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Folk-rock trio Elizabeth & the Catapult’s lyrics seem simple, but it turns out the band aren’t kidding around
Elizabeth & the Catapult may bear the name of singer/songwriter/pianist Elizabeth Ziman, but that doesn’t mean the rising Brooklyn trio are anything less than a unified band. “From the beginning, we were three heads,” recalls Ziman, who met guitarist Peter Lalish and drummer Danny Molad while all three were studying at Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Ziman was a fan of Molad’s and Lalish’s prior musical outlets, and the band came together from there. In the five years since, they have signed to Verve Records’ venerable Forecast imprint and are now opening for breakout songwriters Justin Nozuka and Sam Bradley on a cross-country tour.
“We’re the first of three acts,” says Ziman from the tour van, about to make a meal stop. “It’s definitely for consistently large audiences every night, and it’s a pretty long tour. So we’re getting a good workout.”
This high-profile jaunt coincides nicely with the buzz still growing around the band’s debut album, June’s Taller Children. Helmed by producer Mike Mogis—also a member of Bright Eyes and the Monsters of Folk—the album fleshes out Ziman’s intimate songwriting and folk-ish core with crafty embellishment and a firm rock backbone. Flecked with guest appearances, the album also boasts well-placed bits of violin and trumpet, as well as commanding bass lines and a dreamy sheen to certain songs. Listening to it, it’s no surprise the trio studied music before forming Elizabeth & the Catapult.
“Everyone brings something different,” notes Ziman, “and the boys definitely rock out. I’ll bring a song to them, and we’ll arrange it together, and onstage, it’s taken up another level with energy. It shows the evolution of the writing process. We basically want to have as much of all of our tastes in there as possible without being too ADD.”
The band’s name comes from the cover of their first EP, self-released four years ago. The cover depicts, as Ziman puts it, “a mischievous little girl looking for trouble with a slingshot in her hand.” The image inspired the name, first just for the EP and then—somewhat backwards—for the band itself. It certainly prepares listeners for some of the quirkier, more willful moments on Taller Children, including the opening kiss-off “Momma’s Boy” and the funky hook of “Hit the Wall.” But, despite some sharp shifts in mood and style, each of the dozen tracks is anchored by Ziman’s warm, aching vocals. Most appealingly, she doesn’t beat around the bush with her lyrics. “If you want a girl to be your mother, go find another,” she cautions on “Momma’s Boy.”
It’s tempting to credit that directness to the ’60s folk scene of New York’s Greenwich Village. Sure, that was well before Ziman’s time, but she grew up around the corner from Café Wha? and Fat Black Pussy Cat, where acoustic sets by Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan were once no more unusual than comedy sets by Woody Allen and Bill Cosby. The history there was inescapable. However, Ziman was trained in classical piano, which explains why she now plays keys and not guitar. Amazingly, she only started writing songs about five or six years ago.
Whatever her inspiration, she shares with the best folk music a talent for unflinching observation, never holding back when it comes to her subjects. She tells it like it is, all the time couching her spiky observations within breezy, ductile songs. In fact, much of the affable album brings quite a light touch to the growing phenomenon of men stuck in childish habits, culminating in the title track’s refrain “In the end, we’re all just taller children.”
“[The song is] actually about a Wall Street executive’s midlife crisis,” she reveals. The tune was dissected recently for NPR’s All Things Considered in the segment “Song for Our Times.” Listeners heard the finished song, its original bass line and vocals, its breakdown, and learned the origin of the lyrics. It’s the only song on the album co-written by the whole band, and in the end, it’s much more a harrowing cautionary tale than a glowing slice of childhood nostalgia.
“It was a reaction to the financial crisis,” explains Ziman. “It’s basically about not knowing how to be a responsible adult and still having these negative childish qualities and not owning up to them. And ‘Apathy’ is about facing up to the realities of adulthood. So there’s a bit of bittersweet sentiment. They obviously have this whimsical innocence, reminiscing about childhood, [but] it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.”
Also not exactly straightforward is a left-field cover of Leonard Cohen’s classic “Everybody Knows” on Taller Children, built on just Ziman’s voice and percussion until a flurry of sounds enters following the first verse. “Since it’s such a timeless, universal song,” says Ziman, “we wanted to bring the primitive aspects of it out. So we decided to start with really heavy drums and evolve into something really big and epic, if we could. If we got away with it.”
And did they get away with it? “I think so,” she decides. “A lot of reviewers have been into that track specifically. But just personally, I was proud of how it came out. That’s all that matters to me.”
Elizabeth & the Catapult with Justin Nozuka and Sam Bradley at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Fri., 7 p.m. $20.