It says something that everytime Holly Newsom, the lead singer, songwriter, and sole permanent member of Zoo Animal, pressed a preview copy of her new Departure EP into someone’s hand, she accompanied it with the same disclaimer: “I don’t know what people are going to think of this. It’s really different.”
True to its name, Departure is a new sound for Newsom, though not entirely unexpected. Anyone who has seen her perform live without her recently departed bassist and drummer knows that she’s capable of paring down her songs to their most skeletal forms and captivating listeners with the bare minimum of instrumental accompaniment. Still, the focus is placed so squarely on Newsom throughout the Departure EP that it could have just as easily been billed as a solo debut rather than something released under the Zoo Animal name.
Which isn’t to say that Newsom is going it entirely alone; the new EP was produced by Grant Cutler (Lookbook, Grant Cutler and the Gorgeous Lords), whose ear for ambiance helps to set the tone of the record. “If anyone could add stuff without being in the way, I felt like Grant could totally do it. I like that,” Newsom told the Local Show’s Dave Campbell recently, and she’s right. Cutler’s ability to stay out of the way while enhancing his mood might be his defining trait as a burgeoning collaborator and producer. Background vocals are turned down so low that they sound like their being played on a record player in a neighboring room, while sparse additions like the slow clap of “Black and Charred” and a subliminal sense of rhythm without making the song feel rushed. It’s worth noting that one of the album’s best moments, a perfectly positioned solo on a saxophone, is made up of only four equally spaced, decending notes and lasts about five seconds. Though the songs proceed at an overwhelmingly slow pace, it’s those pre-meditated, precise moments that make the record seem fully formed and nuanced in its presentation.
The real highlight, of course, is Newsom’s voice, which is given ample space to breathe and stretch in the wide open spaces on Departure. Newsom’s talent as a vocalist is undeniable; she reminds me of singers like Adele in that respect. Not that there are many similarities between Newsom’s delivery and Adele’s — Newsom rarely belts out her high notes, opting instead to anchor her melodies around her pretty, breathy mezzo-sopranno range — but she instills the same sense of confidence in her listeners. She’s got this. And that easily won trust between singer and listener gives Newsom the opportunity to deviate wildly from traditional melodic structures into swoops, sighs, yelps, sneers, and one particularly well-timed wail (in the climax of “When They Talk”). Her singing style is so unique and controlled that she barely needs any accompaniment, as she demonstrated in a charming a capella ice skating video she released a few weeks back, so it’s a relief that the other instruments are woven together to create a whirring, atmospheric hum beneath her rather than attempting to compete with her spotlight.
Zoo Animal (whose live band now consists of Newsom, Cutler, bassist Joe Quick and drummer Joshua Perez) performs an EP-release show with Gospel Gossip, Is/Is, and Gramma’s Boyfriend this Saturday, February 18, at the 7th St. Entry. More details here. Local Show session here.