[26 February 2009]
The spartan arrangements on Azita Youssefi’s third album for Drag City are scaled back from the more ornate jazz/pop/rock of 2004’s Life on the Fly. In the age of über-elaborate, kitchen-sink-included production, this development would seem a step back, but the distillation of her sound to more classic, time-tested elements ultimately casts the songs on How Will You? in a warm, welcome light.
As a songwriter and performer, Azita currently trades in “melodramatic popular song”, i.e. torchy, piano-based ballads that skirt classic, Brill Building pop and jazz, without ever hitting that nail directly on the head. While songs like the breezy title track and the dramatic “Lullbye” contain melodies and other signifiers immediately recognizable and comfortable to most pop music fans, Azita distinguishes herself from similar-minded peers because her vocals and chord progressions can veer off wildly at a moment’s notice.
This unpredictability, combined with a theatrical, idiosyncratic vocal style, has unfortunately drawn the damning “acquired taste” tag too often in the past. How Will You? doesn’t sand down those rougher edges. In fact, the slightly reverbed, room-sound recording might even draw more attention to them, but it’s all good. “Things Gone Wrong”, one of the album’s more tightly constructed songs, relies almost entirely on a simple piano/bass/drum setup. In this context, the quirks come off as improvisation and playfulness, rather than studied weirdness. Azita’s voice swings and hiccups in and around the song’s own solidly defined meter. Similarly, “How Will You?” kicks off its nearly seven minutes with a lovely upper-register melody and sunny progression that grows gradually woolier with each repetition. The tension between the song’s innate prettiness and the nervy restlessness of the performance prevent either from becoming too cloying or overwhelming.
Lyrically or thematically, it’s not easy to discern what the songs are about—another frustration for some, but I suspect that’s not the point. Though by definition “melodramatic popular song” suggests clearly articulated emotions and at least a semblance of linear storytelling, Azita’s approach is pretty much to subvert those genre limitations as much as possible, choosing words for their sound and shape first, and letting their meaning unravel, and flux, over time. The result is impressionistic yet not detached. To the contrary, How Will You? sounds decidedly attached, even if one’s not entirely sure of what’s going on moment to moment. Happily, there’s usually something to hook into, from the snippets of country-fried lead guitar on “Laughter Again” to the propulsive rhythm and charmingly odd scat singing of the opening “I’m Happy”.
Mitch Pugh understandably took Azita to task in his review of Life on the Fly for what he viewed as “all brain, no heart”. But between Andrew Bird’s myriad historical and scientific preoccupations and Jeff Tweedy’s American aquarium drinkers, there’s more than enough room in the world of pop music for a little inscrutability. Maybe heart, in the traditional sense, is overrated. Maybe it’s not the point. Whatever the case, How Will You? deals with the junction of emotion and craft on its own terms.