he first time I listened to Chemistry I disliked it until the fourth song, but I now think this was because of a fundamental misunderstanding on my part. The scant information I’d found online about Zeebee and this album suggested that the album (made after the Austrian singer spent three years writing close to 200 songs, ten of which appear here) would be bouncy pop, and after the first three songs I expected the album to be completely insufferable. The fourth track, “Tender”, was markedly different and blew me away. I thought for sure it was a fluke, and so listened to the next six tracks nervously, expecting the quality to decline catastrophically at any moment.
Well, it didn’t, and as the album hasn’t left my computer all week I’ve come to understand why I initially disliked the beginning of the album. Second track “My Thing To Do” is charming in its Bjorkish whimsicality (I find the way she makes the words “hop-hop-ti-bop” into part of the chorus adorable), but if all of the songs here possessed the same style I could see it quickly becoming insufferable. Instead the record is perfectly balanced between the sweet and the astringent, luring the listener in with a few bright, poppy tunes before “Tender” seduces you into the rest of the album.
Every time I listened to Chemistry I kept finding new things I wanted to write about it, but I can’t honestly see a way to make them all fit together. I thought about cutting out two-thirds of them, but honestly, I think we’d both be better served if I don’t try to stitch them all together like some Frankensteined monster. So, instead, here follows a collection of short thoughts on Zeebee’s Chemistry:
“Chemistry” boasts production that wouldn’t be out of place in a darker R&B; ballad, with a vocal intro that would (with a bit more of a growl in place) edge into Basseyesque territory.
…a cross between Lamb’s What Sound (only not as kinetic) and Hope Sandoval’s solo album (only not as shoegazer)…
The clipped acoustic stride of “Truth” (and for a record that doesn’t obviously boast many guitars, it makes very smart use of them) perfectly backs up the equally clipped lines of the chorus and the underlying beats, making the guitar itself sound percussive.
The loop that underlies “Tender” doesn’t sound like a trumpet, but I can’t help but be reminded of the ghostly horn section from Pulp’s great “This Is Hardcore”; “Tender” sounds like that looped brass left to dry and warp in the sun, the horns shriveling away into a twisted digital hiss.
At times it’s reminiscent of Beth Gibbons’ excellent solo debut, Out Of Season, and like that record it’s decidedly post-Portishead (in the sense of post-punk rather than post-1977).
“Visit You” boasts the same dry heartbeat thump as Massive Attack’s immortal “Teardrop”, although the rest (from the acoustic guitar to the backgrounded strings to the swooning chorus) is markedly more romantic. Zeebee also pronounces “visit” as “wisit”, which I would have assumed to be off-putting or even distracting, but found it endearing instead.
Zeebee drifts through these songs like smoke, snapping suddenly into focus on occasion, but crucially her presence is central to the album whether she’s in focus or not.
“Lost & Found” is the Lambiest thing here, but the electronic background burbles and twitches away quietly miles beneath Zeebee’s clear voice, at least at the beginning.
“Open Up Your Eyes” has a chorus that stretches out, like time-lapsed photography of a summer afternoon on a hill (“’Cos when I open up my eyes / I see you smiling / ’Cos when I open up my eyes / The sun is shining”), and the whole song sprawls out from that chorus. The best pure pop moment of the album?
The adjective that kept occurring to me while I was trying to figure out what to write about Chemistry is sumptuous, even for the more minimalist tracks like “Tender”. There is something warm and rich about the album even when the individual sounds are cold and bare, but not barren.
The beats of “Race” echo and shudder coldly in and out of view, while behind them Zeebee gives her dreamiest vocal performance of the album, sounding lost in reverie. The song ends almost before you’ve noticed, and without pause the warm organ/acoustic guitar strum of “Soul Collateral” rushes in. The contrast and the resultant pleasure: the key to this album?
The near-random drum hits and horn blats of “Pain & Pleasure” ends the album like an epilogue, the least traditionally songlike track here and a fitting summation. It sounds like someone singing to themselves while two streets over a band tunes up, half-heard through the city streets.
The whole thing is a mere 37 minutes and change; but really, it doesn’t need any longer to steal your heart.