Thalia Zedek, while being a memorable name in and of itself, is a memorable name for having featured in a roll call of modern counterculture/true underground music – she’s been involved with Come, Live Skull and Uzi. Aside from that impressive CV, she has been ploughing a new furrow on Thrill Jockey, through sadcore and downbeat, pensive music. Her latest album, Via, was a lush yet raw soundscape filled with a variety of emotions and colours. The scruffy, unfinished charm of that album is present here on her new project, Six.
With Low and their ilk making increasingly potent albums of slow, ponderous 4AM/4AD hymns – culminating in Low’s best album for years being released in 2013 – a lot of attention is on this kind of dreary iceberg-slow composition style that the listener finds on Six. It wasn’t always like this: Zedek & Chris Brokaw from the mindbendingly slow Codeine peddled a particularly nasty kind of acidic post-blues in Come, and the experience of being in that band (with her history of heroin addiction) no doubt informs and adds another layer of intrigue to an already accomplished and dextrous songwriter’s story. People that are joining Thalia Zedek here, who are experiencing Six as their introduction to her, will find much to enjoy here after their inevitable detour through art-punk and noise-rock, such is the reflective quality and epistemic distance from her iconoclastic work of the 1990s.
The opening one-two of Fell So Hard and Julie Said is a solid way to introduce the listener to her unique sound. Fell So Hard is a murder ballad, a funereal way-out-west country-noir that allows Zedek to display her cracked, Patti Smith-in-mourning vocals. There’s passing similarity to the raw richness of Nick Cave’s blood-and-Bibles melodramatics and his former bandmate Rowland S Howard’s tar-black torch ballads, with more than a hint of Tindersticks’ sweeping vistas. Clear, chiming guitar is strummed heavily against a backdrop of crashing drums and haunted house piano, and Zedek’s crooning insistence.
Julie Said could be the title of a Lou Reed track, and the slow-build tension in the track is most reminiscent of, poignantly perhaps, Heroin. The freer climax of the song rewards the listener for the delicate swing of the guitar chords. The track seems like a distant relative of Reed’s most powerful song, a clean guitar shapes the rhythm and steers it towards a crashing climax. The melancholic, reflective tone Zedek’s voice carries here is powerful amongst the bucolic sounds of the record.
Midst, which follows, presents a bleak vista: misty, wistful sounds emanate from a single acoustic guitar, creating a barren musical landscape for Zedek to take a backseat. The instrumental is a powerful form when used well, as an interlude or as a pace-keeper. This instrumental serves to keep the tone of the record fixed in the listeners mind.
The second half of the release opens with another torch ballad, Dreamalie, that skirts the edges of cracked psychedelia and is the biggest make-or-break song on the record. Most listeners and fans of Zedek will appreciate tunes like this, but they can be a big turn off for the uninitiated, such is the sparse arrangement and urging vocal tone she uses. Being in a post-Slint world means that no quiet tune can survive without a dose of wattage, which this track gets towards the end, kicking up a cloud of Dinosaur Jr-esque Crazy Horse-ish pool of grunge murk.
The final two tunes, Flathand and Afloat, showcase two more subtle changes to the formula. Flathand is the most Patti of the lot, if she went on a serious Byrds/Americana binge. Tellingly, it would have fit quite nicely on Banga. It’s a low-country blues, composed with the delicate sound of crashing cymbals and a longing in Zedek’s delivery.
Afloat opens with a Peter Green guitar humming and buzzing alone on the prairie. Musically, it falls between that man’s band and a heavily sedated Sonic Youth, and the dry, minimal production of the record reaches its climax here – Afloat is by far the highlight.
It’s a solid, if slightly understated, album from one of the many underrated names in underground music. But a lack of variety and a lack of texture that lets this release down, especially when it is compared to its creator’s other work. Six is recommended for those feeling a little blue, but rather forgettable for those who haven’t picked up on Thalia Zedek already.