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Elizabeth and The Catapult's
The Other Side of Zero

Reviewed by John Hashop







“Objectivity, objectivity, objectivity” – the credo of the serious journalist – is something I can thankfully ignore. There has never been anything dispassionate or clinical about any review I've ever written. After all, the main reason you are presumably reading this right now is that you want some sort of informed opinion about Brooklyn-based LES darlings Elizabeth and the Catapult's upcoming album, The Other Side of Zero. That is, of course, unless you happen to be a military enthusiast and accidentally clicked this while researching the Royal Navy's new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier and its steam-propulsion catapult takeoff system. Wow. That was an awfully long way to go for such a weak joke, and if it survives my final edit, I abashedly apologize.

So I freely admit that I not only let my own personal biases and tastes affect my reviews, but also allow whatever is going on in my life to creep onto the page – for this particular review, what's going on for me is a crise cardiaque, which either means “heartache” or “heart attack,” I can't remember which. I'm pretty sure it's “heart attack,” but the phrase looks nice on the page and I'm going to leave it. We'll call it poetic license and leave it at that.

As we all know all too well, when you've got boy or girl troubles, every song about boy or girl troubles jumps out at you like a native New Yorker at Serendipity. You get to the point where you feel John Waite's “I Ain't Missin' You,” should be labeled a controlled substance, and, if you've got it baaad, you start seeing hidden meanings in songs everywhere. Left unchecked, you can find yourself awake at 3AM dissecting Wang Chung lyrics over a bottle of Rumpleminze, and no one should have to suffer that.

It was therefore with no small measure of unease that I sat down with The Other Side of Zero. Was this going to be a twee little indie heart-wrencher filled with remorse or some melancholy diary entry set to just enough music to technically be called songs? Those worries and questions were driven out of my head midway through the first track, though, and replaced with the much more relevant “Is this album going to be any good?” I skipped ahead to the next track and was immediately annoyed, and then the next and the next, my spirits sinking. I really was looking forward to some good music, and expecting it from the hype. After all, songwriter/keyboardist/vocalist Elizabeth Ziman is a Berklee-trained Young People's Chorus alumna who honed her chops touring with Patti Austin. That's some CV, and yet here were five songs that sounded like they were the first to be cut from various, in no particular order, Sheryl Crow, Fiona Apple and Liz Phair albums.

And then the sixth track, “The Horse and the Missing Cart,” started up and changed everything. With its sliding, swaying build of a rhythm underpinning a deceptively complex arrangement banging away in my ears, I flipped open my notebook and began to scribble. By the end of the song, I was grinning. Song number seven, “Open Book,” scaled back the energy with its simple piano intro, but thankfully kept the quality stuff coming. A simple ballad about seeking a another chance at love, it socked me a good one with the quietly plaintive line “Darlin' won't you take a second look inside this open book,” but that's what good music does. I rolled with the punch and got ready for the next song, “Worn Out Tune,” which showcases drummer Danny Molad's choppy, syncopated beat, and by the time I reached the devil-may-care chorus, I had come to a realization: there's not a single album I could name that led off with its five worst tracks. The cynic in me entertained for a whimsical instant that it was done on purpose to make “The Horse...” sound that much better. If you can think of an album that does that, let me know, but I am still stumped.

And then it was time for the title track, a haunting waltz with a necessary-feeling steel guitar crooning a counterpoint to Ziman's insistent piano and Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings supplying surprise harmonies. It's easily the standout of the album, well-crafted, with, if not philosophically groundbreaking lyrics, at least some honest-to-God honest ones. “And the grass ain't always greener on the other end / first you've got to make it over just to see how sweet it's been” rings especially true, resulting in the song's swelling refrain of “Whatever shall be, shall be” sounding less a cliché and more a Zen-like axiom.

This laissez-faire (I know what that means) message of raw truth and acceptance runs through much of the album, with “The Horse...” notably advising “You don't want to be so overly cautious / so fucking worried you're lost in the process / Best to forget yourself now right at the start.” It can be a good message to hear when you're wrapped up in yourself. If that's the vibe that's going on down south, heck, it's enough to make an Astoria guy want to move to Brooklyn.

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