Elizabeth & The Catapult
42:41 min • Verve Forecast • June 9th, 2009
In the same way that a brook which gently gambols at the river’s source in never going to be any kind of indication of the size, speed or depth it may later achieve, the opening bars of ’Momma’s Boy’ – acoustically plucked out on a lone guitar – are a playful and intentionally misleading lo-fi intro to an album which is as rich in production as it is in wit and melody.
Taller Children is, as such, a work of many surprises, and ‘Momma’s Boy’ is a testament to this. The track sets out on a paired down staccato rhythm – evoking something akin to a ‘ditty’ – with Elizabeth Ziman’s vocals playing across it with a delightfully polite annunciated bounce. On the surface the tone seems to be pretty well defined, but this is at odds with the sentiment of the lyrics which we barely have time to comprehend before the rhythm dramatically shifts and the open lo-fi sound is quickly flooded with electric piano, guitars and drums which dissipate as quickly as they arrive. This is a brave and an extremely smart piece of production: brave because it’s unorthodox; smart because the production wholly embodies the sentiment of the song. Elizabeth’s lyrics carry a message that has a sting in its tail, which is masked by her politely sweetened delivery. Mike Mogis’ production is an insightful reflection of the song’s dual persona.
As the album progresses into its second and eponymous track, the production continues to joyously slalom between the lo and the hi-fi. The opening refrain is reminiscent of Lou Adler’s treatment of The Mamas & the Papas’ Deliver, a comforting retrospective echo which is quickly consumed by layers of building percussion propelled on the pistons of a syncopated acid jazz time signature, which somehow manages to melt away by the time we reach the trance like bridge. As complex as the structure of the song is, it never feels awkward, as the melody flows through twists and turns that build to a swollen climax, evoking the spirit of the Beatles’ ‘Day in the Life’, a song which is openly referenced in the later track ‘Right Next to You’.
‘Taller Children’, in this sense, couldn’t be bettered as the title track – it’s a microcosm of the whole album – reflecting the bands ability to flip between tempos, tones and musical styles effortlessly and often doing so within single tracks. Likewise, lyrically the songs also switch and weave, moving between the intelligent & insightful, to the playful & coy, but always delivered with a musical maturity that prevents them from ever feeling frivolous or disposable.
The musical influences here are many and the album is built on an invigorating concoction of jazz, pop, blues, electronica, bluegrass and country. The diversity of the material is further reinforced by the manifold, and often diametric elements, which form each track. The result is an overwhelming sense that each song seems to hail from two different, and invariably conflicting, places – a conflict which is mirrored by the fact that the Brooklyn based trio recorded this, their debut album, in Omaha, Nebraska, as far from the frenetic bustle of New York city as they could conceptually get. This not only makes Elizabeth & the Catapult gleefully difficult for the music press to pigeonhole, but it also makes them extremely exciting to listen to.
Ziman’s voice is as rich and as varied as the songs they illuminate. On the Carpenters inspired ‘Rainiest Day of Summer’, Ziman manages to channel the melancholic sincerity of the track’s muse without ever descending into pastiche. It’s worth noting that the classically trained Ziman also arranged the strings on Taller Children, and ‘Rainiest Day of Summer’ carries some of the album’s finest orchestral moments, evoking the melancholy that accompanies the last dying embers of summer… Vocally, she is as confident on the up-tempo tracks, such as the infectious ‘Race You’, and ballsy ‘Hit the Wall’ as she is on the sultry ‘Right Next to You’. But it is however, the album’s closing introspective triptych, ‘Compliment Me’, ‘Golden Ink’ and ‘Just in Time’, with their openly sparse production that really allows her vocals to shine.
Taller Children is an extremely confident and satisfyingly complex debut album. It boasts some of the boldest music production I have heard in recent years, managing to be as idiosyncratic as Ziman’s writing, matching its diverse beauty bar for bar. Elizabeth & the Catapult have not only proved with this album that they are able to create distinctively original material but their cover of ‘Everybody Knows’ reveals a keen musical insight, taking Leonard Cohen’s original dreary classic and buffing it up to a brilliant shine.
Some of the music press has criticized Taller Children for being random and directionless. I disagree. The songs, their construction and the production that binds them may be formed of many seemingly disparate elements but they are just shards of a greater pattern that fit together creating a magnificently intricate and wonderfully sophisticated kaleidoscope of an album.