Enter Elizabeth Ziman, no longer just another piano-pop songstress. Wanting to busk in the subways of New York City, Ziman took up acoustic guitar and it may have been the best thing for her. All of the songs on Like It Never Happened were written on the guitar, with those fitting the bill transposed onto piano. The result is easily her most engaging and dynamic album yet.
Nothing wrong with 2009’s Taller Children and 2010’s The Other Side of Zero, both of which contained a number of charming pop songs blessed with superb hooks and a light jazzy touch. But many of them felt a bit flat, some a little too tidy for their own good, some of them a little too languid. But it’s not just Ziman’s songwriting that feels sharper here. The production talent of former bandmates Dan Molad and Pete Lalish (the former “Catapult”, if you will) really takes center stage here. The soundscape they fashion is a warm and open one, drawing heavily on ’60s pop. Molad and Lalish brought the same production savvy to their current band Lucius’s 2013 Wildewoman, which showcased similar retro tendencies.
Ziman opens things up with “Happy Pop”, an apt companion tune to Sara Bareilles’s wonderfully smug “Love Song”, though Ziman plays it more vulnerable than Bareilles does. While “Love Song” is snide about the corporate attitude of her record label — projecting the need for a generic hit song solely onto her label overlords — Ziman can’t help but acknowledge her own need for such a song as well. For her, the archetypal “happy pop song” isn’t a marketable piece of music; it’s a genuine attempt to live up to everyone’s expectations. The song’s mantra is “Are you proud?” She wants not only her record label feeling pleased with her, but her own parents as well: “I made my old man smile / Make him tap his knees.”
The title track of the album continues the thread of ambivalence, with Ziman telling a romantic interest: “I know I seem sincere / I meant it when I said it / but once the lights go up / it will be like it never happened.” As sure as she appears there, the entire song still seems couched in romantic hopefulness; she meant it when she said it, but might not mean it anymore? It’s hard to tell. The ambivalence is more open, even silly, on a song like “Wish I Didn’t”, which starts off with the near-cringeworthy statement “Wish I didn’t give a fuck / Wish I didn’t curse so goddamn much.” Charting a course straight through Ingrid Michaelson territory with soft “ba-ba-bump”-ing and pizzicato strings — not to mention a little ukelele! — Ziman offers us a fine contrast between the fraught lyrics and the pleasant backing.
Towards the end of Like It Never Happened, Ziman presents “Sugared Poison”, easily the best Fiona Apple imitation I’ve yet encountered, where she mimics not only Apple’s jarring, nearly carnivalesque piano but her lyrical play, toying with assonance and consonance with phrases like “my list of what-ifs” and “sticky sweet sweat / covered in regret”. That said, loose imitation doesn’t really serve Ziman. Similar problems arise with her cover of Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End”, as she simply can’t convey Johnston’s naive charm.
The tough lesson learned from this album is that Ziman still hasn’t located her own sound. As good as Like It Never Happened can be, it’s ultimately less a cohesive entity of its own and more like a mishmash between great pop songwriting, especially the tunes “Happy Pop” and “Shoelaces”, and the flighty, inspired production of Molad and Lalish.