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Thalia Zedek - Liars and Prayers

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Artist: Thalia Zedek

Album: Liars and Prayers

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: May. 2, 2008

It's easy to pick out the differences between Thalia Zedek's work in Live Skull and Come versus her more intimate singer-songwriter approach as a solo artist. Zedek raised the stakes for Live Skull after becoming a member in the late 1980s. The world weary punk howl that she first used in Uzi came to fruition in Live Skull and later became a cornerstone of Come's distinctive sound. The latter band's avant-blues came on like a dark tidal wave, with guitarist Chris Brokaw's twisted Neil Young-isms hitting like a sledge hammer one minute and slicing like razors the next. Yet it was Zedek's spent, stained blues-holler – unique in its languid vitriol – that was the focus of each song. Come was delirium set to a drum beat, and Zedek was reveling in the whole beautiful mess as much as she was providing an anchor amidst it.

Zedek's solo career, however, has been marked by a considerably quieter and more acoustic-driven sound.

Some lip service has been paid to her neo-cabaret guise, a stripped-down ensemble based on drums, violin, guitar, and – at least on record – piano. Yet as much as this raw, crumbling approach might hearken the tattered revelry of Isherwood's Berlin (particularly her haunting version of "1926," originally by the obscure Boston group V) there was always a solid rock-based foundation – if not musically then certainly in its intensity – beneath even the most threadbare arrangements. Liars and Prayers, augmented as it is with actual bass guitar, pushes Zedek further away from a chamber-style setting, and reaffirms the rock muse that never lurked too far below her solo proceedings.

To be sure, Liars and Prayers is still a dreary (though lovely) affair. Every song emerges from a dirgy minor-key fog, and bleeds sentiments of longing, loss and memory. Yet, there's a rolling, undulating Come-esque energy present that acts as a defiant, almost uplifting counterpoint to the album's general melancholy feel. Songs like "Body Memory" and "Come Undone" sound like tiny battles being waged against life's hardships: Zedek is bloody and beaten ("Can you help me now?" she sings on the former), but she gets by (feeling "just as happy in the dark," as she claims on the latter). Zedek is from the Nick Cave-Leonard Cohen school of dark confessional song-writing (to wit she covers Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love” on her debut, Been Here and Gone), yet she never indulges in the shark-skin histrionics of Cave nor the studied romanticism of Cohen. I would argue that she's nearly as good as both, yet almost every one of her songs is like a raw nerve exposed to the cold empty streets well after closing time. And save for the occasional soaring musical interlude or chorus (listen to the wonderful heart-wrencher "Do You Remember" for an example of both), there is almost no shelter from the emotional elements on Liars and Prayers. While this might make Zedek a slightly less accessible performer than her lauded counterparts, it also makes for harrowing, grippingly honest art with nary a trace of irony. Zedek's songs are requiems for life’s isolated bad times – tough decisions, break-ups, deaths – and anthems for the whole that those times when amassed create. It's heavy stuff, but much like something as simple as getting out of the bed in the morning, it's well worth the effort.

By Nate Knaebel

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