In case you need even further evidence that there’s a mass audience for pop music that’s not stupid, the response to this album is proof. Elizabeth and the Catapult’s new album The Other Side of Zero didn’t just happen to make the itunes singer/songwriter chart last week: it debuted at #1. But don’t let the category fool you – frontwoman/keyboardist Elizabeth Ziman’s defiantly lyrical, artsy chamber-pop songs haven’t the faintest resemblance to the dentist-office pop of, say, James Blunt or Taylor Swift. Aimee Mann is the most strikingly obvious influence here, right down to the George Harrison-esque major/minor chord changes, the uneasy lyricism and cynical worldview. There’s also a quirky counterintuitivity in the same vein as Greta Gertler, and a purist pop sensibility that evokes Sharon Goldman – both somewhat lesser-known but equally formidable writers. Which is no surprise. Just as we predicted, the playing field is shifting. Watching bands like Elizabeth and the Catapult take over centerstage is as heartwarming as it is sweet revenge: we’ve got a renaissance on our hands, folks. If you’re a corporate A&R guy and you still think that Taylor Swift has lasting power, you might want to think about changing careers right about now.
The group’s previous album Taller Children was more lyrically-oriented; this one is musically stronger, and more diverse. As with Aimee Mann’s work, the production on all but one of the songs here is purist and often surprisingly imaginative, Ziman’s piano and occasional electronic keyboards out in front of a lush bed of acoustic and electric guitars and frequently rich orchestration, no autotune or drum machine in sight. The opening track sets the tone, swaying and distantly Beatlesque: “Take us to a wishing well, throw us in and sink us down,” Ziman suggest with characteristic brooding intensity. The next track is Aimee Mann-inflected powerpop with staccato strings; after that, they go in a more psychedelic 1960s pop direction with the insistent Julian, Darling. The understatedly snarling, orchestrated Thank You for Nothing is a study in dichotomies, a bitterly triumphant kiss-off song: “Thank you for laughing out loud even when you don’t mean it…they say hurting is growing if you believe when you say it…” It’s a typical moment on this album: Ziman won’t be defeated even in the darkest hours.
One of the strongest tracks here, The Horse and the Missing Cart is a fervent 6/8 ballad, words of wisdom to a generation who’ve turned yuppie and conservative before their time. Open Book is part plaintive art-rock ballad, part sultry come-on; the wary, sardonic, oldtimey-flavored torch ballad Worn Out Tune builds to a soaring, orchestrated Aimee Mann-style chorus, ominous minor key reverb guitar trading off with a blippy melodic bassline: “All the saddest songs we sing are the ones we can’t get enough of.” The title cut, another big 6/8 ballad features Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings on harmony vocals, taking on a pensive countrypolitan feel with pedal steel after the first chorus. The album winds up with an electric piano-driven indie pop song in the same vein as Mattison or the Secret History, banjo and mandolin adding some unexpectedly sweet textures, and the gospel-inflected, intensely crescendoing Do Not Hang Your Head. The only miss here sounds like an outtake from some other band’s demo session gone horribly wrong, a completely misguided, dated detour into 90s-style trip-hop. Elizabeth & the Catapult are on national tour through the end of the month, teaming up with Tift Merritt on a series of west coast dates; check their tour calendar for cities and details.
We do this every week. You’ll see this week’s #1 song on our Best 100 songs of 2009 list at the end of December, along with maybe some of the rest of these too. This is strictly for fun – it’s Lucid Culture’s tribute to Kasey Kasem and a way to spread the word about some of the great music out there that’s too edgy for the corporate media and their imitators in the blogosphere. Every link here will take you to each individual song.
1. The Jazz Funeral – Goodnight (Is How I Say Goodbye)
Gentrification and greed as metaphor for the end of a relationship in this fiery janglerock masterpiece – the political as very personal. They’re at Ace of Clubs on 6/6 at 8.
2. Edison Woods – Praises & Scrutiny
The latest single from the forthcoming Wishbook Singles cd by the world’s best 6/8 band, lush and haunting as usual
3. Tessa Souter – You Don’t Have to Believe
Dark jazz siren with eerie Middle Eastern and flamenco tinges. She’s at 55 Bar at 6 on 6/12.
4. Marni Rice – Priere
Noir accordionist/chanteuse. Haunting, with a string quartet. She’s at Small Beast at the Delancey on 6/25 around 10.
5. Black Sea Hotel – Dimjaninka
Haunting hypnotic Bulgarian folk tune arranged for four voices by Brooklyn’s own Bulgarian vocal choir. They’re at Union Pool at 9 on 6/4
6. Jo Williamson – Sheepish
Tuneful bittersweet and soulful, like Cat Power without the vocal pretensions.
7. Veveritse Brass Band – Samirov Cocek
Typically blistering Balkan madness. They’re at Union Pool on 6/4
Scroll down to the middle of the page for this amazing clip from German tv, 1986. Dennerlein – maybe the greatest organist of our time – is her usual amazing self but it’s the late Emily Remler’s offhandedly savage yet obviously opiated solo that makes it.
9. Mattison – Yver
10. The Courtesy Tier – Set Things Right
Blistering, noisy bluespunk from this guitar/drums duo. They’re at the Rockwood on 6/4 and the Delancey on 6/6
Three things you can count on in this town: there will always be roaches under your stove, the train will be rerouted at the least opportune moment and the Reid Paley Trio will entertain you. Paley’s stock in trade, like so many other artists who play Thursday’s weekly Small Beast extravaganza at the Delancey, is menace. He understands absurdity, usually doesn’t like it very much and makes no secret of it, sometimes fending it off with a good joke. Characteristically charismatic in his black suitcoat and backed by his usual rhythm section of onetime Heroin Sheik Eric Eble on upright bass and James Murray on drums, Paley pretty much let the songs speak for themselves this time out. Much of the material was from his latest, excellent album Approximate Hellhound. With just a hint of natural distortion on his battered archtop guitar, Paley’s sound is part ghoulabilly without the schlock, part noir blues without the cliches, with a little vintage country or gypsy feel thrown in to shake things up. Live, he’s actually more of a singer than a rasper, sort of the opposite of what he is on album. “Gimme a chance, I’ll fuck it up,” went the refrain on his opening, slightly Cramps-ish number. Better Days, with its dread-filled “hangover sunrise Sunday morning, half dead on Bedford Avenue” was surprisingly subtle; a couple of the more countryish tunes from the cd got a bluesier, rawer treatment. Chanteuse Peg Simone eventually joined him for a slightly coy, seductive cameo on vocals; on the last song of the set, he ended it chopping at his strings as if he wanted to break them, then sticking his guitar into his amp where it started feeding back. Somebody cut the sound. Host Paul Wallfisch (who’d opened the evening) wanted it back: “That’s beautiful,” he leered. Meanwhile, the world’s #1 surf music impresario, Unsteady Freddie, wandered about, camera at hand. Who knew he was a fan.
Mattison frontwoman/keyboardist Kate Mattison brought down the lights, obscured behind the Small Beast (the 88 key spinet for which the night’s named), shadowy in the light of the candles above the keys and the disco ball’s twinkling swirls across the walls. And then played a show that made a perfect match with the ambience, soulful, smart retro pop, frequently over a live trip-hop beat pushed along by an excellent, terse rhythm section. The vocals started out somewhat disembodied and warmed up quickly, Mattison expertly shading her lyrics with a vintage soul feel, the occasional subtle blue note and just the hint of a rasp in places. Some of her songs had a pensive, almost minimalist sensibility in the same vein as Bee & Flower; others evoked modern artsy pop bands like For Feather or the Secret History, or that one great live album by Portishead. One began stately and beautiful in 6/8 time before morphing into a fast 4/4 hit; another built fetchingly and cajolingly into a “ringalingaling” chorus. Still another catchy pop number segued into a big, anthemic ballad with jazz-tinged vocals and gospel piano inflections. It was almost one in the morning by the time they wrapped up their too-brief, barely 40-minute set. They’re at Coco 66 at 8 on May 20.
By the way, in case you haven’t noticed, Lucid Culture reviews pretty much every Small Beast show. Pretty much a no-brainer, considering how it’s become simply the most vital, important music scene in town. So we’ve created a new category, Small Beast where we’ve archived all the other performers we’ve chronicled since the night first kicked off this past winter: click here or look toward top right here to that “A” right over the ARCHIVES section, click and scroll down to Small Beast to see what you’ve been missing.