Forget the scantily-clad wannabes who dominate most male-fantasy “Women in Rock” features. If you made a short list of women who really rock, who wield fierce guitars and write impassioned lyrics, who tour months on end in vans full of men, who are not anyone’s babydoll or sweet mama or bad girl…well, Thalia Zedek would be in the top five. Since her earliest days with Dangerous Birds and Uzi, through the no-wave years with Live Skull, onto to the slow, clanging dissonance of Come, Zedek has created a kind of take-no-prisoners rock. Her solo recordings, primarily originals but studded with covers of Dylan and the Velvet Underground, have been raw and emotionally honest, stunning in their guitar, viola, and drum simplicity.
Now for her fourth solo effort (including the EP Baby You’re a Big Girl Now), she gathers a full band, adding Consonant bassist Winston Braman and Lost at Sea’s Mel Lederman on piano to her core group of violist David Michael Curry and drummer Daniel Coughlin . Perhaps encouraged by the band’s fuller sound, or possibly just because these louder, more rock-oriented songs demand it, she has opened up on the guitar, cranking slow-churning riffs and massive distorted tones. Liars and Prayers is a bigger, more dramatic, more band-oriented offering than any of Zedek’s other post-Come albums, and an early contender for this year’s best-of lists.
Consider, for instance, the stunning “Lower Allston”, its storm and crash of guitars brightened by Curry’s trumpet; Zedek’s voice huge and tragic over its slow-rocking dirge. The melody surges ahead, slows suddenly into triplets, backs up, snakes around and resumes its march forward. There is an almost bodily sensation of movement in the song’s rhythms, of pushing against waves of sound towards a climax. And at the break, when Zedek erupts into a sonic face-off with Curry, chaos roils against perfect clarity, murky guitar against clarion horn.
Liars and Prayers is a political album, framed by references to paranoia and apathy, overt threat and buried menace. “Do You Remember” seems to be about 9/11, with its references to September, blue skies and white ash. The main character, Zedek herself most likely, is wandering aimlessly through a city, visions of a holy ghost interspersed with more ordinary images of streets, bars and television sets in store windows. The references are subtly done and never obtrusive. Yet you get the feeling that this song—and a brace of others less obvious—could not have existed without 9/11 and its aftermath, that they reflect the mental and emotional damage of the towers’ fall, as well as its political impact, as much as the tragedy itself.
Not all the songs are this abrasively rock-centric. “Green and Blue” piles luxuriant textures of viola and piano onto slow, mournful balladry, while “Circa the End” circles bluesily round 12/8 chord progressions. “Stars” starts in delicacy, all finger-picked guitar, piano notes and vertiginous swoons of viola, but ramps mid-cut into overdrive, its pretty patterns amplified into squalling, dizzying volume.
Quiet or loud (and it is mostly loud), this is one of the year’s most intense and fiercely passionate albums. Maybe Zedek’s integrity, originality and courage won’t get her a slot on a lad mag’s “women with guitars” photo spread, but if it brings on albums like this, who cares?