Bill Zeffiro: Better Than Nothing: The Songs of Bill Zeffiro

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Bill Zeffiro

Better Than Nothing: The Songs of Bill Zeffiro

January 30, 2018

Reviewed by John Hoglund for Cabaret Scenes

Multi-MAC Award winner Bill Zeffiro offers what he refers to as “audio snapshots from the last three decades” of his life on this delightful new CD, Better Than Nothing. He also notes that there’s a lot about “love, friendship, drinking.” That’s no exaggeration. An acclaimed songwriter and musical director on the cabaret circuit for years, as well as one who has worked the piano bar/room shifts for a while, seemingly, Bill Zeffiro (Zeff) has walked a mile in his shoes.

Playing and singing his own music and lyrics, he can be as homespun as apple pie one minute, then a funky cat the next. A terrific musician, he seems to know an awful lot about the meanderings of life and love. He also knows a lot about shrewd songwriting. A bit of a traditionalist with many tongue-in-cheek overtones, he brings to his jazzy songwriting a concentrated intelligence that echoes the detail Dave Frishberg lavishes on his brand of unconventional humor in song. The tone of the album vacillates from sardonic to intelligent musings. He can also be polished in a league with the best of them today.

In a style that vaguely recalls Frishberg, the bouncy title cut sets a tone about life. Singing in his lived-in baritone, he emotes, “…
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the thing about nothing is that nothing never lasts, so we’ll relegate this to our steamy, seedy past.” Phrases like that conjure up messy tidbits of relationships many can attest to. It all covers a melange of what Zeff is all about. Mostly, it’s about truth and he knows from whence he speaks. On the silly “As Long As We’re Loaded,” he strikes a country-flavored spark about two old friends hanging out on a late night in a dusty bar: “Thank God for brown liquor and cheap Cabernet… as long as we’re loaded, what the hell do we care?…Thank God for dead parents and the trust funds they give/’Cause monkeys like us are too dumb to live.” This little ditty is worthy of attention only because it’s warped philosophy speaks so much truth. “Happy Birthday, Mrs. Parker” is a caring ode to Dorothy Parker. It’s a clever nod to the fabled lady and the era she once dominated “at the ‘Gonk’…
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trading quips and getting blotto, Dottie, you’re the one.”

“Dreamweaver,the album’s oldest cut (written when he was 27), touches on things that go wrong and you only share your dreams with a loved one. There’s even a nod to his cat (“For Olan,” a piano instrumental). A more recent song, from 2015, “You’re a No Brainer” with lyrics by Tom Toce, picks apart a wannabe love affair: “…you’re a no brainer, it’s easy to see/ You’re not gonna get me down on one knee.” “A Brand New Wedding Song” is a sullen father forewarning his little girl’s groom on their wedding day: “If you break my daughter’s heart, I’ll kill you/ And I swear it will be painful and slow…

So keep your nose clean, silly lad… and now, you can call me Dad!” This acidly silly shade from a father of the bride is a riot. Melissa Mulder joins him on “What the Hell, It’s Christmas.” This potpourri of fun and melancholy wraps up with a melodious piano solo on “Time and Tide” that is a beauty.  

The mood of the CD swings back and forth fusing nostalgia and a misanthropic humor that is infectious. It is all worth a listen (there are 20 cuts). Ultimately, this is a prolific, unique CD and Bill Zeffiro’s songs contemplate and are as brutally cynical as anything written these days.

John Hoglund

For over 30 years, John Hoglund has been a respected entertainment writer covering cabaret, jazz, theater and recordings. His writings have appeared in numerous outlets including the Bistro Bits column for Back Stage. John moderated seminars and forums for the International Cabaret Conference At Yale. He produced many celebrity fundraisers in NYC including one of the first benefits after 9/11: “HeartSong:The Heroes' Concert” at The Bottom Line featuring 36 major stars. He co-produced “HeartSong2: The Heroes' Concert” for Katrina victims at Symphony Space and “Miracle On 35th Street” with a star-studded lineup. Other fund raising efforts include the first benefits for Broadway Cares and God's Love, We Deliver. John served on the Board of Directors of MAC for 12 years. He is well known for championing new and rising talents.