Zoot Woman’s eagerly anticipated return to the electronic music scene rarely reaches the glittering heights of its shimmering title.
In the 1971 cult classic film Harold and Maude, Ruth Gordon’s life-affirming, septuagenarian character Maude utters the phrase, “The earth is my body, my head is in the stars.” Following the brilliant Things Are What They Used To Be, one wishes the somewhat pedestrian songs on British electro-pop trio Zoot Woman’s fourth album Star Climbing were as celestial bound as Maude’s poetic expression. While it may seem slightly random that a quote from a 43 year old movie would spring to mind when analyzing a synth pop album in 2014, the history of cinema has as much an influence on pop culture and the critical mind as the Top 40 hits and obscure musical gems that define the sound of decades past. As a champion of Zoot Woman’s past three outings, it must regrettably be said that Star Climbing will likely leave little to no lasting impression on pop culture or the current electronic music scene. Their contemporaries have nothing to fear. Things aren’t what they used to be on the trio’s latest collection of songs.
With the exception of a handful of stellar tracks scattered throughout -- “Coming Up for Air”, “Nothing in the World”, “Chemistry”, and “Rock & Roll Symphony” -- the trio of Stuart Price and brothers Adam and Johnny Blake have crafted a rather hit and miss affair here. That’s not to say that the album is a failure of execution by any means. The sparkling production was clearly a labor of love, but the few blinding pop gems that lie within only highlight the unfortunate reality that the majority of Star Climbing’s retro-futuristic songs aren’t quite as spectacular as the group had intimated. Zoot Woman recently said this about the record: “It is our most distinctive album to date, combining all our different tastes and styles into one.” Well, it is distinctive in the sense that it often pales in comparison to the rest of the group’s catalog. Where is the confident pop coolness of “It’s Automatic”, the edgy, atmospheric vibe of “Grey Day”, or the emotionally resonant, dramatic intensity of “Lonely By Your Side” or “We Won’t Break”?
Five years is a long gestation time for any electronic album. Then again, Aphex Twin is returning this month with his sixth record Syro, and his last release was delivered in October of 2001. Sometimes life gets in the way and years evaporate much quicker than expected. Sometimes inspiration is slow to arrive. Musicians occasionally become so attached to their songs, after spending weeks and months perfecting them in the studio, that they fail to see the proverbial forest for the trees. It was thought that Zoot Woman had stepped out of the ring after their last recording, so when they finally resurfaced, the merit of their next collection would always be held up against the quality of their past releases. There are undeniable moments of beauty to be found within Star Climbing, and Johnny Blake’s voice is still a gorgeous thing to behold, but when a bonus track eclipses everything that preceded it, something is definitely awry.
The album kicks off with “Don’t Tear Yourself Apart”, and while the delicate as spun silk chorus is pleasant enough, there is not much of a melodic arch to the entire song as a whole. An undistinguished middle eight gives way to a repetitive chorus, while doing little more than throwing a louder, throbbing pulse on top of it all. Lyrically the track is similar to receiving a reassuring pep talk from one of your dearest friends. 'Tis a shame then, that the song itself isn’t as blindingly dazzling as the accompanying video or as comforting as the positive affirmations within the text.
In 2013 the group served up a small taste of what Star Climbing might deliver as a whole. Initially, “The Stars are Bright” left a similar, shoulder-shrugging impression such as the official lead single has done, but within the context of the LP, the track works rather well. Beginning with a hypnotic series of needle sharp synth stabs, the pounding minimalist song succeeds where “Don’t Tear Yourself Apart” falters, injecting a sense of urgency into the proceedings as Johnny Blake sings,
Don’t waste the days. Don’t waste the years. Don’t try to understand how life appears.
The jaunty, sunlit piano phrase that opens the candy-coated “Silhouette” is a bit jarring after the darker mood of the song that preceded it. Puzzlingly, it ends on an abrupt note with no melodic conclusion, as if it remained an unfinished composition. “Coming Up For Air” is by far the best song on the record. The retro-leaning tune sounds as delightfully '80s nostalgic as it does distinctly Now. If the entire album were filled with tracks this infectious, Zoot Woman would have come back to the music scene with a roar instead of a whimper. The New Romantic spirit of synth-saturated “Nothing in the World” instantly charms, while the perfectly structured but curiously titled “Rock & Roll Symphony” bounces along on a spinning bass line, giving way to a fantastic synth organ interlude. Dark, sexy, head-bopping “Chemistry” even sounds like a superior outtake from their last record.
After “The Stars are Bright”, the trio rarely reignite the blisteringly hot blaze that burned throughout the first half of the record. “Real Real Love” appears to recycle bits and pieces from the songs before it, barely limping along on the back of its anemic melody, while the pulsating allure of the terrific “Lifeline” slowly builds the tension until it erupts into a four-to-the-floor frenzy. From there on out things unravel rather quickly. Pointlessly included, instrumental track “Elusive” wanders about aimlessly, and aptly-titled, lethargic, vocoder-heavy closer “Waterfall into the Fire” regrettably douses the memory of Star Climbing’s fiery highlights.
Rarely does a bonus track outshine the material it was substituted for, but the poignant electro-ballad “Have We Lost That Loving Feeling” displays everything that this group usually does so perfectly well, yet delivers so sparingly on Star Climbing: indelible melodies and emotionally resonant song craft. If everything that came before it were as instantly memorable, this might have been a great pop record. So much promise and so little worth revisiting, Zoot Woman’s eagerly anticipated return to the electronic music scene rarely reaches the glittering heights of its shimmering title. For Stuart Price and the brothers Blake, the stars have not aligned this time around.