What do you get when you combine classically trained voice and piano with a degree in computer music, stirring in an equal love of jazz and musical theater? Most often you get a recipe for some kind of disastrous post-modern pastiche. But sometimes you get Emily Bezar, who through total emotional commitment to every one of those elements (you are now entering an irony free zone), a rigorous process of self-editing, a thorough musical education, and a touch of genius, manages to make it all work together.
From the initial seconds of the opening tune, "Latitude," where a swinging cymbal and electric piano are meshed with a Moog sound right out of Emerson Lake and Palmer, to the spot forty-five seconds in, where you hear the first of many effortless vocal swoops that reveal Bezar's operatic range (don't try this at home kids), to the melodic chorus undercut by angular strings, you are quickly made aware that this is not your average pop record.
Emily Bezar has never been interested in making average pop records; one of the hallmarks of her greatness has always been a sense of ambition--something lacking in much of the "comfort-food-for-the-post-9/11-crowd" music that pervades the airwaves. Though Angels' Abacus contains more beautiful melodies and great hooks in one song than many artists have produced in entire careers, it ain't no easy listening. Bezar is not afraid to repeat a chorus like: "When I'm losing the middle in the grey light / and all of my colors blur the view / oh pretty baby don't move hold tight / 'cause there's something coming into focus 'round the edge, 'round the edge of you." But "Losing the Middle" contains another semi-chorus and classical-style movements that, along with the poetry of the lyrics, effectively removes it from the forest of current top 40 contenders, with their hammered home phrases and unambiguous words.
Not that there is anything wrong with hammered home phrases and unambiguous words--I love some top 40--but to those coming from a purely pop background with little or no experience of classical forms, her tunes can seem to have a certain ADD quality at first, which combined with an unusual mix of melody and dissonance can take getting used to, even for the more adventurous listener. Trust me though, thanks to her undeniable internal logic, after a few listenings even her trickiest twists and turns make sense. Not all the tunes require repeated exposure: it is hard to avoid being instantly moved by the sheer beauty of "Heaven To Pay." Soon you will be marveling at how Emily can make lyrics like, "beneath the linen and the lidocane / between the rosewater and the stain / there is a little piece of frozen pain--like mine" ("In My Sky") sound unlabored and rhythmically right, time after time. That will happen sometime after you stop being awed by her piano chops.
If Emily Bezar's music is challenging, it is only because we are pandered to on a daily basis rather than challenged. That said, it is just as likely that you will easily find that her songs move you, delight you, and, in these dark times, paint a brighter picture of a world in which such artistry can exist.
[Full disclosure: Emily and I once played together in a band and she has been a friend ever since. I have contributed some guitar, loops and keyboards to her records, including this one, for which to date I have received two pounds of Peets coffee and one shot of Patron tequila in payment. If you know Peets or Patron, you will know that this is not an inconsiderable remuneration, but I assure you neither that nor our friendship has colored this review. If anything I tend to be overly critical of my friends--they just happen to be very talented.] • Michael Ross