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Lady Sings Her Hues

Former noise rocker Azita Youssefi turns out an album of almost lush-life jazz

By Bret McCabe | Posted 4/23/2003

It starts with a stark, if lovely, piano line, featuring carefully parsed, almost Ellingtonian phrasing. Then a light drum and bass stroll drops in, followed by a voice. Full-throated and deep one moment, a fluttery falsetto the next, it leaps through a melody that works against the piano. It's like a combination of cabaret and midcentury jazz, though lyrically it's as odd as a marsupial, an ode to a man to come out of his restrained skin: "Let out/ your onion peel."

The song, "Ooh, Ooh Johnny," comes near the end of Azita Youssefi's Drag City solo debut, Enantiodromia. It's one of the straight-up strangest albums the label has released since Scott Walker's Tilt, which, considering the Chicago imprint's fondness for the weird, is a feat unto itself. But given the artist behind it--a woman best known for some of the fiercest noise calamities of the 1990s--it's an entirely unexpected foray that, in the end, makes perfect sense.

Somebody is always going to be the focal point in a band, the flame tried/true fans follow wherever it flickers. Youssefi is one such fire--or in her case, an inferno. As the boisterous bassist/vocalist in the Scissor Girls, she was partly responsible for the rise of noisy, arty rock that came screaming like a hyena out of Chicago in the early '90s along with the Flying Luttenbachers and Trenchmouth, paving the way for the Windy City's mid-'90s neo-new wave explosion featuring U.S. Maple, Lake of Dracula, Zeek Sheck, and Youssefi's second band, Bride of No No. Both the Scissor Girls and BONN spit out dissonant guitar density machine-gun riddled with pulsating rhythm changes. And both were marked by Youssefi's banshee growl, which could swing through her upper register like a spider monkey or burrow into an almost masculine baritone. Car-wreck jolting and frighteningly grating to anybody looking for trad rock, the Scissor Girls and BONN, like their fellow no-wave kin, were confrontational bands making confrontational music during a time when a majority of indie-rock was warm and cuddly and former rockers were going prog or electronic (see: Tortoise).

All of which helps make Enantiodromia a surprise. Restrained and lyrically poetic where her previous outfits were frenetic and provocative, upon a first listen it's as drastic a departure as Bob Dylan going techno. But for Youssefi, it's a turn that has been many years in the making.

"Around the time the Scissor Girls was breaking up and when I started Bride of No No, I was trying to find the right people to play with, and in the meantime I was just playing some classical piano again," says the 32-year-old Youssefi from her apartment in Chicago. Her speaking voice betrays none of the sweeping range of her singing, and she's as conversationally matter-of-fact as she's lyrically abstract. "I actually took some lessons from a guy downtown, just doing some Bach and stuff. So I was doing that, and then finally I got this other band going, and little by little, just to be honest, I have to say I'm just not interested in the bass."

Although she had studied piano for 10 years while living outside Washington, D.C., where the Iranian-American settled after her family left Tehran in the late '70s, Youssefi picked up the bass with the Scissor Girls, which she began with two other women after moving to the Windy City to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. The instrument was fine for the angular trio, but she soon began to tire of the instrument's limitations.

"[Scissor Girls] was sort of DIY--here's something I don't know anything about and we're just going to make a band," she says. "But I didn't take into account that I actually had 10 years of this other training. And then at some point when some stuff was basically failing, I could see why.

"[Besides] it's only two octaves of notes," she continues. "Not to disparage against all the great bass players out there, but if you're interested in working on the bass for many, many years, what you're getting into is stuff that has to do with technique, and I just didn't care about that. Any bass part I had in Bride of No No wasn't interesting to me to write on. I wrote stuff I liked. But it wasn't compellingly interesting to get into. I was definitely more into playing the piano."

She continued to write on and play the piano during BONN, working out ideas that she didn't have an outlet for in the band. And when BONN broke up two years ago, she was able to devote more time to her solo work, and she found the situation both refreshing and faster moving. Not constrained by having to write by a committee of bandmates, when she was finally able to focus on the album, she completed the bulk of Enantiodromia in about a week a little more than a year ago.

More importantly, basing her new material on the piano allowed her to change her vocal approach. No longer having to screech or scream over a barrage of guitars, Youssefi's acrobatic voice--an acquired taste, admittedly, owing to the way she likes to exploit her expansive range--has emerged on this album as an instrument in its own right, freed from having to strain to be heard.

And what she does with it gels with her stripped-down approach, one that isn't that different from her previous outfits. Youssefi still relishes shifting meters and complex melodies, but where BONN and Scissor Girls were sonically rather narrow, so intensely based on the thrusting momentum, solo she folds her ideas into more sophisticated packages, allowing her voice to act as a complementary, contrapuntal element to her piano playing. Her new songs still contain kernels of the abrasive sonic elements she's known for, but they're wrapped in more finely detailed ideas, opting for mature subtlety rather than headstrong power. In fact, Enantiodromia recalls ex-Come vocalist/guitarist Thalia Zedek's 2001 solo debut, Been Here and Gone, another stripped-down and seemingly mellow outing that perfectly captures its author's grit and melancholy as finely as her rock ventures.

And while Enantiodromia bears the marks of a first-time solo project--you can hear Youssefi discovering her songwriting style as she plays--it's a format that she's enjoying far too much to stop now.

"After I hit 30, I no longer had the patience for [writing in a band setting]," she says. "I can't play with people who don't know the names of the notes they're playing anymore. I do like things that are out of left field and surprises, and that's the hard thing about not doing things the Bride of No No way. I like the things that people come up with when they're not thinking theory. That's why I did it for so long. You get results that you're not going to get in any other way. [But] the hard thing is how to organize it so that it makes a composition. And right now, it's much more straightforward doing it alone."

Azita Youssefi performs April 24 at Fletcher's with Denali.

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