Review Summary: From your lips, it's the heaven that we're in.
Zella Day has an almost magnetic allure. Adorned in earth tone dresses and flowery headbands, she’s a stunningly gorgeous blast from the 1960s. Her dreamy, throwback vibe has been beaten to death by incessant Lana Del Rey comparisons, so I’ll spare you those remarks by mentioning Lana for both the first and last time right here. Besides, Zella has a style that is very much her own, with a sound that is influenced equally by the old American Midwest, Pacific beaches, and contemporary pop culture. Even though Zella grew up in the sparsely populated town of Pinetop, Arizona, she has a voice that was meant for the largest of stages. Her tone can change from a persuasive call-to-arms to a soothing, seductive chant within seconds; leaving listeners spellbound and longing for more. She can lay out a soul-bearing confession that leaves her practically breathless, then bring everything back into the light with a simple turn of phrase. Powerful yet limber, she has the ability to dominate an entire album with nothing but her voice. She did it on her eponymous Zella Day
EP last year, and now she’s done it again on her full-length debut: the mysterious, alluring Kicker
If you had the pleasure of hearing Zella Day
, then you’ll already recognize this album’s primary cornerstones: ‘Hypnotic’, ‘Sweet Ophelia’, ‘Compass’, and ‘East of Eden.’ They’re back on Kicker
in their original forms, spread out in such a way that the album never loses steam. ‘Hypnotic’ is obviously the best of the bunch, with an entrancing melody and Zella’s sultry vocals wrapping themselves around lines such as “You do it to me so well, hypnotic taking over me” and “Make me feel like someone else, you’ve got me talking in my sleep.” There’s an exotic element to it, and even if it’s cliché to coin ‘Hypnotic’ as being just that
, it’s an apt description nonetheless. On an album lined with potential hits, ‘Hypnotic’ is still a standalone masterpiece, and it deserves your immediate attention regardless of what you think of the rest of her music. ‘Sweet Ophelia’ and ‘East of Eden’ are more straightforward pop tunes, rocking back and forth on top of swaying rhythms and letting Zella’s powerful delivery take care of the rest. With that said, there’s nothing typical
about either song; Zella’s sheer vocal talent elevates everything to astronomic heights. That’s never more apparent than it is on the piano-laden, gorgeously threadbare ‘Compass’ – a track that puts her softer vocal skills to excellent use with brilliant lyrical passages like “Take me to the garden of your ecstasy, make myself a headband from your fallen leaves / woven in the fabric of your tapestry, cover me in honeysuckle memories.” From this point on, it’s obvious that Zella Day is more than just a beautiful girl with tremendous pipes: she’s also a very potent lyricist.
Back in October of 2014 when I reviewed Zella Day
, I made the point that it’s rare for an artist to release a full length record that absorbs its preceding EP without suffering a fall out in quality. All too often, the EP reveals the strongest material upfront, and then the LP resultantly feels like a fluff piece. To many, this is a moot point – because obviously a good song on an EP is still a good song on an LP, but I feel that it’s important to show growth and to capitalize upon any momentum that was accumulated. While Kicker
doesn’t exactly pass this test with flying colors, it doesn’t come anywhere close to qualifying as “fluff” either. Part of the problem is the track ordering – which is, once again, an irrelevant point to many – but it does this album almost no favors. The slightly repetitive ‘Jerome’ starts things off shakily where almost any choice off the EP (particularly ‘Hypnotic’) would have absolutely killed it. It commences with an intriguing and slightly middle-eastern guitar lick, but the chorus of “Jerome…Jerome…Jerome oh why do you treat me so cold” takes any initial interest that was garnered out behind the barn and shoots it in the head. She chooses to follow ‘Jerome’ up with the faux anthem ‘High’, a track that culminates in the borderline nonsensical plea “Don’t worry baby don’t you cry / As long as we keep getting high / Keep running like we’re never gonna die.” It just feels lazy, and between those two songs, Kicker
will have even the most excited fan feeling like he or she’s just been had. They aren’t bad
songs by any means, but when held to the standard set by Zella Day
, those quick build-ups to overstated, elongated choruses simply won’t do. That’s part of the reason why both track listing and the EP/LP dynamic do
matter, and on Kicker
the execution of these seemingly minor details is a little messy.
Fortunately, listeners receive a very quick apology with a song that goes toe to toe with Zella Day’s best work to date. ‘Ace of Hearts’ will instantly calm the nerves of anyone who’s starting to lose their patience by reminding them of why they fell in love with Zella to begin with. Instead of bland song structures, we get a lush electronic beat. Zella Day’s vocals enter – silky smooth at first, then quivering. As the emotion becomes palpable, the percussion becomes more emphatic to match the intensity. Finally, it erupts into a dazzling two-part chorus – both equally as memorable – before gently falling back into another round of softly stated verses. It’s basically the perfect midtempo pop song for an artist like Zella, and it’s clearly the mark that she should have been aiming for all along. Almost as if she arrived at the exact same conclusion, ‘Ace of Hearts’ is followed up by the superb ‘1965’ – a track true to Ms. Day’s hippie persona. As she pleads, “Can we go back to the world we had? With a love so sweet it makes me sad…”, it feels like Zella bearing her soul to us. She sounds tired and forlorn – like a girl decades displaced from her destiny as she repeats “I don’t belong here.” Yet there’s this vivacity that underlies it all, as if she’s spellbound by the promise of tomorrow. That’s Zella Day: this idealistic mind who has been sobered by reality but refuses to give up hope.
Even though Kicker
suffers through another dual misstep in the cowboy-themed ‘Mustang Kids’ and ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’, the rest of the album is very much smooth sailing. ‘Jameson’ is as stripped down as we’ve ever heard Zella Day, in what could only be described as a borderline folk ballad. Unlike the Midwestern ramblings of the aforementioned clunkers, this is the kind of versatility that proves Zella to be among the most talented pop artists that are currently on the rise. The acoustic guitars are crystal clear and pristine, lending the track a pastoral atmosphere. Her vocals shine through yet again, and the fact that you can actually hear her voice crack on occasion makes it by far the most endearing moment on the record. In a way it’s comparable to ‘Compass’, although I’d venture to say that the pure aura of the song makes it even better. ‘Shadow Preachers’ is another incredible display of Zella’s vocal and lyrical talents, painted on a minimal canvas of just pianos and a barely audible electronic backbeat. For the first time, it feels like she’s finally giving us an untainted view of why
she always carries such sullen undertones; it’s an incredibly vivid breakup song, almost like Sharon Van Etten’s ‘Your Love Is Killing Me.’ It’s more softly stated, but the emotions behind it are the same:
You got those scissors from the drawer
You never dug so deep before
If I stop trying, we start dying
You’re cutting me out, baby who you fighting?
You make me wanna love, hate, cry, take very part of you
You make me wanna scream, burn, touch, learn every part of you
Anyone who thinks Zella Day is your typical, cookie-cutter pop artist – or that she’s riding on the coattails of another unnamed star (who was already referenced in this review) – think again. Zella Day is a multi-faceted artist who can, with very little warning, turn the tide from joyful and whimsical to dark and desolate. It’s the kind of stuff that only the very best artists have in them.
wraps up with ‘Sweet Ophelia’ and ‘Compass’, it closes on a strong note. Dubbing the album a “mixed bag”, while true to an extent, feels a little too unforgiving. This record marks some tremendous accomplishments for Zella Day, and when she hits her stride she’s damn near unstoppable. It’s not as consistent as I would have liked, and the western-obsessed tracks are particularly mind-boggling (perhaps just some homegrown self-indulgence), but at the end of the day I don’t remember those moments. What I remember is the heights to which her voice soars on ‘East of Eden’…the way I feel like I’m daydreaming while listening to ‘Hypnotic’…the raw emotion of ‘Shadow Preachers’…and the immersive, unbelievably infectious ‘Ace of Hearts.’ Kicker
’s strengths definitely outweigh its weaknesses, making it a great foundation for Zella Day to build her career on. If one thing is certain, it’s that the best is yet to come from this talented young songstress.