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Viewing Posts in May 2009

A decade of dreams

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 06-May-2009 by neil_p


I've been listening to Sophie Zelmani a lot for the past few weeks. Correction: I've been listening to Sophie Zelmani a lot for the past thirteen years. I record this here in semi-disbelief at the fact that you can buy a poorly packaged box set of her first five albums for around £12.00 on Amazon marketplace, which would be the bargain of the decade if people nowadays didn't settle for streamed or copied music for free. If you still like physical artefacts such as CDs (and, incidentally, how did we move so quickly from the CD to wholesale digital files, torn (okay, ripped) from their context and intention?), I highly recommend it. I discovered Sophie Zelmani back in the days when I felt obliged to buy every new album from every new enigmatic female singer-songwriter to review in Hearsay. I would love to say I instantly knew she was something special, that on first listen she announced herself as someone distinct from the pack, her faltering delivery and slightly disjointed lyrics aspiring almost by accident to the revelatory, but in fact her self-titled debut was only okay. I do remember one moment, I'd Be Broken, reducing me to tears in Basingtoke town centre as it filtered through my Walkman headphones on the hottest day of 1996, when the concrete around seemed to be vibrating, but that was an exception on an album that was pleasant if unremarkable. The fact certain songs turned up on Dawson's Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer pegs it immediately as a certain mid 90s vibe, as innocuous as it was heartfelt.

Zelmani almost immediately lost her international profile but retreated to her native Sweden where she has quietly released one album every two years, almost all of which are magnificent. The change was apparent immediately with her second album Precious Burden. Everything had curled in on itself to better look outward: the spectral yet confident, deeply and almost profoundly acoustic arrangements all announcing something both transient and timeless. The packaging, with frosted CD case and Anton Corbijn photos recapitulated the confidence within. The title track (about loving someone beyond death, and with pride) was unbearably moving and the overall mood haunted. I remember playing it to Hearsay compadres Pete and Dan one evening when they pleasingly gatecrashed my bachelor pad. They assumed it was an undiscovered Carla Torgerson solo album. Precious Burden established a pattern which Zelmani has repeated with little deviation since, although for a while each album managed to top its predecessor, culminating in Sing and Dance (2001) which is a heady distillation of her greatest styles, a faultless listen, and a record I return to again and again for the kind of nourishment and wisdom I only normally get from the likes of the innocence mission, Cat Power and Kate Bush. Actually, in common with the innocence mission and, to some extent, Mark Kozelek, Zelmani inhabits a peculiar space in terms of artistic ambition. There is a very clear formula to follow, a limited palette deployed, aurally and thematically, and a corresponding risk of repetition or flatlining. Yet neither occurs. Rather each album adds up to a far greater whole; there is a passionate intention behind the works, a  questing need for endless refinement. They all sound the same in much the same way that, say, all Hokusai prints look the same. Zelmani's breathy vocals, which sometimes fail and crack, together with her English-as-second-language lyrics, fumble and explore, stumbling into truth, accidentally summarising and challenging, in a way that leaves the listener feeling flattered as confidante, encouraged as soulmate. After a couple of less special records (Love Affair and Memory Loves You), her most recent effort, The Ocean and Me, propelled her back to a compulsive listen. The first six tracks in sequence form a lovely encapsulation of her moods and styles; they are as good as anything she has recorded.  

I have never seen her live. I would have loved to have interviewed her for Hearsay. She is intimate and inscrutable. I know nothing about Sophie Zelmani and yet I feel she is a great friend. Please disregard this post. I want her all to myself. 

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