When you're asleep, you're you. When you wake up, you are, as well. But how that works, how we can be as ethereal as vapor at night and then feel so solid during the day, is more than a little strange. The common light that persists through all of our states of mind is elusive.
On Dragon Chinese Cocktail Horoscope, the new record by Michael Zapruder, we just might glimpse that light. Dragon is a record of contrasts and oddities that moves with easy logic from the everyday to the everynight, presenting opposites without attempting to resolve them.
Zapruder and Scott Solter (Spoon, Mountain Goats, Two Gallants, John Vanderslice) recorded and mixed the record in a two-week session at San Francisco's Tiny Telephone Studio. Somewhere in that undertaking, like fishermen dangling a net deep into the darkest waters of the Pacific, they ensnared something weird, unique and beautiful.
Twenty-five songs went in and eleven came out, the survivors supported by the contributions of Zapruder's Rain of Frogs, a loose cadre of musicians and friends that now number in the thirties, and which sometimes includes members of the Decemberists and Tom Waits' bands.
Not long after the record was completed, Long Beach-based Sidecho Records was one of a few labels to receive an advance copy in the mail. Owner James Cho and Zapruder struck up a correspondence, and decided together that Sidecho would be a great home for this piece of music.
Dragon Chinese Cocktail Horoscope presents a world of large spaces and tiny details. It revels in contrast and juxtaposition, presenting a diverse set of songs that nonetheless feels effortless and unified. And thanks in large measure to Scott Solter, on Dragon Chinese Cocktail Horoscope, for the first time, the quality of the recorded document equals the quality of Zapruder's always-fine songs. This is the best record that Zapruder has yet made.
Musically, Zapruder’s stock-in-trade melodic and harmonic sophistications and innovations, as well as his ear for the beautiful line, are evident. But this time, dissonant chords that might be borrowed from a discarded Satie piece (“Can’t We Bring You Home”) find themselves next to unassuming folk progressions (“Harbor Saints”); and angular, Robyn Hitchcock-esque progressions (“Ads for Feelings”) borrow cups of sugar from standard rock neighbors (“Lucy’s Handmade Paper”).
Formally, Dragon collects mutants: songs with too many arms, not enough legs, hydrogen eyes. Some have two differing alternating choruses instead of the usual one ("Ads for Feelings", "Can't We Bring You Home"). Others have bridges that are outsized or deformed ("Bang on a Drum," "White Raven"). And some are simple and direct ("Harbor Saints," "Second Sunday in Ordinary Time").
This musical and formal abandon locates Dragon's home address right at the border between dream life and waking life. The expected and the surprising, the conventional and the inventive, the real and the imaginary mingle throughout the record, and collide in the album's nearly nine-minute centerpiece, "Black Wine," which materializes the record's main intertwining branches by alternately telling the symbolic and the concrete sides of a single story.
When asked about the record, Zapruder boils it down:
"When I made the record, I wanted to do things I hadn’t done before, but I didn’t want to lose perspective and only do experiments. So I just tried to be open to risk. If the record succeeds, it should play like a normal record of songs. I want people to be able to sing along and enjoy it. But behind that, the songs should also feel a bit strange, because they are. Many of them are pretty bent.”
Zapruder's creative roots can be traced back to his 52 Songs project from 1999, wherein he wrote, recorded and posted online a song each week for a year. That project, along with his other two records, 2002's This is a Beautiful Town and 2006's New Ways of Letting Go, and his ongoing collaborations with mid-career American poets like his brother Matthew Zapruder and others in the Wave Books extended family, put him in a small and notable group of American songwriters and record-makers who are doing work that looks to the future while preserving the best of the past.