There Goes the Bride
When Azita Youssefi was recording her new solo album this past August at Acme, the scuttlebutt was that it sounded like Steely Dan. Since Youssefi had made her reputation screeching and whooping over her own agitated bass lines in the neo-no-wave outfit Scissor Girls and then the abrasive art rock quartet Bride of No No, this was mildly shocking.
As it turns out, the reports were hyperbolic but not entirely misleading: Enantiodromia, released by Drag City on February 25, is a collection of elegant piano-driven pop, and the vocals on it are considerably more conventional than anyone would expect from Youssefi (though they're still marked by wild swoops and exaggerated enunciation). But she insists her music hasn't changed all that much. "Even with the stuff that seemed the noisiest and most insane," she says, "I always thought people should be able to dance and sing along with it, and I was always surprised that wasn't the case."
On Enantiodromia, says Youssefi, "I wanted the material to be comprehensible to people. I wanted people to follow it." The album is chock-full of unusual chord patterns, convoluted rhythmic structures, and dissonant harmonies: the moody melody of "Better End in Time" takes more unexpected twists than "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number." But its tunes are still more streamlined than the claustrophobic post-Beefheart roil of Bride of No No, and there's no doubt you can sing along to them.
Youssefi had studied piano as a kid, but started playing again only in late 1997, when her roommate at the time, Nerves drummer Elliot Dicks, went home to Columbus, Ohio, and brought back his mother's old Yamaha electric-acoustic piano. "I sat at it and realized that I had given up this thing that at some point I had really liked doing," she says. She dug up her old instruction books and started taking informal classical lessons. "I didn't envision myself giving a recital at Symphony Center," she says; she had no greater ambition than to entertain herself by playing Bach. But before long she started coming up with song fragments of her own. "Sometimes I would take a break and tinkle around, do something, and think, 'Oh, I should tape this.'"
Eventually she assembled some of these bits into songs. In February 2000 she brought her first such creation, "Ooh Ooh Johnny," into the studio where Bride of No No was recording its debut album, B.O.N.N. Apetit! (Atavistic). But the band made a point of writing as a collective, and the other members didn't want to use her solo material on the record. The song didn't feel finished to Youssefi anyway, so she set it aside. After Drag City co-owner Dan Koretzky casually complimented her piano playing, however, she started thinking about making a solo piano album.
For the next year and a half she tried to create more compositions out of her song fragments, but she had little success until after the spring of 2001, when she got some MIDI software. "Before if I had an idea for how a part could change I would have to be able to play it and then sit back and listen to myself, with lots of errors, and decide if I liked it or not," she says. Now she could test a variety of ideas on the computer. By early 2002 the songs were coming together, and Youssefi started trying them out at local open mikes; she says she received consistently positive responses from people outside the underground rock scene.
Youssefi then recorded a piano-and-voice demo, with every arrangement and phrase meticulously worked out. (She says she would have considered it ready for release if she'd played real piano on it instead of digital.) She sent it to several indie labels and heard back from none. So she took matters into her own hands. Last May, Hideout soundman Jim Becker told her about a grand piano sitting unused at the club--Ultimatum Records had rented it for a private industry showcase by former Soul Asylum front man Dave Pirner and it wasn't scheduled to be returned for a couple days. Youssefi invited Drag City employees to an impromptu concert; she played her solo album straight through, convincing the label to release her record. She rerecorded it with drummer John McEntire (her boyfriend) and bassist Matthew Lux (Isotope 217). (Guitarist Jeff Parker and cornetist Rob Mazurek also appear on a few tracks.)
That June, Bride of No No dissolved. Drummer Shannon Morrow was the first to voice her dissatisfaction with the band and quit; guitarist J. Graff followed close behind. (The band nonetheless managed to record a second album in the fall; it'll be released by Atavistic this June.) "I wasn't going to start the band up with new people," Youssefi says. "It was over. It had always been difficult to work together, but I would have never broken it up or quit." She wasn't entirely disappointed though; once she returned to the piano she began losing interest in the bass, and the solo setting allowed her to focus more on her singing. Working alone also let her further explore what she describes as a long-standing love of pop music. "If a [certain] song comes on, I'm transported to a magical realm, even if it's something like 'Let It Be,' something I've heard a million times," she says. "The things I've always liked have been things that I felt like singing."
Youssefi performs Saturday night at the Empty Bottle with Lux and drummer Ryan Rapsys; Parker will also play on a handful of songs.
After announcing its plans for a Trenchmouth anthology more than a year and a half ago, Thick Records has finally released More Motion, an 18-track collection spanning the quartet's career, from 1987 to 1997. The CD makes it easy to hear how the band's throbbing postpunk has influenced groups like At the Drive-in and the Chicago band Watchers. Bassist Wayne Montana and singer Damon Locks are now rocking it in the Eternals (who've been reinvigorated by the recent addition of drummer John Herndon), but the band's most famous alum these days is drummer Fred Armisen, now a Saturday Night Live cast member.
Trumpeter Ameen Muhammad, a longtime member of the AACM, died Thursday, February 27; he was 48. He's best known for playing in Ernest Dawkins's New Horizons Ensemble, and his final recording with that band, Cape Town Shuffle, has just been released by Delmark Records. The band's planned gigs at the Velvet Lounge on March 6 and 13 will now be informal tribute performances.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.