Elizabeth Ziman, who basically is Elizabeth & the Catapult, is one of this era’s great purist pop tunesmiths. While the keyboard textures on her latest album Like It Never Happened (streaming at Paste, of all places) are totally Bushwick, 2014, her wickedly catchy hooks and artsy song structures are closer to the radio hit side of ELO circa 1976. Ziman is no slouch as a pianist, a competent rhythm guitarist and a strong, brilliantly nuanced, individualistic singer. When she’s at the top of her game, her songs have an Aimee Mann-class intensity. Even when she’s not at the top of her game, they’re still catchy. There’s a lot of everything here. She’s had an off-and-on residency at Rockwood Music Hall over the past few months, and she’s at the relatively new third stage there every Monday in February at 8 for $10.
Like everything else Ziman has done (she’s got two other albums out), this one has a couple of absolutely killer tracks. The first is a joke, a deliciously good one. With its sarcastically monotonous piano pedaling and snarky lyrics, Happy Pop wouldn’t be out of place in the Patti Rothberg catalog – and it ends with a bemused busker making snide fun of people who don’t get it. By contrast, Wish I Didn’t is a brooding kiss-off anthem that moves cleverly from a minimalist vocal intro to Jeff Lynne-style art-rock majesty – with a lot of curse words, crudeness and elegance side by side. Metaphorical, maybe?
Salt of the Earth sounds like an oldtime chain gang singalong tricked out with layers of keys and shivery strings, a trip-hop groove emerging and then receding in favor of jaggedly bluesy guitar. Shoelaces is a ridiculously catchy 60s garage-pop song updated with a bit of a whimsical late 90s vibe: the tune, the edgy guitar solo and swoopy organ are the highlights rather than the lyrics. Ziman follows it with the atmospheric, hypnotic chamber pop number Someday Soon.
More Than Enough has lushly sweeping string synth, rippling tremolo organ and another one of those irresistibly catchy, anthemic choruses, Ziman contemplating how to ground herself amid the angst: “Don’t take darkness for granted, without it light can’t exist.” From its staccato Penny Lane bounce to its woozily oscillating synth. Please Yourself is an ELO pop hit updated for the teens. Sugar Covered Poison pairs sarcastically acrid, techy synth voicings that leave an artificial, chemical taste with a knowing lyric about a guy who’s hard to resist but no more than the emotional equivalent of junk food. The final track, Last Opus, is a richly tuneful art-rock ballad that gives Ziman a long launching pad for a handful of gloriously brooding, gorgeous piano solos.
The album’s title track is somewhat disingenuous. It’s funny how all these careless girls are the first to complain that they’ve had their hearts broken, but they won’t cop to doing that to anyone themselves. Over a distantly Carole King-ish sway with resonant electric piano, Ziman’s cynical narrator owns up to what she’s been doing – sort of. And there’s also a ballad here that’s the lyrical equivalent of a Precious Moments tchotchke – but even there, Ziman stays on task and plays with purist taste and restraint. Which helps explain why this is a tantalizing album, and why Ziman’s best days as a songwriter are still probably ahead of her. In the meantime, she’s really good live.