Azita Youssefi is doing her best to escape classification. Her jazz-infused, yet occasionally catchy post-punk pop songs don’t really fit into any neatly defined genre of music. And so far, all of that has worked out just fine for the Iranian-American, probably best known for her previous gig fronting no-wave Chicago outfit Scissor Girls.
Her solo debut, 2003’s Enantiodromia, drew primarily favorable reviews though no one seemed to be able to put a finger on exactly what the record’s sound was. (Here’s guessing even no-wave — it’s OK if you have no idea what that moniker means — was a cop out as well.) Comparisons were all over the map, from Carole King to Steely Dan to Laura Nyro to Thalia Zydek. And you all know how we rock critics like comparisons .
That’s precisely what makes reviewing something like Life on the Fly so difficult. Yeah, you could easily find things in common vocally with folks like Nico or Nyro or even Chan Marshall. There are atmospherics here that are similar to Nina Nastasia. Hell, some of the jazzy piano work could even have been cribbed from a Peanuts soundtrack. And there’s a worldliness to these songs, but they’re certainly not world music. Ah, forget it.
Here’s the thing: Youssefi is a talented, even brilliant, musician and a virtuoso on the piano and keyboards. But when you’re done listening to this nine-song disc, the trees stand out more than the forest. For all of the things there are to be admired in an Azita record, its all a bit too disjointed for its own good. It’s sort of like reading a Donald Barthelme short story: it may be brilliant writing, but it never really unearths anything. All brain, no heart.
The opening track, “Wasn’t in the Bargain”, kicks things off with a driving, catchy jazz piano intro. Lyrically, however, the song is needlessly obtuse. When she asks, “Is Mephisto having a party?” it’s unclear what she’s getting at. The name has taken on so many meanings, from Goethe to the Academy Award-winning film to a line of shoes, that it obfuscates more than it reveals (not to mention that most of us have to look the name up). Similar images in this song that appears to be about losing or selling one’s soul are awkward at best: “In between the flicker I have seen / A light / Terrible like a king”.
In “Life on the Fly”, the Nico similarities are at their most obvious. But like “Bargain”, the first-person account meanders more than it puts a finger down on any one theme. Musically, it’s not much different. The fractured rhythm is interesting but like a jam band’s noodling, the path never ends at a revelation. The journey is the destination, apparently, but it’s not a very rewarding one.
“In the Vicinity” and “Just Joker Blues” each have their moments, particularly the corner work of Rob Mazurek on “Blues”, and seem to point to better things ahead. And “Miss Tony” is the highlight of the record, a catchy jazz/indie pop fusion with an infectious chorus line. It’s also Azita at its most basic: “You don’t need to know who or what or why to sing / Because Miss Tony do / Hey hey because Miss Tony do”.
But the self-indulgence of “Another Kind of Trade” and “Things Without Names” quickly make you forget the talent the band (also made up of John McEntire on drums and Matt Lux on bass) possesses when it’s playing tight, focused material. “Antarctica” is almost comical with its clumsy grad school metaphors (“When the last mobster is gone / We go too in an icy dawn”), counterfeit drama, and pretentious jazz constructs. The finale, “Yours for Today”, has more in common with the best of Azita’s work (“Miss Tony”) than the rest of the record and, again, is frustrating in its revelation. This is a band that should be much better than it is.
Experimentation can be an awe-inducing thing and pushing boundaries is by all means encouraged. But there has to be a thread of true feeling, a sense of true communication that brings it all together. Instead, Azita seems more interested in keeping themselves interested. And as long as that is the driving force, the songs will remain hollow — simply notes on a page and words that hold no meaning.