Horrors frontman Faris Badwan was the famous face behind Cat’s Eyes‘ 2011 debut, but Rachel Zeffira‘s story has since proved more intriguing. A half-Irish, half-Italian classically trained opera singer with roots in rural Canada, Zeffira is perhaps the only living person who’s both worked with visual vanguard Chris Cunningham and performed for Pope John Paul II. Shortly after Cat’s Eyes was released, Zeffira went off on her own and put together a pair of solo tunes, including a cover of My Bloody Valentine‘s “To Here Knows When”, that led to the eventual creation of her solo debut, The Deserters.
Zeffira handles writing, singing, and production duties here, and also assembled and conducted the orchestra, whose parts were recorded at Abbey Road, narrowly avoiding bankruptcy in the process. She plays nine different instruments. Of course, one only needed a listen to Cat’s Eyes to glean Zeffira’s considerable talents– the broken-radio orchestral pop on which she took the lead easily make up the album’s high points. However, much of The Deserters consists of mournful melodies. When the tempo occasionally picks up and percussion enters the equation the effect is akin to throwing your iTunes on shuffle and transitioning from Air to, say, Pantera.
There’s an unmistakable presence that looms over The Deserters, same as it did with Cat’s Eyes, and it’s that of late Broadcast singer Trish Keenan. At this point, it’s impossible to talk about Zeffira’s voice– a fragile, even-tempered thing that’s worlds away from what you’d expect with operatic experience– without mentioning Keenan in the same breath. Broadcast’s sound has proved more influential in modern indie with every passing year, but while a few Keenan-alikes have popped up here and there Zeffira’s timbre is exceptionally similar. It hovers over almost everything else, an anti-gravitational presence amidst an already weightless environment.
Her voice suits the album’s main theme: the act of leaving. Sometimes, Zeffira’s the one taking a hike, as she does atop the piping synths of “Letters From Tokyo (Sayonara)”; elsewhere, she’s left standing at the “Front Door” waiting for someone who may never return, or detailing someone like the vanishing girl at the nucleus of “Break the Spell”. Her lilting, detached voice stays in the same mood throughout, emphasizing the uncertainty contained within these 10 songs.
Ultimately, though, Zeffira’s voice isn’t notable so much for who it sounds like as it is for how she uses it– which brings us to that My Bloody Valentine cover. Obviously, it’s a good time to unleash a take on any tune from Loveless; regardless of when this was recorded, the opportunity wasn’t wasted. The original’s swirling guitars and ambient confusion are swapped out for, at first, just Zeffira’s voice and her piano– then, a distant buzzing, picked strings, and swelling woodwinds and brass that build in their intensity to the point where the prettiness is suffocating come the end. Play it loud enough, and it almost works just like its source material.
It’s a bold, smart take on a song that’s oft been pilfered. Unfortunately, the cover also highlights The Deserters’ biggest flaw. This is a record that operates in two modes: light, floaty-yet-expansive orchestral pop, tempered with a few doses of samey motorik noir. Blame the learning curve– after all, this is someone who’s only been making pop music for two or three years thus far. A little more stylistic and structural variety could lead to something special.