Elizabeth and the Catapult’s 2009 breakthrough song, “Taller Children,” was a cheery bit of indie pop, and their new album, The Other Side of Zero, sees the Brooklyn trio, led by singer-songwriter Elizabeth Ziman, keeping their technique cool, calm, and consistent. The opening track, “Julian Darling,” gets the record off to an excellent start, a playful piano intertwining with not-too-gruff guitars, and Ziman’s Feist-like vocals soaring over all the instruments, powerful and languid at the same time. Part of the chorus suggests a state of impending confusion (“When north is south and east is west and every step’s incongruous”), but the album as a whole is quite familiar and musically consistent.
Even when introducing more challenging, slightly arrhythmic percussion and lamenting some of the darker aspects of a doomed relationship, The Other Side of Zero colors within the lines, keeping the melody light and breezy and the choruses repetitive and catchy. “You & Me” and “Dreamcatcher” are syrupy-sweet, the former a country-tinged and likely crossover hit sensibly designated as the first single, the latter asking the titular figure for “something worth dreaming of.” Warm multi-tracked vocals, jazzy flutes, melodic pianos, and drums kept under careful restraint is the formula throughout the album, pointing to the band’s intent to fall back on past successes rather than look forward. Playing to the strengths of their earlier sounds, the songs alternate between triumphant indie-pop hooks and pensive piano ballads.
The term “indie” is becoming less of a record-label designation and more of a placeholder for a sound that, over time, is finding more and more in common with soft rock. Elizabeth and the Catapult falls into this wider category, but like all musical genres, soft rock has both positives and negatives: skilled songwriting, pleasant melodies, impeccable production, and life-affirming themes, for better or for worse. The Other Side of Zero meets all these requirements, and consequently embraces a sound that is happily chained to the sunny side of the street, though woe to those who might believe that variety is the spice of life.
“Worn Out Tune” says it all, with its bluesy but not-quite-bleak atmosphere, and Ziman happily embracing “the ones we just can’t get enough of.” The band wants all their songs to have this quality, but every track on the album sounds like they were labored over so carefully that spontaneity lost every battle against precision. By the end of the record, you’ve become so familiar with Elizabeth and the Catapult’s take on the already familiar that you’re forced to agree with Ziman when she sings, “Sounds to me like a worn-out tune.”