Powerful Singer Nicole Zuraitis’ New Album Explores the Dark Side of the Psyche

by delarue

Nicole Zuraitis is one of the most powerfully eclectic singers in New York. She can literally sing anything: jazz, Americana, rock, you name it. Maybe because of that, her songwriting isn’t easily categorized. A similarly diverse pianist, she’s had a monthly 55 Bar residency since what seems forever. She’s playing there tomorrow night, Jan 12 at 10 PM with her husband, drummer Dan Pugach’s mighty nonet.

Zuraitis’ 2013 debut album Pariah Anthem was ambitious but not particularly translucent. Her new one, Hive Mind – streaming at Spotify – goes completely in the opposite direction. Yet while the music is often brightly attractive, Zuraitis’ subject matter drifts toward the dark side. The album’s title  is a reflection on madness, a theme that recurs occasionally in the ten tracks here. Carmen Staaf’s tersely echoey Wurlitzer adds subtle hints of reggae in the opening number, Move On, a hypnotic late 80s Sade-style jazz-pop ballad. Guitarist Idan Morim winds it up with a gritty, jagged solo, flying out of a big Zuraitis vocal crescendo.

Pugach’s jaunty shuffle and bassist Alex Busby Smith’s staccato pulse propel The Inscription: imagine peak-era Earth Wind & Fire stripped to the guitar and rhythm section, with a woman out front playing bubbly Rhodes lines. Guest singer Nandini Srika opens Idle, an angst-ridden Indian-influenced art-rock tone poem of sorts with rapturously enigmatic vocalese, in contrast to Zuraitis’ plaintive intensity over Morim’s David Gilmour-esque slide guitar. It packs a wallop, and it’s the album’s strongest cut.

Covering a song as iconic as Jolene is a disaster waiting to happen, but Zuraitis pulls it off, reinventing it as brooding, dymamically shifting, gospel-infused soul: Roberta Flack might have done it this way. Then the band pick up the energy with the slinky, catchy, crescendoing Sunny Side: this time it’s Morim who’s adding the neat little reggae touches.

Episodes, a twinkling, sweeping Hollywood Hills boudoir soul instrumental, seems serene enough on the surface. but the disembodied voices in the background hint at something more sinister. Zuraitis’ reinvention of a tune from the Willy Wonka movie keeps the Rhodes lullaby ambience going. The album closes with Shirley’s Waltz, a tribute to Zuraitis’ late grandmother: you could call it Lynchian ragtime. While the album is obviously meant as a showcase for the many subtleties in Zuraitis’ voice, what she doesn’t do too often here is really cut loose with that fearsome wail of hers. Then again, you can always see her do that live.