Rachel Zeffira is perhaps the most unassuming-sounding classically-trained singer a pop enthusiast will hear this year. Her voice is weightless and ethereal, suggestive of someone who has spent years boning up on dream-pop rather than an artist who has performed at the Vatican, as Zeffira has on two separate occasions. Zeffira had her pop music coming-out with 2011’s Cat’s Eyes, a same-name collaboration between herself and the Horrors’ Faris Badwan (and which allowed Zeffira that second Vatican appearance). Zeffira is on her own on The Deserters and, for all the promise shown on Cat’s Eyes, a little extra help could have been used here.
Zeffira does know restraint and the orchestrations on The Deserters never become over-reliant on baroque touches. Introducing more classical instruments into an otherwise confined genre may be the album’s saving grace. Such touches are what make her cover of My Bloody Valentine’s “To Here Knows When” such a stand out. Although the vocals are faithfully clouded, the clear sounds of trumpets and strings enable a nice spin on the original’s muddy distortion.
Unfortunately, the “To Here Knows When” cover is one of only three peaks in an otherwise unremarkable selection of songs. The first high note is the Stereolab-esque “Here on In”. It follows the opening title track, and is so superior that “The Deserters” bad first impression and lack of groove begins to actually sting. “Front Door” serves as the middle summit, although it’s sentiment is somewhat similar to the (slightly better) Cat’s Eyes tune “The Best Person I Know”. Both these songs have a nice throwback sound. They give the sensation of the courtship sung about in ‘60’s girl-group songs. The innocence is refreshing and not overused here.
In the middling pile, songs like “Silver City Days” and “Letters From Tokyo (Sayonara)” are pleasing enough listens, but they barely manage to linger longer than the less memorable The Deserters tracks (with the latter sounding a bit like a reject from the Lost in Translation soundtrack). Zeffira obviously worked hard on this album, but her pop songwriting skills still seem a little underdeveloped; songs that were likely meant to be listened to closely in order to detect ornate orchestrations instead sound like pretty background flittings and whispers.
I have been listening to The Deserters in conjunction with Laura Marling’s Once I Was an Eagle, which may be tampering my judgment a little. On the latter, Marling manages to both show restraint and sound like she could wipe the floor with any other solo artist, female or male. Especially in Zeffira’s case, all the gauziness of The Deserters goes to shreds as soon as it ends and Marling’s “Take the Night Off” queues up. Maybe it’s unfair to stand Zeffira up to such a wrecking force, but such a talent can clearly do better. Here’s hoping Cat’s Eyes wasn’t a single-album project. Another collaboration with Badwan might help her to sharpen her songwriting claws.
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