Brutally Honest

Ali Zagame

Wampus Multimedia, 2018

http://www.alizagame.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/13/2018

An album called Brutally Honest more or less demands a candid, no-holds-barred response from a reviewer, wherever that leads. So: challenge accepted, Ali Zagame.

Berklee-trained, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Zagame’s debut shows abundant promise, even as it gives full vent to its author’s idiosyncrasies. One of the distinguishing characteristics here is Zagame’s theatrical approach to performance; her emotive style wouldn’t be out of place on stage in a one-woman Broadway show. It can come off as a little precious or melodramatic at times, but also powerful and bracing and, well, honest. Alanis Morrissette, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple each came to mind at different points along the way.

As its title suggests, Brutally Honest is a song-cycle about unburdening one’s self, in this case of the ghosts of past pain or trauma that still haunt a troubled relationship in the present. If that stands apart from your typical pop fare, the quirky sequencing Zagame employs here furthers this impression. Through the first three and a third songs of this album you mostly hear just Zagame’s voice and either piano or gentle guitar strums. The expectations set up by this approach—“okay, it’s a minimalist vocals-and-simple-accompaniment solo album”—are then smashed to pieces midway through fourth track “Competition,” when a full electric band comes busting in, and for the rest of the album Zagame see-saws back and forth between light and heavy, spare and dense arrangements.

This unusual pacing also furthers the impression that this album is less a collection of songs than a play or novel rendered in musical form. Opener “Normal” has all the hallmarks of an overture, starting small and setting a scene full of conflict and hidden passions (“I hated the silent rooms / So I broke things to hear the noise / I tried to make sense of us / So I tore us apart and then reassembled our lives”). It can feel a touch overwrought in places, but the power of Zagame’s words and voice is undeniable.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Honeybee” adds drums and sax and jazzy attitude, decorating a repeating melody with a doo-wop vocal arrangement. Our protagonist gains further insight in the piano-and-vocals “Masochistic,” the one tune here that feels like a stumble to me; Zagame sings it like it’s a single-spotlight show-stopper, but to these ears it feels a bit clunky. Maybe it’s that this boldly rendered song on a rather novelistic album so willfully violates Rule Number One of novel writing—show, don’t tell. Describe actions and behaviors that allow your audience to reach their own conclusions, rather than saying “I’m masochistic / Because I love the way you break my heart.”

Aforementioned fourth track “Competition” reminds a bit of the Black Keys’ “Little Black Submarines” in the way it starts out airy and acoustic before exploding into a muscular full-band arrangement. The guitars are dialed up louder yet for “Opiates And Lullabies,” a hard look at codependency that carries a certain whiff of Evanescence in its heavy chorus and keening vocals.

The title track is the album in a nutshell, opening over airy piano chords, a confessional lyric about overcoming self-doubt (“Maybe I don’t want to write a song, but just want to be heard / Maybe I don’t want to cry, but tears and blood tell me I’m alive”), and a rather theatrical feel and build. The Americana-inflected “Play For Blood” is where performer Zagame takes center stage, delivering a fast-paced, entrancing combination of vulnerability and ferocity, flirtaciousness and vindictiveness.

The final pair of songs on this nine-song, 31-minute debut album are among its strongest. The penultimate “Proved Me Wrong” offers a big sound start to finish, as our protagonist gains critical self-awareness: “I thought I had something to prove / But I proved me wrong, I proved me wrong.” Zagame’s assertive performance here is captivating.

Saving the best for last, Zagame completes the cycle with “In Time,” a rippling, tumbling full-tilt pop-rock tune with an appealing melody, strong momentum, and a powerful message of self-affirmation: “I’m going to feel this pain and let it change me / Not gonna be the person who just shrugs off the hurt / And if it eats me up inside, I’ll be better for it in time / It won’t break me, you won’t get the satisfaction.”

Ali Zagame’s Brutally Honest showcases a young artist with big ambitions and the talent to back them up, starting to find her way. To be brutally honest, this album has its flaws—but it also shows tremendous promise.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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