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Sharp Darts: Solving the Puzzle That Is Pop

Azita's third album for Drag City is her most natural sounding yet.



In 2003, when Peter Margasak wrote about Azita Youssefi in this space, he mentioned a prerelease rumor about her solo album Enantiodromia—that it "sounded like Steely Dan"—and pointed out that this was "mildly shocking." Youssefi had been working toward that record for upwards of three years, but until it dropped, her public persona was still that of a no-wave scene star—people knew her as the raccoon-eyed imp who fronted the Scissor Girls or the burka-clad leader of Bride of No No, not as an auteurist one-named piano balladeer.

"When the first Bride of No No record came out, there were people who were doing the exact same thing," she says. "From Scissor Girls to that they thought I had sold out, thought that I was doing a real straight-ahead rock thing."

By now, though, Azita's solo career has lasted almost as long as those two bands did put together, and if it's fair to judge by her new album, How Will You? (Drag City), she's still getting better. That's perhaps pleasantly surprising, but it's not shocking in the least.

The average listener isn't going to mistake Azita's thorny, sometimes dissonant piano songs for anything on Aja, but the Steely Dan comparisons aren't entirely off the mark—like Becker and Fagen, she's working in a pop idiom, where broad strokes usually suffice, but seems to want to express something that requires a finer brush. Though her songs are hardly busy or frantic, their long, ornate lines and jazzy rhythmic tweaks prevent even the most relaxed numbers from sounding easygoing.

Azita also has points of contact with musicians who've played around with pop using a toolbox of techniques borrowed from 20th-century avant-garde composers: like Laurie Anderson she has a mannered, theatrical vocal style that enforces a detachment from her material, no matter how soulful her delivery, and like Mayo Thompson of the Red Krayola she has odd ideas about what constitutes a hook, pulling her songs into unexpected detours that take them well outside the usual verse-chorus-verse structure.

On her earlier releases, 2003's Enantiodromia and 2004's Life on the Fly, Azita's unorthodox approach occasionally made her sound uncomfortable with pop, as though she were only willing to get so close to it. But on How Will You? nothing suggests that kind of troubled relationship with the genre. The complexity feels more organic, the flow more natural—she's still doing what she's always been doing, but it's easier to hear her strange outpourings of melody as pop songs because she's getting better at putting them together.

"I'm Happy," a minor-key number that begins with just voice and piano, wouldn't be too hard to pass off as a Zombies tune—the band even enters exactly where you'd expect. And the title track is an upbeat, ramshackle piano blues that sounds a little like Neil Young, whose "Don't Let It Bring You Down" Azita can be seen covering on YouTube—except for her rough, smoky purr, which becomes almost bell-like in its upper register.

Considering the evolutionary step she's taken between How Will You? and Life on the Fly, it's tempting to assume Azita has been slaving over this music, but that's only partly true. "When I compose musically," she says, "it happens so fast that I don't really have to think about anything. I have to tape-record myself writing it, because it happens so fast that I have to listen back and see what the thing actually is by the time it's done." The lyrics are the reason the new album took her four years to finish. "If I only had to write tunes," she says, "I'd write a tune a day, no problem. These lyrics were very difficult. There are notebooks and notebooks and notebooks of stuff that became what these are."

Those lyrics, which carefully balance the narrative with the abstract and the plainspoken with the poetic, sometimes read like an encrypted story. (The album's opening lines give you a fair idea of its flavor: "I'm happy you're happy/ These hours never thought to tell/ They fall from now to the pockets of past/ This job is not untaken too well.") So when How Will You? takes a dark turn halfway through with "Come William"—a moody dirge propelled by anxious, minimalist piano and streaked with grinding swoops of distorted guitar—it's hard not to try to connect that to the fact that Azita and her longtime boyfriend and collaborator, drummer and engineer John McEntire, split during the album's gestation period. She prefers not to discuss her private life, though, and dismisses the suggestion that her lyrics took forever to write because she was using them to process the end of a relationship. A technical explanation suffices, she says.

In many cases it was difficult for her to fit words to her melodies because "exactly the vocal vowel that I wanted on that beat was written. That's the old-school way of—not everybody, but a lot of the old standards songwriters work that way." It says a lot about the nature of the process that she refers to it as "solving" a lyric.

"There's at least one song on the record," she says, "that was like going to the dentist, finishing it, like something about it didn't end up successful to me. Structurally it just didn't seem to settle. I'm not going to say which one it is because I don't want anyone to be prejudiced against it. But that particular song, for some reason like eight out of ten people it's their favorite song."

Neither of Azita's previous Drag City albums has flown off the shelves. (Touch and Go, one of the label's four major distributors, announced last week that it would be shuttering its distribution arm, but it's handling How Will You? for now.) She might turn out to be one of those artists whose importance is measured by influence rather than popularity, though—it's more instructive to note who her fans are than how many she has. She's earned a reputation as a musician's musician, as evidenced by the high-caliber accomplices she attracts. John Herndon of Tortoise and Drag City producer Rian Murphy both play drums on How Will You?, Matt Lux of Isotope 217 plays bass, in-demand sideman and Cairo Gang founder Emmett Kelly plays guitar, and Kelly's bandmate Sam Wagster plays pedal steel.

Herndon, Lux, and Wagster will back Azita at her record-release show Monday at the Empty Bottle. She has plans to tour in support of How Will You?, but so far neither the dates nor her road band's lineup has been solidified.v

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