A R C D I V E R S ™

///Press/Reviews

So far, Philly four-piece Divers have a teeny, tiny discography, but there’s a lot to love. Emily Ana Zeitlyn — you might know her from The Weeds — sings with murder-ballad desperation on “Wild Thing.” (That one’s a free download on diversband.com.) This Saturday’s gig at Johnny Brenda’s doubles as a release show for a two-song CD hot off the soundboard at Turtle Studios in South Philly. “‘Eggshells’ is really the first pop song I ever wrote,” says Zeitlyn of a tune propelled by Ross Bellenoit’s crisp guitar hook. “It kind of surprised me by popping out all bouncy and punchy.” On the other hand, “Follow” is a boozy, throaty little torcher. “The vocals and the band were all recorded at once, which I have been wanting to do for awhile,” she explains. “What you hear is exactly what we sound like live.” As for a full-length, Zeitlyn’s thinking late winter. 

It’s a bit of an odd situation. I’m a musician (I play keyboards and sing for The World/Inferno Friendship Society of Brooklyn, NY & I have my own band down here in Philadelphia which I front and write all the music and lyrics for called The Minor Arcana) but for as long as I can remember I have loved music criticism: record reviews, show reviews, interviews, you name it. As much as Bowie’s Station to Station or Scott Walker’s Tilt, music criticism fundamentally shaped the way I think about music. At the same time I was rocking out to the Clash and Bad Brains, I was relying on Lester Bangs to encourage my budding interest in free jazz, and Simon Reynold’s to suggest obscure post-punk records, and Greil Marcus to draw all those wonderful parallels between Situationism and Dadaism and punk rock—it all shaped me. I never bought that line that “People who cannot do, write” or “Failed musicians become critics.” Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye wrote reviews for Rolling Stone, Richard Hell writes for the NY Times, Jon Landau produced Born to Run. I just love to think about, compare, deconstruct, analyze, and think in philosophical and poetic terms about music. Seeing new-born(ish) Philadelphia-based band Divers this past weekend was one of those moments that reminded me why.

They released their first single—”Eggshells b/w Follow, Follow, Follow”—on Saturday October 6th at Johnny Brenda’s. The set was free flowing and full of the sort of emotional push and pull that more experienced bands struggle to convey. Guitarist Ross Bellenoit controlled the dynamics masterfully (which was necessary in a band which is mostly a “power” trio with a singer who occasionally chips in on rhythm guitar). Drummer Tom Bendel took the contemporary indie by way of 60′s pop/rock fare in unexpected and original directions due to  his “box of toys”, as Emily referred to them in an interview, as well as his fresh approach to beat-keeping. This made fill-in bassist Phil D’Agostino’s playing all the more impressive, as he and Bendel were tight throughout and the band really seemed to thrive off playing off one another.

Emily Zeitlyn’s resonant voice, distinctive lyrics, and lovely melodic sense managed to convey the all-too contemporary mix of pathos and detachment that so many bands dwell in. The difference with Divers is that the band’s knack for communicating with one another and Zeitlyn’s understated knack for communicating with the audience within the context of the performance sets her and the rest of Divers apart.

The single itself (which they were offering on a pay-what-you-will scale) demonstrates this dialectic clearly. “Eggshells” is a Pixies meets Aftermath-era Rolling Stones hybrid with lyrics that detail the detachment and lack of communication that marks so many relationships for people of Zeitlyn’s (and my own) generation. It’s a fun, catchy 3-minute-ish power pop gem that will have you simultaneously humming the melody and empathizing with the lyrics so capably rendered thru Zeitlyn’s throaty and controlled vocals. Bellenoit’s guitar playing is marvelous as he manages to provide just enough distinctiveness to his tone to make the guitar part stand out, but keep it simple enough so that it doesn’t get in the way. The rhythm section on the recording of Tom Bendel (Buried Beds) and Adam Winokur (Pete Donnelly) remain consistent throughout and Winokur does an admirable job of remaining sensitive to Bendel’s creative rhythmic sensibility. “Follow, Follow, Follow” is a 6-minute plus slow burn that reminds me of some of Lou Reed’s songs in it’s construction (think “Heroin” or “The Ocean”). Zeitlyn uses repetition in the lyrics and controlled dynamics in order to subtly develop the narrative of this introspective song. The lyrics are decidedly un-Reed like, but her knack for not trying to do too much with her voice and the lyrics allow the melody and the song to evolve on it’s own, to give her band opportunity to flesh out the skeleton and then strip it all away, is very Lou Reed like.

Full disclosure, as well: Ross is one of my guitarists in The Minor Arcana. But to be frank, I’m a musician who’s been invited to write about culture, including music, so I imagine you’re not all particularly interested in my objectivity, but rather are relying on me to exercise my own subjective judgement in assessing and reflecting on matters such as this. However, for the sake of appearances—truly friends, were Ross a total stranger to me, I would think just as highly of this band and be just as excited as I am right now to see if/how the band lives up to the potential this first single clearly demonstrates.

The Weeds played their last show two Saturdays ago, in the small living room of a South Philly rowhome, surrounded by family and friends. 

Some leaned against the walls with mugs of wine. Others sat cross-legged on the floor with their kids. Everyone was all smiles. Between songs, singer-guitarist Emily Zeitlyn thanked all the names she could think of.

Oddly, this intimate gathering was a hello as much as it was a goodbye, a final show that doubled as the release party for a record that took its sweet time getting here.

Though they’ve existed in one form or another for more than a decade, The Weeds managed a mere two albums, The Faraway Flying of Broken Beating, which came out in 2004, and a stunning new capstone, aptly titled What Was and Will Never Be

This record is lovely, a warmly insistent collection of songs that ebbs and flows with tidal grace, its gentle opening lines gathering steam for pretty, mid-tempo rock ’n’ roll tempests. One minute we’re waltzing with the “The Dead” and the next we’re bobbing our heads with “Waitress.” And when the needle suddenly swings into the red on “You Finally Climbed the Hill,” well, it’s a gritty counterweight to all the simple, folk-pop beauty. 

Zeitlyn has an ear for matching holy, Leonard Cohen-esque melodies with urgent, mysterious lyrics. “An eye for a limb and a tooth for a heart. It’s a terrible thing to mix vengeance and art,” she declares on “Forgiveness.” 

“Religion” is a ghost story — or at least a horror story, unspooling with twisted tension: “You set the scene: It was after the night / that you said you were clean and you gave up the fight / in the car that was borrowed, gun that was swallowed / it took out your teeth as it shot through the marrow. You said you felt nothing. You walked to the neighbor’s.” Zeitlyn’s assured and plaintive tone performs extrasensory sorcery, making you imagine the feeling of cold steel on enamel.

Perhaps the most remarkable song from the new batch is “Smarty Jones,” which tangles up this city’s underdog reputation with the real-life story of the eponymous undersized horse and adopted Philadelphian who came within a breath of winning the Triple Crown in 2004. It’s a passionate meditation on winning and losing. “You little runt,” she marvels breathily. “How’d you get to be out front?” 

The story of this album, and this band, is more of a steeplechase than a horse race. Not everybody made it to the release show. 


 In a general sense, it’s a sad old familiar song for a working band: too little money, too many obstacles. For The Weeds, it’s sadder still. When you ask Zeitlyn what caused all the delays, she sums it up in one word: “Life.”

The basic tracks on What Was and Will Never Be were recorded down the Shore at a place called Scullville Studios back in 2007. Bassist Devin Greenwood manned the soundboard. 

“Scullville was in a compound of low-lying buildings on a country road near the Shore, and it felt very remote,” recalls Zeitlyn. “It was practically sinking into a marsh and smelled of saltwater.”

The band — Greenwood and Zeitlyn plus guitarist Colin Boylan and drummer Bobby Wolter — recorded everything live. Between takes, they’d watch Curb Your Enthusiasm while Wolter, who had cystic fibrosis, self-administered his treatments. This involved “wearing a crazy, sci-fi-looking vibrating vest and breathing through an industrial-strength nebulizer,” says Zeitlyn.

“We laughed a lot that week. I coated my fingers with crazy glue when my calluses fell off. It was the first time I was away from my 1-year-old son for longer than a few hours,” she remembers. “After that, we each went back to our lives, scraping together livings, full-time mothering, producing music for people that paid and playing shows once in a while.”

The unfinished tracks, meanwhile, made progress only when Zeitlyn found time to lay down some vocals at Greenwood’s home studio. 

Momentum picked up a bit one night in January 2009 when The Weeds threw a fundraiser/concert at Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens. 

“When I turned around to look at Bobby at the end of the night, he looked happier and more exhausted than I had ever seen him. Pale, but grinning ear to ear,” Zeitlyn remembers. The proceeds from the show covered the cost of recording the strings and horns that would help give this moody rock album a more lush and layered sound. 

Soon, however, everyone went their separate ways, and again the album was put on hold.

That summer, Zeitlyn made plans with Wolter, who’d recently been in and out of hospitals, to get together and catch up. But he hadn’t been feeling well and called that morning to cancel. 

“He died the next day,” she recalls. “His lungs had given out.” 

At that house show two weeks ago, Zeitlyn fought off tears at the microphone to toast the memory of her fallen friend and bandmate. She smiled when she recalled his love for dirty jokes. The album, for sale in the kitchen, praised Wolter’s kindness and drumming skills in the liner notes.

After Wolter died, life pulled the remaining Weeds in different directions. Greenwood, for example, moved to Brooklyn to open a recording studio called Honey Jar.

 

 “By now [the album] was feeling like an albatross. A monster. Unfinishable. It kept me awake at night,” recalls Zeitlyn. But like all monsters, it had to be confronted. 

She started driving up to Honey Jar to take a few swings at the beast. “We would listen, talk, add background vocals. Devin added organ, accordion, guitars, percussion, sci-fi synthesizer, and we started mixing.” With glacial persistence, The Weeds managed to get the record finished, mixed and mastered by spring of last year.

“As soon as it was done, I formed a new band called Divers and started playing shows and writing new material. It was like a dam broke. It needed to be a new band, a new project. The future. I felt more energy on stage than ever before, and the songs were coming easily again,” says Zeitlyn.

All that was left for The Weeds was to get the album out there and plan the goodbye show. It wasn’t easy. When the venues were available, the band wasn’t, and vice versa.

“Every time I started to plan it I would feel overwhelmed with anxiety,” she recalls. Finally a friend volunteered her living room. They’d keep it small. Invite-only. BYO. “It felt right to do it in that way. I needed to get it out into the world through a safe, warm portal of support.”

So now the hard work’s done. Smarty’s out to stud. The album is uploaded to CDbaby and iTunes, ready for purchase. 

“I am good at a lot of things, but marketing my own work is not one of them,” says Zeitlyn. “My hope for this album is that it slowly — or quickly — makes its way into the ears of folks who will appreciate it. I feel very proud of it. It was a labor of love for sure.”