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|Written by Kris Millett|
|Friday, 13 November 2009 00:00|
One of the many things the Online Music Revolution has begat is an unprecedented explosion of successful female artists. Which is a refreshing change after decades of women lying on the outside of a now-dying male dominated industry model -- largely shut out from lucrative record deals, major tours, and radio play. With the Internet as a distributional and promotional tool, women now have the platform to record and release music as they please, and more control over the way they are portrayed visually.
The consequence of these developments is an ever-brimming glut of female singer-songwriters possessed of good voices, solid tunes, but very little else to distinguish themselves by.
Enter Jill Zmud into this complex scenario. She arrives with a significant head of steam--nominated by Ottawa Xpress as the best new local artist of 2009, she has received backing by CBC Radio's Amanda Putz and airplay on Bandwidth. For the recording of her debut full length, As We Quietly Drive By, Zmud has capitalized on this buzz by surrounding herself with ace collaborators. In the producer's chair sits Dave Draves, who was behind Kathleen Edwards' 2003 breakout debut, Failer. Zmud added another key component to Edwards' debut, the vocals and guitar work of Jim Bryson. The Draves-Bryson team invested heavily in Edwards' promise, in turn moving her from obscurity to the stages of Letterman and pages of Rolling Stone. Zmud appears to be their latest protégé.
With As We Quietly Drive By, Draves may have hit pay dirt for a second time. The production is stark and satisfying, and the songwriting boasts a level of maturity rarely attained on a debut record. Draves' experience with the genre shines through on arrangements subtle yet adventurous, as exemplified in the opening track, "Gold", which contains an unexpected tempo change at the 1:25 mark -- serving to inform the listener The production is stark and satisfying, and the songwriting boasts a level of maturity rarely attained on a debut record. that this is no ordinary county-folk waltz, and no ordinary female singer-songwriter. Zmud's opening line refers to her unusual sounding surname, singing "don't be afraid to sound it out" -- you may be saying it a lot. Other moments of the song expand on this allegorical premise, addressing her future audience as a newfound lover, extolling her "good fortune to be with you" and later saying, "You are gold". This is a tactic she returns to on the chorus of the album closer: "Even in the dark/I fit right by your side" -- inducing the listener to dim the lights and put on headphones.
The sonic adventurousness reaches its pinnacle on "Shark", boasting Krautrock-sounding breaks, and a playful standup bass that seems to taunt the sneering anger of her vocals and backing music. The opposing forces conspire to produce something both unsettling and addictive, with unpredictable arrangements that refrain from becoming goofy and overly theatrical in a way Canadian contemporaries Christine Fellows (and to a lesser extent, Jenn Grant) are prone to do. One can do anything in a studio these days, so it can be hard to know when to hold back."Reconcile" perfectly exemplifies this album's prevailing sense of restraint. Expertly sequenced between the plodding madness of the aforementioned "Shark" and upbeat jangle of "Late to Bloom", "Reconcile" is wonderfully understated and sparse, providing plenty of room for the dobro work of Ottawa institution John Carroll and Zmud's blues-tinged singing and contemplative lyrics -- almost Gospel-like in its resignation in the face of unspecified adversity. The song creates a unique mystique for Zmud, painting the little-known singer as a purveyor of ancient wisdom.
As We Quietly Drive By contains plenty more little pleasures for the listener to sink their teeth into, from the male baritone backing vocals in "Late To Bloom" that spark the chorus with a chain gang buoyancy, to the grandiose payoff to slow-burning album standout "Wish", (featuring more adventurous background singing). The sonic consistency of Draves' production helps tie together a collection of songs that distinctly vary in melodic, lyrical and rhythmic approach, and could run the risk of sounding disjointed in lesser hands. No songs qualify as filler, though "Precipice" does give in to some of the aforementioned theatrical excesses I bemoan. Here, Zmud's voice adjusts to take on a Feist-ian whine. She pulls it off with ease, but it falls flat in my books. "Pilot Light" revisits this concept, but proves to be a more satisfying fusion of piano-driven song fragments, mainly due to a killer chorus that sews the splinters together.
Does As We Quietly Drive By do enough to distinguish Jill Zmud from the fem-rock fray? She wonders aloud on "Precipice" -- "Will I always be on the edge of this/A cliff up high a precipice".
The album certainly lays the foundation for exciting prospects to come. The final track "By Your Side" possesses a melodic swagger and uncomplicated lyrical approach that is ideal for radio, only I doubt it will meet the play list formats of Live 88.5, 89.9, Virgin, or Chez. Maybe it will find a home on one of those hipster television soundtracks. Either way, Zmud doesn't sound too concerned, surmising at the end of her album that it's "funny how not getting what I want can be beautiful". No matter how the album performs commercially, she can be satisfied that on As We Quietly Drive By her reach and grasp have coincided beautifully.
Jill Zmud's album launch party for As We Quietly Drive By is November 15 at the Black Sheep Inn.