vocal delivery for the whole album falls somewhere between that of boring alt-rapper Everlast and the annoying yarn spinner Shawn Mullins. Throughout all 10 tracks, the chorus is delivered in the same grating style. The original material on the disc covers many genres with little merit. The ballad "Show Me" has an embarrassing Bon Jovi feel, while the repetitive refrain in the salsa "Show Me" comes off as second-rate Santana. The gentle "Hold On" mixes a breezy Eagles melody with the aforementioned talking/rap delivery (that cowboy/rap thing never caught on for a reason).
California is interesting in a car-crash kind of way -- it's the kind of album that inspires curiosity at first, but is only a passing fancy. In a novelty sense, the classic rock hooks do catch your ear, ever so briefly, and Zen Mafia would be fun as a cover band, but is only worth one listen. Ironically, Zen (the religion) is all about enlightenment without scripture, yet Zen Mafia appears to be reading/stealing right from the classic book of rock. But why settle for classic rock schlock when all you have to do is turn your radio on to hear the real thing? -- John Benson