Thalia Zedek’s Blue Cabaret
Thalia Zedek w/ Tara Jane O’Neil, Sam Jayne
Breakroom, Sat Oct 6, $7.
BY NATE LIPPENS
The Stranger, October 4 to October 10, 2001
“Your god hates me/ He can’t feel my flesh,” ex-Come frontwoman Thalia Zedek sings on the artfully melancholic “1926,” from her new Matador album, Been Here and Gone. The impressionistic lyrics, delivered over simple piano in Zedek’s androgynous, smoke-cured rasp, plumb the depths of an unspeakable pain. “It’s different than ‘God hates me,'” Zedek says by phone from Boston. “It’s ‘Your god hates me,’ which I can relate to, being gay. That’s how I take it.”
The song “1926” was written by Gary Gogel from the early ’80s Boston band V, which often shared bills with one of Zedek’s early bands, Dangerous Birds. “It’s always been in the back of my mind as a song I wanted to do,” Zedek says. “I gave Gary a copy of the song after I recorded it, and some friends said, ‘Did you ask him what it was about?’ No, I didn’t want to. It has its own meaning for me. I do wonder what he wrote it about. In my mind it’s kind of about some old movie actress, or someone who has grown completely paranoid, as seen through the eyes of an ex-lover.”
On the album, the song comes just after Zedek’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love,” which is delivered as a near-rousing gypsy number, with Zedek’s deadpan “la-la-la” sounding lachrymose. The two songs make a great case for her powers as a transformative song-interpreter, like Marianne Faithfull. But Zedek’s eight original numbers make the case that she is one of America’s best songwriters. She brings a harrowing intimacy to all of the performances, dissecting lost love and disappointment with stoic sadness rather than histrionics. Her steeliness makes the material sharper and more poignant, bruised rather than florid.
Zedek released Been Here and Gone in July, after a decade in the Boston-based quartet Come. The album incorporates her acoustic and electric guitar, piano, drums, trumpet, and prominent, emotive viola that recalls Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis to powerfully understated effect. The blurry chamber arrangements tap torch songs, blues, and folk with a decidedly rock edge. The album’s opener, “Excommunications (Everybody Knows),” sets the tone strongly with a stripped-down but textured sound that creates an impressionistic blues-cabaret, evoking Mark Lanegan and Nick Cave while creating something unique to Zedek. Here, as in all her work, Zedek plays and sings with the gruff conviction that something is at stake.
At first listen, Been Here and Gone may seem like a departure from Come’s dramatic guitar crescendos and Zedek’s interplay with partner Chris Brokaw, but the album is actually the result of an organic evolution that started during Zedek’s tenure with Come. “I saw Patti Smith read her poetry at a church in Boston seven years ago,” she recalls. “My friend Beth Heinberg was asked to play piano as people were coming in and getting seated. I walked in and she started playing Come songs in this dramatic cabaret style. She broke into it as a joke, but I thought it sounded great. At that point Come’s bassist and drummer had left, and we had a show but we hadn’t found replacements, so we had Beth play piano, and we actually ended up doing a tour.”
Come’s fourth and final album, Gently Down the Stream, was released in 1998. “We had decided to take some time off and figure out where we were at, and if we wanted to continue,” Zedek says. “While we were proud of the records we had done as Come, it felt like it had run its course as a vehicle for us.
“When Come was on hiatus I would get asked to do solo shows,” says Zedek. “I don’t really like the whole acoustic guitar singer/songwriter thing, but I thought of Beth and her take on things.” With stripped-down instrumentation, Zedek began performing songs by Leonard Cohen, the Ramones, and Alex Chilton, alongside standard torch songs–all of which inspired Zedek to compose songs specifically for these more intimate performances.
Zedek has found freedom and an even deeper intimacy in her solo songwriting. “Before, I had always been scared to write straight-out love songs, but I loved singing songs like that,” she says. “During the period when I was doing covers, I realized it was okay to write a song that was blatantly about a relationship. It wasn’t really a conscious thing, but I had writer’s block for a while, which was one of the reasons Come took a break. I think I was trying to get out of that by not censoring myself as much. This was the first batch of songs I had written in a while, and I tried to make myself just go with it and let the songs be what they were.”