Zoe Boëkbinder presents a challenge for a reviewer. Most times when you first listen to music, you sift through a mental catalog of musicians to make comparisons. Though some of these comparisons are perhaps overly contrived (“he sounded like a cross between Mick Jagger and Cab Calloway”), a writer can evoke a musical idea in the reader, hopefully intriguing a reader into checking out a deserving musician.
I had difficulty finding artists to compare to her, so perhaps I should just say it simply: Boëkbinder is the Queen of Quirk. She cites influences as diverse as Amanda Palmer in The Dresden Dolls and Elvis. Her sound on Darling Specimens is unique, mixing beats and live instrumentation with subtle elan; she refers to it as “geek glam,” which I love.
“Make A Mess” is the song that convinced me to review the album and a strong place to start. Though just 2:24 long, it’s blessedly catchy, with a bright horn section and percussive momentum that bubbles up with effervescent force. It hits me in the same place as Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine; it’s my new “early morning, bounce and go” song. Her groove is undeniable.
Boëkbinder makes good use of both ends of her voice, most especially when she warbles high into the oddly fragile part. This is shown off beautifully in “Hollow Bones,” a duet with the high, eerie wail of a musical saw that sings in its own voice.
I could describe her lyricism as wry whimsy. Because there are no lyrics in the liner notes, I was forever scanning back to make sure she said what I thought she said. Much of her songwriting had the taste of a razor-filled éclair: sweet and fluffy with a cutting edge. In “Serrated Spoon,” she sings “I’ll fill jars with formaldehyde and put those parts of you inside.”
Even her love songs have that sweet-sour twist, as she asks in “Artichoke”: “Are we just two wrongs trying to make it right?/ Are we lost, driving circles-circles ‘cause we’re blind?/ Sometimes I think you love so much that your love must be blind.” Sampling her lyrics actually does her no justice, because they actually build upon each other from the first word to the last.
The vocal flourishes of “Salt Water” actually remind me of Morrissey, whom I love. “Gravity” has backing vocals, sweet little harmonies that evoke The Andrews Sisters if they had sung over a beatbox.
As I approached the end of the album on my first listen, I thought how perfect it would be if she did a song with a cello. Then “Anything Forever,” the last track, flipped on and I couldn’t decide if I was prescient or she’s just aware of the power of her own voice coupled with the rich tones of the cello.
The packaging for Darling Specimens captures her contrast between the masculine and feminine sides, with two profiles images of Boëkbinder on the inside. Because she has an asymmetrical haircut, one side has long hair and the other short: the short-haired Boëkbinder reminds me of a very pretty early Beatles Paul McCartney, and the long-haired looks like Louise Brooks. The album design has vintage tones of olive and copper, with lots of line-drawings of bugs. Instead of being off-putting, it just looks peculiar in the best way.
In short, Darling Specimens is the perfect holiday gift for the off-beat personalities in your life, those who appreciate salt with their sweet.
Boëkbinder will be touring all fall, so be sure to check her Facebook page for the most recent concert listings. See the video for “Make a Mess” here, as well as on her Bandcamp site.
Article first published as Music Review: Darling Specimens by Zoe Boëkbinder on Blogcritics.