Is this the new 4 Non Blondes?
Okay, so that was an unnecessary cheap shot, but a good starting point for understanding why this record only works if you’re a consumer of adult contemporary alternative, that NPR-gruel of a style that has all of the repetition and predictability of radio pop, but an older demographic, the VH-1 crowd who want their angst gingerly dissolved into their decaf. More fairly, this record sounds like Belly or Paula Cole, music that defies categorization if only because its vague blandness bleeds through so many different kinds of average.
Zara could stand to rub against its own grain once in awhile. Even when Saperstein belts out the chorus on “January”, it sounds like she’s covered in Calgon. The production aesthetic aims for creating an atmosphere devoid of edge, like Sarah McLachlan but without her frigidly beautiful arias to create peaks in the plains of yawn. At this point in the review, I feel a slight twinge of guilt for what I know is going to be a nonstop bilious vent of a dis. In the most pared-down way, this record could not possibly be that offensive to most people, and I probably should just leave it at that. But I’ve heard this sound a million times and I have an almost unnatural aversion to its weaknesses, and given the subjective nature of opinions, I feel sheepishly entitled to let it rip. Besides, I haven’t the established luxury of someone like Roger Ebert, who doesn’t have to parse out the mixed emotions and wanton irrationalities of reaction and merely adjusts him thumb like a thermostat for his movie reviews. If I ever get that big, I want to do some gesture where I can use my ass cheeks. And now, back to the album at hand.
Zara lacks a sense of musical adventurousness, and Saperstein’s voice isn’t so unique or demanding that it would make such considerations irrelevant. “Fantasy” sounds like she’s falling asleep at the mic, on top of banjos and pedal steel buried in fluffy slur. This song is fairly emblematic of her soapy range, because it uses genre flourish so sparingly as to make the song evocatively anemic. Why bother with pedal steel if it’s quieter and less noticeable than the flushing of an environmentally friendly toilet? Dabbling is not evidence of a range, it’s proof of risk-free indecision.
“Rhythm” piqued my interest for a second, if only because it’s the first time that Saperstein sounds present and accounted for, but that initial bit of hope quickly waned because the song itself sounds like that boat ride at the fairgrounds that simply rocks back and forth in wide, pendulous strokes. At the very least, it’s an intriguing start that displays a cadence not wholly muted. In the context of this record, it’s downright loud, but in any other context it’s an ass-dragging water softener of an alt rock track. “Right” sounds like Shawn Colvin writing self-help texts and the harmonies are comically easy listening. One of the major drawbacks to Saperstein’s music are the snippets of lyrics that slip through and reveal her penchant for sap psychology such as “We’re all prisoners inside, do you want to know what’s on my mind?” No.
My own hostile boredom should not dissuade any of the Lillith Fair crowd from picking this up and digging in. I guarantee you that if you love Michelle Branch and Sarah Shannon, you’ll think I’m an asshole (a high probability) and find Zara to be a thing of beauty and holistic Gaia wisdom. There’s no traction here for my tastes, and its willowy backdrop qualities frequently abrade me more than they soothe. You could probably find a worse CD for those self-pampering candle baths, but I wouldn’t want to hear it.