, September 1st, 2016 14:36
The older you get, the more trust becomes important as a listener. As the artists you grew up with grow up with you, you come back to them and hear their growth, hear the changing cadence of what they play, the increased slump in the shoulders, the sharper jut of the jaw. You also hear all the things you love to hear from them, their personality, like an old friend. Sometimes, if you're lucky you can be witness to one of your heroes writing some of the best songs they've ever written. It reassures you that you too can both change and endure. That's precisely what's going on with Thalia Zedek and her newest album Eve.
For those that don't know, Zedek has been one of the most compelling players and singers of the last quarter-century of American music. I say American music. There's something European about Zedek's sensibility as well, something touched by Scriabin and Satie. I say European. What I mean is unplaceable.
First with Live Skull, then with Come (probably my favourite guitar band of the 90s and that's up against some pretty astonishing competition) she has always found a way not just to write some of the most beautiful riffs and songs in all music but crucially to map out a territory in songwriting that's almost entirely her own. Zedek always came across as someone unsure of their birth, unaware of their future, always caught inbetween states, an exiled status that had none of rock'n'roll's comforts in being a renegade. Rather, was all-too-aware of how when you're not from round here, when your sexuality or your race or your bad-habits or your persona makes you a dissident to what's prevailing you're caught waiting, always waiting, for love, for a home. Waiting to make sense, waiting to fit or waiting to be secure in not-fitting, waiting in the place inbetween where you've been and an unimaginable, shadowy, unknown and possibly doomed future.
Come's music didn't travel, rather it was always caught between destinations, wondering who or what it was. In being able to find a way of writing songs with Chris Brokaw that absolutely nailed that politically forgotten, immigrant sense of dislocation Come were entirely unique. It helped of course that the motifs of Come's music, the melodies and form were just so utterly, shatteringly beautiful always. A gorgeous mix of concision and sprawl, Brokaw and Zedek the greatest guitar-duo rock had given us since Richards-Taylor, Verlaine-Lloyd. Get the singles 'Car' and 'Fast Piss Blues', get the albums 11:11, Near Life Experience, Don't Ask Don't Tell and Gently Down The Stream and thank me in two decades once you've got halfway to the bottom of them. And get Eve ‘cos for this fan I think it's the best thing she's made since those Come days. An almost unbearably poignant, diamond-hard bolt of blue beauty, red-white pupils, brown-black irises.
It helps that the band she's got together have now got a wonderfully instinctive and intuitive understanding of each other. Despite the initially worrying departure of ex-Bluetip drummer Dave, Zedek still has a brilliant, unmacho, supple rhythm section in Winston Braman and Johnathon Ullman. The album also features some really sublime viola from Willard Grant Conspiracy's David Curry, sounding like Raincoats, like Rachel's – but crucially sounding like you can't imagine these songs without it. Not an afterthought but a vital voice in the maelstrom, a very human quiver in the silences.
So colonised have the sounds of guitars and strings become by schmindie pootlers I have to overcome my prejudices at first on the stunning 'Afloat'. The guitar lines give you hints that she's still a player like no other. You can see her as you listen. You can tell it's her within a moment. She still writes melodies that hold your hand, touch your brow, hold you rapt. As soon as Zedek starts singing, all doubts are immolated. What we left behind. Someone else will find, washed ashore. The song breaks into its constituent parts, light as a stream on pebbles, then reconverging for the surging - to overflow, in our minds we've flown, the city's so remote, the lands are distant now, pulling back from the shore, and now we know how far we can flow. Behind this narrative, no, not behind, amidst this narrative, part of this narrative is the band's masterly blending of light and shade, never a wasted moment. You feel like you've been taken somewhere so you can listen, a clearing of distraction, a farewell to screens, a journey within and without and 'Afloat' takes you to that promontory from which the rest of the album will unfold. Stunning.
Throughout the record you find yourself realising that Zedek is still brilliantly refining and refracting her craft - this is someone getting better at something they were already incredible at. '360°' pivots on a bluesy-curlicue that could only be Zedek, a beautiful descending piano line making your hairs stand up in a 'Moonlight Mile' style. 'By The Hand', a sublime chiaroscuro of guitar, droning strings, moments that build and evaporate into heartbreak, is almost a definitive Zedek song, confrontational, so real it's unreal, somewhere between a dream and confusion - Zedek only sure of her own heartbeat and her permanent dissidence, dreaming of being 'chased by the army' wondering 'is this the dream?' Waiting. Waiting. 'Illumination' has some of Curry's most bewitching viola-work, redolent of John Cale circa Bryter Layter - a slo-mo song that drives each line into that little canyon where your heart got broke, a song about darkness, about self-loathing, that's somehow shot through - by sheer dint of the melody - with crucial little glimmers of redemption. 'You Will Wake' closes the first side so spectrally it could disappear, again the journey the focus, the waiting, the travelling on whether that's from city to city or border to border or life to death.
Like all Zedek's music it leaves you reeling with questions, the perfect balance between the dead-ends of despair and the realisation that this turbid onward drift, eternally unresolved and unrequited, is perhaps our only option. If I'm reading the deep questions of existence, of whether and why to bother, of bereavement, of mortality, of the heartbreak that is hope, into this music it's because I think that's what Zedek writes about. The only things that really matter. The only questions worth asking.
The arrangement on 'Northwest Branch' shows how Zedek's moved beyond her early years - at no point does the track rip forth from it's compelling stealth and pulse, it stays in control right up until 3 minutes in but the breakdown and bedlam that follows isn't noisy, rather it's unsettling precisely because it's played by the whole band without anything fraying into feedback or atonality, those Arabic/eastern-European textures and melodies Zedek's always touched on really coming to the fore. 'Not Farewell' really reminds me of later Come in its sparseness and form - Zedek's always able to make seven/eight/nine minute songs not just fly by but seem like models of concision and subtlety. Where a song like this 20 years ago might've been blazed over eventually by Brokaw's firetrails, here it's just allowed to sink into itself and peel out, the band responding to the guitar but crucially responding to the words with supreme sensitivity and restraint. Subime. 'Try Again' is a lovely almost-countryish waltz about being a laughingstock, struggling on, never letting anyone's bad treatment of you poison your generosity, refusing to quit - it feels like a song fully formed and beamed in and created on the spot and its message is all the more moving for that spontaneity and freshness. 'Walking In Time' I swear down makes me think of 'Led Zep III' - all weird broken folk drones, a skip and a bounce and a final feedback-laden freekout as odd as its melody before 'All I Need' closes Eve out stripped down to acoustic and with the journey mapped by 'Afloat' reaching its destination, a simply heartrending love song that admits what it can't talk about, talks plainly about how its protagonist has changed, the pain that remains, the healing that love always promises. It's a hard-earned, gorgeous moment of rest at the end of an utterly ravishing record.
Zedek has changed but it's still Zedek and with her band she's making perhaps the most spellbinding, crystal clear statements of her entire career. Like 50ft Wave's stunning 'Bath White' (of which more anon) 2016's strongest proof that you should never forget those you've trusted, those who raised you when nothing else would even lend a hand. A dignity of spirit always. You might love this record. Some of us definitely need it.