Back in 2001 Living In A Magazine by Zoot Woman was my first acquaintance with synthpop retro. Before that there must have been other bands that were rediscovering the mysterious charm of analogue electronics, but this was at time that a horrendous decade of Grunge and Britpop hell had almost led to me turning my back on pop music for good. Star Climbing is only Zoot Woman’s fourth album and has been recorded over a three-year period. The main reason for the band’s low productivity is that the their chief sound designer, three-time Grammy-winner Stuart Price, was busy helping the rest of the pop world catching up with Zoot Woman. His work the likes of New Order, Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Missy Elliott, Scissor Sisters, The Killers, Pet Shop Boys, Brandon Flowers, Gwen Stefani and Keane has been so succesful in setting new standards for electronic music that for the first time in their existence Zoot Woman sound contemporary. Star Climbing contains eleven well written and accurately arranged songs with only one fault and that is sounding somewhat ordinary.
Zoot Woman still are and have always been a trio, but it’s virtually impossible to find footage on the web of Stuart Price alongside his two band mates Adam and Johnny Blake. Touring their brilliant second (Zoot Woman, 2003) and third album (Things Are What They Used To, 2009) the Blake brothers were flanked by bass and keyboard player Bee Hatherley, who added some visual flair to the band’s live performances and promotional material. Last thursday in Amsterdam’s Tolhuistuin it was just the two of them. Adam Blake explains in a recent interview: We wanted to make [our live set] as stripped and electronic as possible. We wanted the new songs to work alongside the old songs, making sure there was a mixture of material, but that fans got to hear a lot of ‘Star Climbing’’. And so we did. There are not many bands that can alter their own songs with such pluck and finesse, but then there are not many bands that boast two master remixers in the ranks. As Paper Faces, Stuart Price and Adam Blake have built an impressive remixography, including material by Madonna, Armand van Helden, Scissor Sisters and of course Zoot Woman. The 2014 versions of live favorites like Hope In The Mirror and Saturation indeed seem stripped and slowed down a tad in the Tolhuistuin, but without losing their danceability. The selection of new songs adds some sensitivity to the set and forces Johnny Blake to press his eyebrows together in earnestness. The only oddity to the concert is the abruptness with which the songs end. As if the after three minutes into every song, the sound man of pulls the plug without warning the band.
Although Zoot Woman claim they compose all their material together, I feel that it’s more a virtual collaboration of sharing and editing music files than actually sitting in the same studio at the same time. Stuart Price about Star Climbing: ‘It is our most distinctive album to date, combining all our different tastes and styles into one.’ Indeed, every style from Punk-Funk, Electroclash, Electro, Synthpop, New Rave, Indie Dance and various subgenres of House pass by. Holding them together is the familiar tinge of hypothermia in the production and Johny Blake’s reassuring vocals.
On previous albums, Zoot Woman proccessed their affinity with 90s and 00s club music subtly into songs that otherwise had typical late seventies/early eighties aesthetics. Not on Star Climbing; every aspect of songs like The Stars Are Bright and lead single Don’t Tear Yourself Apart leans heavily toward Armand van Helden side of Zoot Woman. At the other end of the spectrum are undistorted New Wave like Coming Up For Air and Nothing In The World that have Vince Clarke written all over them. Although the Zoot Woman succeed in forming these two extremes into a coherent whole, it will be hard to find listeners who can appreciate the whimsical pop tunes and euphoric House tracks to equal measure. They didn’t call it Electroclash for nothing. It’s excellent and quirky songs like Silhouette and Lifeline that prove that the band are still at their best when to fuse all their influences into a stand-alone genre called Zoot Woman.