Talent, like pornography, is difficult to define – but you know it when you see it. And what we have in Zuli (the nom-du-record of Ryan Camenzuli) is a massive talent, a big slice of showy multi-instrumental chops and taste with an ear for catchy melodies and a penchant for three-dimensional soundscapes. With all of these elements jockeying for position, it’s a remarkable feat that the end result hangs together as cohesively as it does – although there are clearly some growing pains, particularly apparent on the opening and closing tracks.
Oddly enough, the opening title track is the weakest of the bunch, throwing everything at the wall and then turning it up to eleven. It’s here where the synth washes and scattered filter sweeps that flavor the EP threaten to overwhelm the mix, and the bouncy start-and-stop arrangement and show-offy instrumental breaks retard the momentum of the song any time it threatens to settle into a groove or direction, the result being more frustrating than rewarding.
The closing instrumental underlines some of the inherent limits of the one man band approach – the textures and playing are just as solid here as everywhere else, but without a vocal melody to give it form and absent a band to make the jam come to life, it leads out the EP on a somewhat static note, a holding pattern where it really wants to achieve escape velocity.
But in between those two tracks are three classic pop numbers that prove the studio auteur spirit still lives. All of the elements that stumble over each other in the opening and closing tracks gel perfectly in the middle stretch with a surprisingly organic mix of baroque arrangements styled by XTC and riff-based mini-epics reminiscent of krautrock stalwarts Nektar.
Second track “Better all the Time” refines Zuli’s approach and puts the atmospherics and energetic instrumentation at the service of a strongly crafted song, while “Forget my Name” proves that Zuli knows his way around a stripped-down groove, allowing the music and production to step back and let his charming tenor take over. The frantic rush of the chorus on “Keep it Together,” driven by galloping bass and anxious guitar and percussive interplay, shows that he can also put the staccato arrangement that deflates the title track to good use. Here, he deploys it to build dynamic tension and excitement into a three-minute suite that sounds a bit like Vampire Weekend trying to work through a vintage McCartney jones – and all the more remarkable for never falling into the pastiche or pointless wankery that description would suggest.
While Zuli’s musicianship is stellar throughout, it would be genuinely exciting to hear these songs live with a tight band that can simultaneously do justice to his diamond-cut arrangements while also letting the songs breathe. Ultimately, pop music lives and dies on the strength of the writing, and when Zuli moves on to the larger canvas of a full-length record – even if he still chooses to go the one-man-band route – time spent playing his material with other musicians will hopefully show him that he can afford to let his talent take a back seat to the gifts that talent has given him – his catchy, swervy songs.