The Zolas have been around long enough on the West Coast scene to qualify as a relatively established band – what with frontman Zach Gray honing his aesthetic and songwriting chops since 2006 with bandmate Tom Dobrzanski under the moniker Lotus Child. Even ten years back, the duo was forming the core of its identity around a few bedrock signifiers: the heady malaise of neon-lit nightlife and its inhabitants, fascination with a carousel of mysterious Manic Pixies, flirtatious intellectualism mixed with ennui and romantic desperation. Their sound has mutated into various on-trend forms since 2009’s Tic Toc Tic – a brash, tense and charismatic Vaudevillian rocker – toward electro-leaning minimalism and now, on Swooner, full out rocking dance-pop propelled by driving synths and drum grooves.
There’s something strange about how Swooner presents itself, though, especially right off the bat: both its title track and the opener, “Molotov Girls”, strike with a fiery “feminist pop” angle, but delivered as they are here, the effect is condescending if not problematic in nature. It’s certainly a bit skewed to see someone describe their album’s title track as being written:
“about those high-functioning women we all know who somehow manage to be the quarterback of their squad and the best at their job and politically engaged and the most fun person to have real talk with over beers.”
While I’m sure it was well-intentioned, this kind of statement raises a few alarms – not the least of which is that using the unsubtly clinical phrase “high-functioning” to describe a woman comes off as deeply, deeply weird in my book. “You know, she’s a woman, but she’s… high-functioning. She’ll be OK.” There’s an overtly fantastical element to Gray’s descriptors of the ideal everywoman who makes those around her swoon. It’s one that undercuts his attempt to claim ally status.
“Molotov Girls” drives hard on gritty synth runs, with choruses ringing out like the drunken shouts and catcalls that thicken the air every Saturday night on the Granville or King Street nightclub blocks. It’s a dance-rock mover that could be somewhere in line with The 1975’s style: layered, beat-driven and crunchy. Written from the same apparently “high functioning” perspective, it proclaims:
Gonna do what I want and that’s what’s up
Ain’t lookin’ for a man to hold me up
Black coat, pink balaclava
Throw back a double and we’ll go out
Here, especially when put into the context of other songs like the introspective follow-up cut “Get Dark”, which posits a mix of hazy pharmaceuticals and band-in-a-van bonding as a band-aid for depression and nihilism, the effect of such lyrics goes from “girls’ night out anthem” to something more unsettling. For a guy who once wrote about wrestling against unrequited desire for his nameless bus-ride seatmates and being thrilled by “the touch of knee to knee,” a Pussy Riot-referencing projection of glittery, fourth wave ass-kickery seems jarringly out of place.
Perhaps crazier yet, there’s a song on this record that is, point-blank, titled “Male Gaze.” “Come on girl,” Gray pleads in its chorus, “we can freak out again. We can get low.” Variously comparing a gazed-upon, window-clad object of desire to a playable “feminine Nintendo” and envisioning courtship as a literal cocaine deal (“always in another man’s Mercedes”, I kid you not) is hardly revolutionary, no matter the degree of irony or detachment pinned to the proceedings. It’s a zestful dark popper of a song, but it’s written from a questionable perspective.
Elsewhere, “CV Dazzle” lives up to its voltage-controlled namesake with glittering synths matched against sinister guitars, revving up the ever-popular authenticity vs. technology argument heard in a thousand millennial think-pieces into a buzzing alt-disco machine. “Invisible” sweeps from lurking, stalkerish menace in the verses to a posi-vibed chorus that plays with the line between frenzied celebration and self-destructive motifs. “Frieda on the Mountain” is a highlight: it works a slinking groove to smooth, undulating effect and splices in a trademark set of Dobrzanski’s powerful cabaret-style piano chords under Gray’s fragile vocals for the chorus sections.
“This Changes Everything” resonates with the vulnerability and heartfulness of Gray’s earlier ballads, but again represents an about-face from the series of backhanded high-fives to the riot grrrls that populate Swooner’s A-side – it’s a beachfront meet-cute story at heart, one in which the object of affection has little to do but “be the one that I adore” and literally be conquered.
The Zolas may have become much more cosmopolitan, trading the indie vibes of East Van alleyways and Kitsilano student-artist communities for the bright lights of Europe, New York and Toronto, but their underlying ethos remains largely the same as they once were in earlier phases of development – caught between pithy braggadocio, complex desire, hip post-secondary smarts and gothic pop. It’s a record that I want to recommend as a musical step up from its immediate predecessor, but one that shines externally while its more underlying motivators and metaphors start to run on empty.
Top Tracks: “Frieda on the Mountain”; “CV Dazzle”; “Why Do I Wait (When I Know You’ve Got a Lover)”
Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)