Still / Alive
The Savannah, Ga. one-man band Jeff Zagers specializes in haunting pop with occasional noisy diversions, favoring tender, tuneful melodies that cast shadows with a reverberating grandeur.
However, if one were to identify a musical superpower of his, it would be the ability to deliver sincere sentimentality within synth-pop capsules, without being overwrought. It’s music that stands close-by with human warmth, without a shred of winking ironic distancing.
Making this case is Exhibit A: Zagers’ use of the saxophone; it’s among only a few examples of pop saxophone that come to mind in the last three decades that aren’t either cringeworthy or just cheesy (think about the bemulleted Sexy Sax Man playing George Michael’s “Careless Whisper”).
After 2014’s excellent 3-cassette anthology Chu’s Musings Trill comes Zagers’ new full-length album, Still / Alive, perhaps his most consistent statement yet that doesn’t belie his affinity for diverse strategies.
Wasting no time, the first three tracks of Still / Alive whip by in less than five minutes, beginning with the a cappella song “The Double,” which summons gospel harmonies, starting with the declaration “I’m leaving all my friends.” The 6/8 time signature of the dreamy dancehall number “Fortaken” brings to mind heartfelt half-century-old popular music, and it’s followed by the jigsaw puzzle “A Nimbus,” where the organ, sax and drum kit take their time to assemble into cohesion.
Sci-fi sounds lurk in “To Replenish,” behind sequenced synths, artificial drums and weighty chords, and “Still Alive” offers a compelling momentum, bringing to mind The Human League’s new wave, when they were on the fence between darkness and pure pop.
The album is smooth sailing until the disruptive closing number, “A Growing Interest,” with lurching, heaving aural discomfort and distortion, with stabbing sound blasts, concluding Still / Alive as one of the most satisfyingly intriguing pop albums of the year so far.
Songs from The Falling
Tracey Thorn is primarily known for her remarkable career in the group Everything But the Girl, with its poised take on pop in the ’80s and its second life in the ’90s as dance-pop purveyors.
She’s also known for her early ’80s group Marine Girls, offering a template for certain strains of indie-pop (I’m looking at you, Olympia). Within the last decade, she’s released a trio of solo albums that glean from the modern methods (producers and electronics) of Everything But the Girl, including the Christmas album Tinsel and Lights.
This writer is probably in the minority, but out of her entire body of work, he favors two often overlooked releases: the Night and Day EP from Everything But the Girl (including the stunning, minimal Cole Porter title track) and her first solo album, 1982’s A Distant Shore, which uses nothing more than Thorn’s voice and a guitar.
Both of those releases are modest and unassuming, but there is a really special, timeless intimacy to them that Thorn has only occasionally been able to capture since. Thorn’s newest effort, Songs from The Falling, is a brief, 8-song mini-album with music created for the film The Falling about a fainting outbreak at a British all-girls school in 1969, and it hearkens back to those two sparse, sensitive and intimate releases.
The opening “Follow Me Down” uses a stark minor-keyed piano, which sets a sober tone to the proceedings, and it also features the odd flourishes of what sounds like a mallet being dragged across a cheap xylophone, making ascending wooden tones. Percussion is used very sparingly across the soundtrack: a soft bass drum here, faint cymbal taps there.
One striking thing is just how vulnerable Thorn’s voice sounds, like on “It Was Always Me” where she not-so-confidently reaches for its high notes and on “Are You There?” with endearingly imperfect vocal modulations. These songs aren’t unbaked sketches, although the arrangements aren’t thick and lush and are rather skeletal.
Songs from The Falling isn’t Thorn’s most ambitious work, lyrically or musically, but the songs resonate wistfully in a treasured way.