observations and opinion
The happy accident of discovering Elizabeth Ziman, a wistful chanteuse who refuses to bend to the Age of Irony.
You may be younger or older than me, but I bet we have this in common: we’ve been listening to music our whole lives.
So with all those notes and beats behind us, and with all that we hope is ahead, we’ve heard some good stuff. The first album I ever owned was The Beatles’ “Revolver” – a birthday gift some years after it was released. I loved it, left it, came back to it. Some years ago I started a Facebook group dedicated to the proposition that Revolver was the best record ever made. We had about 300 members before Facebook, like the Soviets mowing down tombstones, obliterated the club. No matter. Revolver is still there.
And I would say today, without hesitation that the Fab Four’s 1966 masterpiece ranked #1 among the records I had ever heard. That conviction was unshakeable forever, until… a while back, I went to the bakery one morning and on the way home, ran into someone named Elizabeth Ziman.
Pardon, Elizabeth who?
Yeah, I know. Elizabeth Ziman (she has been releasing records as Elizabeth and the Catapult) may be a mystery to you. She’s something of a mystery to me, too. But a few months ago I was driving home and I heard a song in the car. Another band was covering a tune, written by someone I had never heard of. I remembered the name.
And so it was that I began to discover, what little I could discover, about Ms. Ziman. Which ain’t much. She lives in New York. She goes by “Elizabeth and the Catapult”, so far anyway. She has a few albums out. She adores her rabbit (I’m not a bunny guy, but it’s a cute rabbit). More pertinent, Ms. Ziman plays piano beautifully, sings beautifully and writes beautifully. She’s also kinda beautiful, further proof that the universe doles out luck rather unfairly. So be it, she’s doing something with the luck.
Ms. Ziman is also something more than a pretty face and an epic talent: she has guts, learning guitar by busking on the subway platform. Maybe ’cause she couldn’t get a reasonably priced ticket to Baghdad?
Once I found Elizabeth Ziman, I started listening. She hasn’t really recorded anything that isn’t really good, so far as I can tell. And she has recorded WAY more than her share of stuff that is great. And when I say “great” I don’t mean entertaining. I mean great: moving, intelligent, beautiful songs, delivered with power and a wide open heart.
Lyrically, Ms. Ziman (and perhaps co-writers, I’m not sure who wrote all the songs) consistently lands in an odd space where melancholy meets whimsy, fun collides with trauma. Musically, melody seems to fall off her fingers while a drum machine runs in her head. And then there’s that voice, which really goes places.
Sometimes she sounds a little like Aimee Mann (The Rainiest Day of Summer). Right Next to You was a kind of ambling, Nora Jonesy thing (part of her earliest work, Taller Children.) Sometimes she reminds me of Harry Nilsson (not sure why, she just does). But most of the time, Ms. Z sounds like herself and nobody else. Whether it’s the frisky Race You, the jolly but kinda sad You and Me (where she breaks up with ET) or the bitter, haunting Thank You for Nothing, the woman hits the sweet spot over and over again.
With Like It Never Happened, her 2014 album, she hit that spot eleven straight times, culminating in the astounding Last Opus (about which I tried to write some months back in The Best Possible Arnold Burns). Detached from her old record label, Ms. Ziman and her collaborators went out there into Cyberworld and raised the money to make the record themselves (I mentioned the guts thing before, right?) Here we see what the music industry requires of artists now but also, what smart artists are choosing to do – their own work, their own way on their own terms and time.
And then there is the record itself. You have to ask yourself, when was the last time you listened to an album where every single song was really, really good – good in the sense that it’s musically sophisticated, lyrically astute, humane, ambitious and damned catchy? I can tell you when: not in a long, long time. That’s when. But when you listen to Like It Never Happened, the answer will be, “Two minutes ago.”
So here’s what you should do: listen to what Elizabeth and the Catapult has put out there so far. Happily, Ms. Ziman has just recorded another album, so after hearing all the old stuff she will be ready with some more.
You might wonder, “why should I take any musical advice from this guy who writes about politics, haiku, and hopeless romance? Why should I listen to some artist I’ve never heard of?” Fair enough.
And I’ve only got one good answer: ’cause maybe you deserve to hear her.
P.S. yes, I still love Revolver. Now it just has company.