My dear friend, Paul Zaiser, was a master of the mixtape. Miriam and I must have close to a hundred cassette tapes curated by Paul. It is a testament to his skill that we have held on to them all throughout the Compact Disc and MP3 eras. In the years before his untimely death, Paul became intimately involved in his family’s service project among schoolchildren in a poor village in the Philippines. This good work effectively ended our steady stream of tapes. While I sent him CDs of my music, Paul never gave us any compilation in digital media.
Paul’s tapes were mixed to work well with conversation among friends, and they have graced many a party or informal gathering. Ideally Paul himself would be in our presence during our first encounter with the contents. I liked to listen “blind,” without referring to Paul’s meticulously-penciled list of titles and artists on narrow-ruled school paper, torn just right to fit in the cassette shell. That way, I could make (frequently wrong) guesses about who the artists were, and ask follow-up questions at the feet of the Master. How I miss those days! How I miss Paul Zaiser!
Some of the tunes I first heard on his tapes periodically surface in my brain. Such is the case with a tune on our Album of the Week: La Variete by Weekend. The tune is “Drumbeat for Baby.” The singer is one of my favorites from the 80s. Alison Statton had been with the phenomenal minimalists, Young Marble Giants. Her vocal style is free from affectation. With no phony southern-fried accent, no vibrato, Statton manages to enchant with purity of tone and spot-on pitch. Listen how, in “Drumbeat for Baby,” she can get away with singing just two notes for the entire part A, and then get lyrical in Part B. With the sensitive instrumentation of her cohorts, this little slice of domestic life shines out of all proportion.
The scant liner notes inform us that “La Variete” is “the French term for popular radio, everything that’s not heavy rock; music drawing on diversity and depth.” The music comes to us in various styles, and in my opinion not all of it succeeds. One of the instrumentals which does work quite well is another which Paul put on a mixtape, “Woman’s Eyes:”
One last vocal piece I want to share could be, in its better sense, commenting upon our friendship with Paul himself. There are shades of Brian Eno’s music and Joni Mitchell’s confessional poetry in this plaintive, yet electrifying, self-disclosure. Alison Statton sings the poetry to life by use of understated delivery. It’s called, “Nostalgia,” and it closes the album.
Reportedly, this album proved a major influence on Saint Etienne, the Sundays, Belle And Sebastian and many other musicians. Like my friend, it also left its mark on me.