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CD review: Azita's Year 

Drag City; Release date: Nov. 20, 2012

Azita Youseffi, the former Scissor Girl and Bride of No No founder, returns with another compelling and challenging record featuring her odd blend of torch songs and moody laments. The nine tracks on Year were written for an avant-garde theatrical production, and stake out territory much closer to Burt Bacharach — as heard through Patti Smith's arrangements and sung by Carla Bozulich — than her No Wave noise beginnings.

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The veteran Chicago underground fixture has always existed outside pop's parameters, with unexpected melodic turns and tempo digressions. But over the years, her sense of melody — delivered here in reverberating, melancholy piano chords and crystalline guitar fills — has improved to the point where the challenges get significantly easier to digest. Sea & Cake-like guitars chase complex piano chords on "Opening," whose theme is echoed again, though in rock band regalia, on the closer "Closing." Dreamy arpeggios and a shuffling beat define "Forgetting," just one of several songs obsessed with the notion of passing time, while "Ice" marks a foray into twangier realms as Rickenbacker jangle accompanies the piano melody.

Perhaps the most Azita-like moment here is represented by the least like-Azita song yet, the eight-minute "Something That Happened." The song kicks off like a straightforward dubwise cousin to The Clash's cuts with Mikey Dread or a hidden Specials' track. But at the five-minute mark, it left-turns into an atmospheric piano-and-bowed bass outro that PJ Harvey might have included on White Chalk. As compelling as each is separately, they feel grafted together and would've been better served as two distinct tracks. And though her last record, 2011's Disturbing the Air, seemed to shed Azita's propensity for inscrutable lyrics, they're back at full disorienting strength. It's that tilt towards pretentiousness that probably keeps Azita from the bigger audience she deserves — though we sense such pedestrian concerns are of little interest to this artist.

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