Acoustic chamber music is a tricky affair. It doesn’t have the immediacy or universality of contemporary pop music, nor can it count on the veil of electronics and other trickery to help disguise its fragile guts. The music offers itself formidable and bare, ready to experience close encounters of the intimate kind. Azita Youssefi, a Chicago-based artist with Iranian roots, has been working in this artistically challenging area since her 2003 debut Enantiodromia, which initiated a lengthy process of crystallising her soft approach towards music at the same time as building a solid and reasonable passion for experimentation with form and concept.
In the context of contemporary jazz-leaning singer-songwriters, Youssefi is perhaps most akin to the likes of Norma Winstone and the solo excursions of Julia Hülsmann. Disturbing The Air, her latest full-length, presents the artist at her most minimalist and austere; eschewing the guitar, drums and percussion which featured on her previous releases, here Youssefi sings about loneliness alone, backed only by her grand piano. It’s an exercise that not only proves that she is able to evoke an emotive, jazzy feeling without the help of saxophone, clarinet or double bass, but also her strong devotion towards making art that stands as a statement.
Disturbing The Air is partly about searching, or more specifically ascertaining an identity: Youssefi is a strong, emotional woman, and not afraid to show it. Most of the lyrics here locate her musings in the darkness of the night, conjuring a velvety, shadowy atmosphere with vocals ranging from a silky alto to a piercing (not altogether convincing) soprano. This nocturnal yearning and lamenting dominates the album, which flows never less than smoothly, almost as if the piano was the only acquaintance to whom Youssefi could relay all her sorrows.
Love, of course, is at the root of some of her sadness and self-doubt, the latter expressed in ‘Should I Be?’ as a sequence of questions (“Should I be other, or not at all?”, “Should I be absent, hidden in shame?”). More general musings on identity and existence are even more central to the album, as is the never-mentioned but always present death. Possibly the album’s most touching, and exotic, expression of mortality is found in the climax of ‘Parrots’ (“I’m gonna fly / like the parrots aloft to God”), while the task of filling the void of the nighttime is nicely expressed with a touch of wordplay in the dusk-to-sunrise dream sequence of ‘Ghost (When I Are You)’.
Despite the obvious charms of Youssefi’s piano-led melancholy, soulful singing and imaginative lyrics, there is something missing here to promote repeated listens. Certainly it’s not a richness of emotion. What the album lacks is a diversity and an element of surprise that would freshen this rather monochromatic piece. Youssefi arguably dwells a little too much in her new ascetic discipline, which makes Disturbing The Air seem unnecessarily difficult and desolate. Despite the complexity of the music, her message is simple and enlightening in its portrayal of an inner darkness poured out.
[Drag City; September 19, 2011]