Alarm Magazine

posted by Britt

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

“When I was in Come, before we did a show I’d say to the band, ‘We’re going to be as loud as shit and people will have to pay attention to us,” says Thalia Zedek, legendary underground singer, songwriter, and noise guitarist. “They won’t be able to talk ’cause we’re going to be deafening.” She pauses, puffing on her ever-present cigarette.

In the last few years, Zedek has mellowed somewhat—which is not to say she’s less intense, but it’s a focused, subtler intensity. In 1998 and ’99, as Come was winding down, Zedek did a couple of “cabaret” tours. The first time she sang Come songs with cello and acoustic piano; on another tour, she crooned old-fashioned torch songs as well as material by Alex Chilton and Leonard Cohen. It made her rethink her approach to music. “It was enjoyable to sing when I could actually hear myself singing,” she says with a trace of sly humor. “It’s fun to belt it out, but if you do it for too long, all the nuances in your voice disappear. When I listen to my favorite singers, I value those subtleties. It’s hard to improve when you can’t hear what you’re singing.”

Zedek’s solo albums, starting in 2001 with Been Here and Gone, may not be as loud or dissonant as the work she did with Come, Uzi, and Live Skull, but it’s no less passionate. The same holds true for Liars and Prayers (Thrill Jockey), Zedek’s “political” album that blends electric and acoustic instruments to produce an ominous, orchestrated sound that’s as unsettling as it is rewarding. The songs, delivered in slow, solemn tempos, build slowly and continue building without ever releasing the tension. Zedek’s lyrics suggest moods rather than tell straightforward stories, and her singing, as always, is fiercely compelling. Her language plays with words, pulling them apart and mutating them, finding hidden meaning in even the most mundane phrase.

“I’m trying to refl ect the times we’re living in,” Zedek explains. “Our government has brought us to a dangerous place, and while it’s impossible to understand what all the implications of their actions are going to be in the future, we know they’re going to resonate for years to come and not in a good way. If you look outside your own little world, you know a lot of stuff is up in the air right now. It’s like watching an idiot juggling a bunch of chainsaws. You know something horrible is going to happen—you just don’t know what or when.”

As she began working on Liars and Prayers, Zedek decided she wanted to play with a full band again. By bringing in some old friends, she expanded the trio she’d been using since her second solo effort, Trust Not Those in Whom Without Some Touch of Madness, which had Zedek on guitar, David Curry on viola, and trumpeter/drummer Daniel Coughlin. Mel Alderman, late of Victory at Sea and a contributor to Zedek’s solo albums, handles piano and Winston Braman (Consonant, Shepardess, Fuzzy) adds bass, which helped her expand her parameters. “I was writing songs that were heaver and more rocking, and I wanted to loosen up on guitar. In my trio, the guitar had to hold down the rhythm. Without a bass player, if I didn’t play chords, the whole bottom dropped out of everything. If I wanted to play a melody that wasn’t rhythmical, it was difficult. So I wanted to loosen up and play less, or more, depending on the tune. With a band you get a deeper, richer sound. I was able to let the songs stretch out a little bit.”

Zedek said the new band really freed up her creativity. “These guys can play anything. Any kind of song I bring—punk, country, or metal—they can do it. We’ve all played together in other bands and lineups over the years. There are a lot of ties between us. I enjoy playing with them and I love what they bring to the songs I write.”

Zedek produced Liars and Prayers with the help of engineer Andrew Schneider (Unsane, Cave In) in glorious analog sound on real tape.

“It was recorded live, all of us together playing at the same time. We’d sometimes give a tune more than one try, but there’s not a lot of overdubbing. The basic tracks were done at Mad Oak in Chicago. I did the vocals at Andrew’s studio in Brooklyn using ProTools, and then the final mix went back onto tape. Analog has a warmth to it that’s hard to get with a computer. I don’t know if it’s the machinery moving the magnetized tape, but analog has something that’s missing with digital. It’s like looking at the refection of a person in a mirror instead of the person. The image is the same but there’s an intangible quality that’s missing in the mirror image.”

Liars and Prayers is a deeply emotional work, with songs full of loss, confusion and regret, colored by the political malaise that’s currently affecting our country and the world. Other tunes are more personal, dedicated to friends that have recently passed away. The music rocks, but there are elements of cabaret music and classic torch songs, a hint of early R&B, and wide-open arrangements that give the album a cinematic feel. The music intensifies the emotional impact of Zedek’s lyrics that seem to address a tragedy that’s all pervasive but unnamed or perhaps unnamable, although some songs are more straightforward.

Analog has something that’s missing with digital. It’s like looking at the reflection of a person in a mirror instead of the person. The image is the same, but there’s an intangible quality that’s missing in the mirror image.

“Do You Remember” recalls the national trauma of 9/11, with a blend of acoustic and electric guitars creating a restrained tension while Coughlin’s drumming alternates between violent fills and minimal accents that bring to mind a ticking clock. The music moves between chaotic noise and quiet passages that convey the silent sound of shock produced by overwhelming grief. “I was going down to New York from Boston to rehearse on the morning of 9/11,” Zedek recalls. “I was on a bus that goes from Boston’s Chinatown to New York’s Chinatown. Very few people knew about it except the Chinese. The radio was blasting and people were upset, but it was all in Chinese. Finally a couple of people who spoke English told me what was going on. They’d closed all the bridges to the city, so finally a bunch of us got off the bus and walked over the Third Avenue bridge. That day and the next all airplanes were grounded. There was an eerie silence in the sky. I never consciously notice how loud the planes are, but when that sound was gone, it was completely weird. The music reflects that silence.”

“Body Memory” was written for Zedek’s friend Lisa King, who passed away after a long, painful illness. “Lisa had a painful condition that contributed to her death. What do you do when your body is a source of pain instead of a source of pleasure? You get a lot of drugs that may help, but which keep you outside of yourself. It’s hard to watch someone go through that.” A slow repeating guitar figure blossoms into flurries of tortured 32nd notes that imply the release one feels after enduring a long period of affliction, a release that may be as frightening as the pain.

“Begin to Exhume” closes the album on a darkly humorous note. It’s obviously about George W. Bush’s ability to avoid the unpleasant facts of life without ever losing his irritating smirk. The band wails with Zedek’s guitar, leading the charge into a swirling turmoil of anger and hopelessness. Then the music abruptly stops and the album is over. “That desperate sound conveys the feeling I’ve had for the last eight years,” Zedek says. “His re-election was almost enough to make we want to give up.” But instead of giving up, Zedek looked the beast in the eye and wrote this album, another cathartic blast of edgy rock and carefully chosen words that challenge us to do likewise. “I spend a lot of time on lyrics,” Zedek confesses. “Sometimes there are torturous months revising and revising. I think about what I’m saying and how I say it carefully, and even then I may not be 100% satisfied with it. It may be grammatically wrong, but when you’re writing words that are meant to be sung, you have to find the balance between the rhythm, the way the word sounds, and its meaning. Some of the stuff I write on a piece of paper might look cool or clever, but when I sing it, it doesn’t sound right. I print the lyrics on the vinyl record jacket and on my website because I don’t enunciate that clearly, but they’re not meant to be read. They’re meant to be heard.”
– j. Poet