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Disturbing the Air

(Drag City; US: 20 Sep 2011; UK: 19 Sep 2011)

Azita Youssefi has been a key figure in the Chicago underground scene since she formed the Scissor Girls in 1991, and she’s rightly made a name for herself as an eclectic composer of songs which ebb and flow based upon her whims, always anchored by her magnificently evocative vocals. She’s forged her path from apocalyptic art rock to bare-bones vocals and piano. She’s been recording as a solo artist off and on for more than a decade, and she’s rarely been one to conform to what anyone dares expect from her music.

In that regard, Disturbing the Air furthers her progression as a songwriter while shifting in a more dark, sombre direction from her previous effort, How Will You?. The album sticks to a formula built upon Azita’s voice and her piano, building a series of frequently haunting melodies which provide the backbone for a challenging listening experience. Upon a cursory first listen, the material herein can seem overly simplistic, almost unfinished in its initial bare, exposed state. But further exploration showcases how the constantly shifting nature of Azita’s vocals take control of the more basic melodies of the piano backdrop, allowing the listener to focus in fully on the vocals. Her voice is the centerpiece of this album, her strongest instrument being her ability to draw us into these artistic sketches, giving us the chance to experience these songs as multi-sensory experiences.

“Stars or Fish” is an excellent example of Azita’s ability to paint a picture with words:

I bought you the best telescope I could afford
Because you said you wanted to look at the stars
The mildest evenings came and went
You only ever look at the ground
I planted a crown of roses upon your head
And tended them with care, removing thorns
They bloom still in the morning
And perfume the air
I watch the tides lap at your door
With colored fish and … the sound of waters ebb and flow
Like a forgotten song plays in the night

Her voice stimulates all five senses. Close your eyes and focus on the arrangement, as the mild, soothing piano orchestration paints a picture through subtle shifts in tempo and tone, while Azita’s vocals fill in the spaces with everything we need to fully immerse ourselves in the scene. She’s a magnificent songwriter in this regard, crafting songs which stand up to repeated listening, constantly revealing layer upon layer as we explore more deeply.

Disturbing the Air is an album which may prove difficult to consume in a single listening session, but each progressive examination will allow more of the picture to emerge, creating a listening experience which is rare and worth savouring. Azita expects a lot from her listeners, knowing she’s cultivated an audience willing to give the music the room it needs to breathe, which gives her permission to take risks in her arrangements.

Though Azita Youssefi is unlikely to ever fully relinquish her “acquired taste” label, let’s be honest: none of her dedicated listeners truly want her to.Disturbing the Air is a rich aural tapestry, and it more than stands up to the rest of Azita’s already diverse body of work. Her continued willingness over the years to push herself creatively pays off here with an album of fragile depth and sophisticated beauty, proving there’s room in a balanced musical landscape for art driven by more than pop hooks and commercial expectations.


Jonathan Sanders writes from Tell City, Indiana, where he lives with his wife Aimee. A 2008 graduate of Ball State's Journalism school with degrees in Magazine Writing / Design and History, Sanders has written extensively for Stereo Subversion, among other online publications. He currently edits "Hear! Hear!", a pop-music centered online blog, and writes for PopMatters and Pajamas Media. He has a voracious appetite for new music, and bristles at the thought that some still believe good music died with [insert band name here.]

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