Emily Bezar
Angels' Abacus

(DemiVox Records)

I'm pretty sure some readers still remember the heated debate about "the disappearance of the song". A debate (maybe the word "fear" is more appropriate) that became increasingly strident as the 80s progressed, during a period when tracks based almost exclusively on simple rhythm figures, spoken word and the endless world of sound effects made available by the fast technological progress appeared to be destined to make those artifacts that still used melody, harmony and rhythm as their building blocks obsolete. True, soon the start of the 90s demonstrated that those fears had been greatly exaggerated. But it's also true that musical language had undergone a process of simplification both in its melodic and harmonic departments; while rhythms were now less varied, more rigid. The tragic alliance of music and video did the rest.

So it was with great curiosity that I read a review - written, if I'm not mistaken, by Robert L. Doerschuck, and which appeared in the pages of US Keyboard magazine - that talked about Emily Bezar: a singer, composer and keyboard player whose first album, Grandmother's Tea Leaves ('93), had just been released on Olio Records (!). Listening to the album I heard a great personality, an obvious familiarity with Classical music, fast hands on the piano, and uncommon skills at creating individual timbres on electronics. Of course, one immediately noticed that voice, a soprano with clear Classical training that was both her first asset and the biggest stumbling block for the average listener (but the opposition between individuality and accessibility is indeed quite common - for instance, think about Tim Buckley, Peter Hammill and Captain Beefheart, not to mention Nico, Diamanda Galas and Dagmar Krause). Strange how becoming familiar with the music on the album enabled me to hear echoes that at first I would never have imagined to be there: Joni Mitchell?!?

Album #2, Moon In Grenadine ('96), was really unexpected. In fact, Emily Bezar had decided to concentrate almost exclusively on the piano, and - more important - to use a "rock trio". The album also showed some jazz piano, another factor that was totally unexpected for me, and great solo chops. Sure, the album lacked coherence. And I missed that peculiar magical atmosphere that had been such a great part of the first album. It's also true that recording the same album twice is pointless. But for me the main problem was that on Grandmother's Tea Leaves she had used a "layered" approach, and so she had played almost everything herself; while the "live" approach here would have necessitated extraordinary musical ingenuity and skills; instead, the added trio was merely "competent" and "adequate". In the end, what stayed in my mind was the last track, Ever Mine, with its echoes of Ellington and Monk.

Superbly recorded on analogue tape, Four Walls Bending ('99) was a step in the right direction, though it too was made of too many different parts. A "dark" album with a surprising, Floyd-like grandeur, where a kind of "pop" language appeared (Lead, Black Sand). Emily Bezar returned to play other keyboards beside the piano; again there was an intelligent and very musical use of sound design. Excellent vocals, beautiful compositions, the last track - His Everything - the one that stayed in my mind. Though the album was very good, I still longed for the (almost) "solo" dimension of her first album. And I often tried to imagine an album where the added elements could be just a frame around her voice - what came to my mind was the production work of John Cale for Nico and of Tchad Blake for Lisa Germano.

I'm pleased I can say that album now exists: it's the newly released Angels' Abacus. A surprising album that - hoping readers won't take me too seriously - I'll call "Bezar's Commercial Album". Sixteen tracks in 73', Angels' Abacus sounds all of one piece though it's stylistically quite varied. The fruit of two different recording sessions - three tracks were recorded in UK with Tim Pettit as co-producer, the rest being recorded in Berkeley, California, by Jon Evans. Instruments are intelligently used and placed around the vocals, always at the service of the composition - which doesn't necessarily mean that they lack individuality! (Just listen to Laurence Cottle's bass part on Losing The Middle.) Bass and drums (both real and programmed), many keyboards, some instrumental touches (guitar, trumpet, flugelhorn, cello).

The first two tracks (Latitude, Right Back At Me) will take her fans by surprise, just like the very Bacharach-like complexity and brio of Walk That Blade, sporting trumpet and an agile choir, and the bossa which opens In Delay. Repeated listenings reveal that not much has changed in terms of complexity, most of the compositions in fact showing the maze-like quality so typical of her style - check the bridge of Losing The Middle, the development of In Delay, the lyrical Heaven To Pay. The title-track is in a sense the end of side one. Then, more naked and intimate tracks - Scirocco, Suncrash - alternate with some nice surprises: Continental Slide, with its drum machine and its frenetic piano coda over a vocal ostinato; In My Sky, whose melody is impossible to forget; and the already mentioned Walk That Blade. The slow Cast In Ice could have been the perfect close for this (extremely good-sounding) album. Instead, we also get the fragmented Metronome and the sad - and quite majestic - Night Boats.

Kudos to a musician who has succeeded in reinventing herself while at the same time remaining true to herself. Only these changed times will make it impossible for this album to be her Court And Spark.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004

CloudsandClocks.net | Nov. 7, 2004