Emily Bezar

(DemiVox Records)

It's entirely possible, of course, that my definition of Angels' Abacus (2004) as being "Emily Bezar's commercial album", one that only our present times, changing for the worse as they are, could prevent from becoming her Court And Spark (here I was obviously referring to Joni Mitchell's album, the one that thirty years earlier had signaled the triumphant admission of the Canadian-born musician to the US mainstream), only demonstrated the size of my ignorance when it comes to all things mainstream/commercial. But yes, I have to admit that, in a vague way I won't be able to clarify here, I had really hoped that Angels' Abacus could be her commercial breakthrough. Though I'm painfully aware of what a difficult climb releasing an album on one's own, with no real money to talk about when it comes to little things such as publicity and promotion, can be. And especially so today, when the sheer amount of material (the old expression "for sale" appearing more and more inadequate with every passing day) one can listen to for free makes it quite unlikely for "the cream to rise to the top".

Released five years after Four Walls Bending - an album that could loosely be defined as her "Prog masterpiece", with all its Floyd-like grandeur - Angels' Abacus appeared willing to embrace "modern times" in its adoption of "dry" sounds and drum machines, all which dramatically shared the same space of Bezar's usual "thematic knottiness", her wide instrumental palette, and her vocal arias. One could maybe spot a fresher spirit, perhaps, while the fact of having sixteen tracks in the space of 70+ minutes showed a new propensity for (relatively-speaking!) brevity.

Four years have already passed, and here's her new album, Exchange. It's a work that at first had me a bit puzzled, but I can happily say that my reasons for puzzlement totally vanished after a few listening sessions. Having a look at the booklet, I saw that this time only ten tracks were featured in this (70+ minutes) CD, which tells of a return to less concise, and maybe more ambitious, durations. That the album was recorded and mixed by Justin Phelps, who had occupied the same chair during the sessions for Four Walls Bending, made me think of a return to that album's "Prog" climates, which are indeed featured on this album's opening track, Saturn's Return, with its hard, dark, attack, "rock group" and all. On first listening, the album as a whole appeared to communicate to me a strange feeling of déjà vu, almost like Emily Bezar had chosen to revisit moods, feelings, and forms that had already appeared on her previous (four) albums.

More listening sessions showed me I was wrong. It's true that in some way Exchange appears to be more "a step sideways" than "a step forward" (damn those spatial metaphors!), like it had been the case with Angels' Abacus. But once one accepts the fact that here there are no real dramatic changes, one can easily see that here there's a control on form that's seldom been so complete. And one can enjoy the timbral instrumental palette at her disposal - acoustic and electric pianos, analogue and digital synths, (real) strings and winds - plus the multitude of voices at the service of the compositions. What's more, the sound of the album, which I believe to have been recorded and overdubbed in ProTools, mysteriously manages to add a certain "analogue warmth" to the clarity of the relationships between the sounds.

Just like the old days, Exchange just needs the proper amount of time and attention to be properly appreciated. Readers are invited to add their own impressions to the following sketches.

As I've already said, Saturn's Return is the opening track. An "electric piano" (quite expressive all over the album, it could well be of the sampled kind), the electric guitar playing an angular riff, bass and drums steady on the rhythm, a piano, an "unstable" melody, quite a lot going on in the background in the right/left channels, with lotsa keyboards and vocal echoes. Then a "B" section with more "air", the second time sporting a complex sound that could be a mixture of a keyboard and a violin. A complex bridge (or maybe they're two? at 2' 55" and 3' 10" - I'm happy I can say bridges are still a part of Bezar's aesthetics), and at about 3' 30", after a reprise of the "A" section, we have a piano solo over a "hard-sounding" rhythm section (a moment that brought to my mind... Gentle Giant! - I have to admit that a couple of times, while listening to the album, I was really reminded of that historical group, in their "hard-hitting drummer" days). So it's time to mention Mark Bernfield on drums, Dan Feiszli on bass, and Michael Ross on guitar.

Anything They Say has some nice "jazzy-bossa" moves, with a nice rhythm section, synths, acceleration, and a "stop" at 1' 57", a new section (performed twice) at 3' 15", with a "trumpet" from the synth and a counterpoint from the bass, a bridge at 4' 15", then it's the "electric piano" again, and a real majestic coda with synths.

In a certain way, Lament reminded me of the Joni Mitchell album The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, with its meditative voices with piano backing, a changing counterpoint of soprano, alto and tenor saxes (all played by Phillip Greenlief), fine keyboard sounds, and a lot of movement in both channels.

That Dynamite is the "obvious chart single" here. It has a "Minimoog", a rhythmic piano, also bass and drums, at a medium tempo. It slows, then there's a fine bridge at 3' 50 featuring piano and synth. It has a real fine instrumental coda.

Heavy Air is a "jazz-almost-Fusion" kind of ballad with complex time signature, double bass, drums keeping time on the ride cymbal, alto sax, trumpet (it's Chris Grady), then the "electric piano" again. The track almost inhabits a "New English Jazz" climate, something which also came to my mind in the course of the piano solo, winds playing a fine background. A "hushed" coda, a soft close, sounding almost like a bossa.

Strange Man has vocals and an "electric piano with echoplex", a fine rhythm section, a fat bass drum, and a rhythm sounding almost techno, with the snare quite metal-like, resonant with effects, and a beautiful "orchestral" combination: a melodic synth in the left channel, "vibes" in the right one. A fine bridge at 2' 56", the structure again, the "techno" part again, with a piano solo (again. reminding me of Gentle Giant!). In closing (at about 10'), an ensemble of male voices made me think of the monks' choir featured in a song by Walter Becker, Surf And/Or Die, off his album 11 Tracks Of Whack.

Glory Or Crazy is a piano ballad, with the drums played with brushes, bass, "classic-sounding" melody, the guitar playing long tones, a very "orchestral-sounding" synth, violins (real ones - it's Alan Lin), and a very charming melody. (This is - obviously - the single's B-side!) With a bridge featuring cello (played by Beth Vandervennet), piano, and violins, the piece has a delicate close, with strings.

With winds whose entry I can only define as being "quite Davis-like", Climb sports a piano, some jazzy drums, double bass, trumpet, trombone (it's Jen Baker), tenor sax. A fine alto sax solo with counterpoint by trumpet and trombone (all the arrangements on the album are by Bezar herself); there's also a piano solo with winds as support, then a fine trumpet-vocal lines unison, then an alto sax solo. Bizarre!

The longest track, and one which definitely brought me back to Bezar's first album, Grandmother's Tea Leaves, Winter Moon appeared to me as being in a way the album's "resolution". A rich tapestry of synth, piano, drums with brushes, double bass played arco, then an intro, almost "rubato", featuring the violin. This is a track that's better left for the listener to explore, with its multiple sections, the violin with its "icy" echo, vocals' multiple echoes in stereo, the violin improvised coda on a carpet of synths.

The real "end" arrives with Exchange, a song which appears to think about what came before. Piano and vocals, it's a track that (due to my lack of imagination, perhaps?) reminded me of the closing track of Blue (Joni Mitchell again!), The Last Time I Saw Richard.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2008

CloudsandClocks.net | Sept. 4, 2008