Natalia Zukerman’s latest album Gas Station Roses, released in March on Weasel Records, not only amplifies her strengths as a songwriter but sets a new standard of excellence in her career. Since her debut album Mortal Child (2001), Zukerman has consistently progressed as an artist and musician, weaving between genres without betraying her folk sensibilities. But with each successive release, she’s built on her strengths as guitarist and storyteller, fleshing out her craft with refined technique and a mature voice that is inviting, familiar and adept at capturing the human experiences.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on Gas Station Roses, her fifth studio album. “Brooklyn” leads off the ten song collection, with Zukerman’s sultry alto singing over a percussive acoustic guitar. Her cadence immediately recalls vocal jazz improvisation, pushing and pulling with the tempo to create a swinging feel that is utterly entrancing. Soon Dave Schoepke’s drums and Meghan Toohey’s (of the Weepies) electric guitar flesh out the sound and the song blossoms as a mellow pop song. Zukerman sings of her adopted hometown of Brooklyn, mirroring its social diversity with her references to blues, Southern gospel, folk and jazz. Aaron Gardner then enters with an exceptional tenor saxophone solo, evoking LeRoi Moore’s best work with the Dave Matthews Band. All in all, it’s a fantastic opener, in that it announces the assortment of musical styles represented on Roses, is wickedly catchy and reveals Zukerman as sure-footed leader in this next step of her musical journey.
What’s doubly refreshing about Roses is Zukerman’s willingness to exert a little muscle and bare a few teeth, while still making music that in no way alienates the listener. Some of her contemporaries have difficulty negotiating that tenuous line between aggression and eloquence, but Zukerman’s somewhat wry sense of humor, impeccable timing and thoughtful observation coalesce and she’s able to be assertive without coming across as combative. “As You Are” features punchy drums and a darker vocal line that then softens at the chorus, bringing a message of hope and optimism between the gloomier verses.
The title track “Gas Station Roses” is the real standout of the set, though. A song of such power and accomplishment can often be a major source of stress or even downfall for a recording artist, because it becomes seemingly impossible to surpass such work. What is fascinating, then, is that while it’s evident that “Gas Station Roses” is the juggernaut of the collection, it in no way diminishes the other nine sings; rather, it intensifies their artistry and highlights their potency. Also, Zukerman performs the song with such natural ease, which in turn is beguiling and captivating.
The second half of the album is not as upbeat, but it’s still compelling and wholly engrossing. “Indiana” is a slow burner, full of space between the moody drums, muted wail of the electric guitar and a sensual bass line. Interestingly, when Zukerman performs this solo on an acoustic guitar, it’s a fairly straightforward melancholic folk song, but on the record the song transforms and is a beautiful torch of heavy-heartedness. It’s hard to follow up the title track, but it’s an excellent companion.
“Sorry Side of Town” reads like the best example of an Ani DiFranco ballad, recalling “She Says” or “Gratitude,” but really only sonically. It’s a touching song about the strength of a lover pulling the narrator out of the depths of sorrow. Next is “Howard Hughes,” and foot-tapper straight-up folk song, and at this point of the record it’s a welcome addition. The last three tracks taper down in tempo and instrumental fullness, but that doesn’t deplete the end of intensity or passion. Rather, “Always” and “Little Bird” are two of Zukerman’s finest ballads of her career. The former is the type of song that gets stuck in your head, both for its melody and its mesmerizing lyrical content. It’s perhaps the most personal of any of the ten, but it’s not unapproachable for being so. Instead, it’s utterly accessible emotionally and spiritually. “Always” will continue to enchant Zukerman’s audiences for years to come.
Todd Sickafoose, one of the most adept bassists working today, is the sole accompanist for the closer “Little Bird.” Zukerman sings, “Oh, little bird on a wire / Don’t your feet get sore like that? Don’t you get tired of singing out here all day long?” It’s an unadorned song with uncluttered production and instrumentation, and this mirrors the lyrics. The use of the bird as a metaphor for Zukerman’s own career as a folk singer is both clever and insightful, leaving the listener to contemplate on their own journeys through life and their callings within.
In a year littered with exceptional new music, Natalia Zukerman joins the multitude of singer-songwriters producing top-notch work. While Only One (2006) and Brave New Frame (2008) have their followers and received deserved praise, Gas Station Roses is the rhapsodical, well-hewn masterpiece fans have been waiting for since Mortal Child. And if she continues to grow and mature, evolving as the first-rate female folk singer worthy of much acclaim she’s become, there’s no telling where her next direction might be. Even so, chances are it’ll warrant many a listen.