“The Deserters” – Rachel Zeffira

5 stars (out of 5)

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Product DetailsThis time last year, when I was considering my top 5 albums of 2011, I had no hesitation in including the sublime eponymous debut album from the Horrors front man Faris Badwan and classically trained, both musically and vocally, Rachel Zeffira duo; Cat’s Eyes. On the tracks where she took lead vocal, Rachel created images of sad, 1950’s high school girls lost in the alienating fog of a very David Lynch, night-time world; it was heartbreaking. There are in fact many similarities to Zeffira’s style and that of Julee Cruise; Lynch and composer Angelo Badalementi’s definitive nightclub chanteuse, and her (surely?) classic album ‘Floating Into the Night’ released at the tail end of the nineties and during Lynch’s successful ‘Twin Peaks’ period; but more on that later.

Whilst there were some industrial sounds and more explicit 1960’s surf pop influences played out on the Cat’s Eyes album, Zeffira has really homed in on the baroque, classical elements that always sonically threatened to take over their debut and, understandably, seem to be where she excels and feels most comfortable. And where that album cast her as a schoolgirl steeped in adolescent angst, albeit in a very adult sounding setting (“The Best Person I Know”, “I’m Not Stupid”), this is told from a far more adult perspective where decisions have been considered and consequences accepted and reflected upon. The sadness and beauty is striking and “The Deserters” captures the sense of loss, or change, at least, in almost every song. 7 out of the 10 songs here (which include a lush version of the My Bloody Valentine song “To Here Knows Where”) feature either the words ‘go’, ‘gone’ or goodbye’; the title track doesn’t but then it doesn’t need to.

Rachel Zeffira’s angelic, soprano vocals (Canadian born, but now living in London, she shockingly references Brixton in one song) are sometimes multi-tracked and often have a slight reverb which in no way detracts from the emotional strength delivered and along with the pop song sensibility and the subtleness of the orchestra used in many of the tracks this is not, maybe surprisingly, a depressing album. “Break the Spell” swirls and beats strongly enough for you to dance to it (listen to those plush harps!) whilst “Goodbye Divine” with its blaring cathedral organ is a winter hymn. “Letters from Tokyo (Sayonara)” begins with a carousel effect,  a piano with the lyrics confessing ‘You won’t hear from me anymore, I told many lies and hid many more; nothing can make me change my mind’ and it’s on this track, an obvious highlight, that the resemblance to Julee Cruise gave me goose bumps. It’s striking just how much the song’s structure and content and the actual performance from Zeffira calls to mind Cruise at her most devastating and this is a positive thing.  No-one has filled the gap left by Cruise (Lana Del Rey is the most obvious candidate but hers is a more self-conscious, much more explicit variation) but where she often sounded like she was at the point of disintegrating, Zeffira has a strength and independence that Lynch would never have allowed his one-time musical muse.     

Like “Cat’s Eyes” before it, “The Deserters” is a cruelly short album (not quite 37 minutes!) but I guarantee you that some of the year’s most beguiling and surprisingly warming music is contained within it. The really magical thing is that Zeffira also recognises and understands how to displace the listener, transport them to somewhere not at all familiar and then close the door behind them for an all too brief trip to an alternate hinterland. Some incredible music on offer here then but will it make this year’s top 5?