Fighting Season by Thalia Zedek BandRelease date: September 28, 2018
Label: Thrill Jockey
I think it’s fair to say Thalia Zedek is on something of a roll at the moment. Her last album Eve was not only wonderful but widely considered among the best in a long career. In the two years since she’s put out two albums as part of gritty experimental trio E, giving rein to a noisy, confrontational side of her playing that had only made occasional appearances on her recent albums. The title Fighting Season and guest appearances from both Chris Brokaw (her partner in their incredible 90’s band Come) and J Mascis suggested this might be a louder, more stridently ‘rock’, outing than previous.
‘Bend Again’ opens on a stumbling guitar and the cold admonishment “keep your enemies by your side and in your arms”. The track builds steadily, gaining momentum into the chorus “Don’t go ’round that bend again it won’t hold the weight of your lies”. They break down for a second verse and after shuffling about in the shadows with the band Mascis finally cuts loose with a solo at the end. It makes for a great opening shot but in general the album sees a return to the delicate strengths of her remarkable band, to piano and viola carrying her voice and guitar aloft like a flowing stream. As with the verses in ‘Bend Again’ time and again the feeling is intimate and restrained, as if you’re sitting right across from her while the band are playing in the next room.
For the most part Zedek tends not to be an expressly political writer or appear on the cover of her records. This time we have a photo of her sat looking upwards, her guitar prominently displaying a FCK NZS sticker in the style of the RUN DMC logo. This is no accident but a quiet scream of rage. It echoes back almost thirty years to the cover of Live Skull‘s Positraction, on which she stood front and centre wearing ACT UP’s iconic Silence = Death shirt. It’s not difficult to see why an out and proud lesbian with immigrant roots might be feeling additional discomfort in the current toxic political landscape. Anyone of intelligence or humanity should be horrified by the fact the Nazis are wriggling out of the woodwork.
Thalia is in fighting mood then but this is the way she prefers to deal with it, in the cover art or sardonically titling Come’s second album Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell after the ludicrous fudge on sexuality in the US military. Slogans find no home in her actual songs which deal in shifting emotional tones of grey and blue rather than stark black and white. Without these signposts you’d only half pick up on this stuff because the mix of betrayal, regret, recrimination, doubt and general vexing humanity in the songs is common to her writing. The personal and political are entwined. Even at its most pointed, “We used to fight together but now we’re both alone on opposite sides” from ‘The Lines’ or “They’re using our anger for their fuel and playing everybody for their fool” in ‘Of The Unknown’ the emotional truth scales equally to national politics and personal relationships.
There is anger in these songs but its balanced with a resignation to the difficulties and divisions of life. Elsewhere the general perception of Zedek as dark or miserable is refuted in the visionary imagery of ‘Ladder’ with its exhortation “we can rise if we try, we can push back the sky”. The powerful emotional punch of Zedek’s songs lies somewhere between her voice and her words, between the sound of the band and the listener. Final track ‘Tower’ is a song of isolation and broken communication that hooks you on the resonant but enigmatic line “Just the sound of water, on the radio”. The album’s title Fighting Season is a phrase used for the return to hostilities that comes with the thaw of the Afghan winter. Ironic then that as the leaves turn and the temperature falls this record is as comforting as pulling on a jacket you’ve not worn since spring and as pleasing as finding £10 folded up in the pocket.