enjoy singing, and have suspicions that every person does. Of course, whether or not one holds their aspirations of "crooner"-status in secret (in the shower) or in public (every time some goddamn power ballad comes on the radio) there are just some songs one does not ever, EVER try. Though I have a relatively high voice, I promised myself I would never attempt Bonnie Tyler’s "Total Eclipse of the Heart" in public, for obvious reasons: it’s worthless without the video and Tyler’s voice somersaults far out of my range. Whoops. Mere seconds into the opening my voice was cracking worse than it ever did in adolescence, and my compatriots shot me withering looks. From that day forward, I vowed to stick to my repertoire of Nico and Cat Power, both of whom I can mimic well despite their sexes; like mine, their singing voices are husky, atonal and only somewhat masculine.
Shortly after The Bonnie Incident, I happened upon Azita’s Enantiodromia. The cover, a close up picture of Azita applying something to her face, both intrigued and repulsed me. Intrigued– the name "Azita" for a singer-songwriter is a lot more interesting than "Norah" or "Jewel." Also, she looks sort of like a cat. Repulsion! This cat-faced woman was applying something to her face!* But whatever reservations I had about the record on an aesthetic level were quickly nullified by the sheer weirdness of the music. Azita’s is the only music of its type, a meeting (even I, despite liking the album tremendously, cannot say whether it’s a fortunate one or not) of 70's soft rock like Steely Dan, jazz, and wildly experimental vocals. To get away with the kind of tunelessness found on this album, you have to be a lunatic, a crackpot, or a genius. From what I can discern, Azita is all three.
Azita sounds–there’s no getting around this–retarded, or at least like the average person’s approximation of what retarded people might sound like. Her every word is a slobbery-sounding drawl, though it is liable to suddenly vacillate into a shrill yell. More so than any other singer I have ever heard, Azita disregards the fact that a scale for musical tonality exists; throughout the record, her voice veers off-course like a car with its wires cut, and every change of key her voice goes through is but another opportunity for collision.
"Better End in Time," the album’s first song, begins innocuously with Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker riffing above an arpeggiated jazz chord. As the listener prepares themselves for an album filled with lite-jazz pleasantries ("Hey," one might think. "This sounds like Norah Jones!"), Azita’s voice comes in like a claw hammer scraping against sheet metal. Thus end the five seconds of the album in which the listener is able to entertain notions of say, drawing a warm bath, lighting some candles, and enjoying some love-sick banalities. The discomfort level reaches its maximum high when Azita sings at the bridge of the song "We split up at the Christmas party/He was too far gone to care/Puking out the driver’s side window/Ignoring all the stares." Though the whole verse is unnerving in its off-handedness, Azita delivers the aural equivalent of rubbing salt in the wound when she enunciates "Puking" as though she is literally retching something lodged in her throat; strangely, the experience of listening to this is a queasy thrill, rather than one that causes revulsion.
"On the Road" features a jaunty melody, reminiscent of something that might be found off Carole King’s "Tapestry," if King were singing one of her feminist anthems while gagging on a piece of meat. As epitomized by this song, the musicianship on Enantiodromia is absolutely superb. The usual Drag City associates were assembled to play back-up: the aforementioned Parker, John McEntire on Drums, et cetera. Azita herself is a stunning pianist, capable of assimilating aspects of popular music, show tunes and classicism into songs that pay homage to their predecessors, but are still completely original. By the time Azita lapses into a lengthy piano solo in the middle of the song, one realizes that despite everything–or maybe because of it–Azita has made masochists of us all. The listener craves the brutality her voice inflicts on their ears. Azita’s music thrives on the dichotomy of beauty and ugliness, and shows us how intrinsic these values are to each other. By song three, "Ooh Ooh Johnny," Azita so thoroughly ameliorates her flaccid, rubbery voice to its cocktail-jazz surroundings that I found it difficult to remember why her music was so alienating in the first place.
Give a girl a piano and she’ll likely write about love, or rape, or sometimes both. Give Al Johnson of U.S. Maple a piano, and he’ll be Azita. Like her label mate, Azita eschews any notions of what a human voice should sound like. She doesn’t sing, she chokes, she trills, she warbles. She revels in her own imperfections until the listener forcibly accepts what comes out of her mouth, however alien the words may sound. It’s Azita’s desire to take an amateurish voice further over the top than it should be able to that shows us the hidden beauty of our words. If that sounds like bad art, it’s not; it’s brave, and it’s what makes this one of the most unique and surprising records to come out this year.
*I’ve only seen two pictures of Azita, and in both, she vaguely resembled a cat. But this is a sort of mean thing to say. She’s probably very pretty.
Reviewed by: Eric Seguy
Reviewed on: 2003-11-05