“I played clarinet for eight years, but I probably couldn’t blow a note today.” This was the handwritten, numbered confession on my copy of Zan Strumfeld’s Someone New EP, penned under a flap of screen-printed packaging created at Design It Together in Troy. The statement is apropos of nothing, as Strumfeld’s spare seven-song collection here features little more than her voice and acoustic guitar. But it functions a bit like an epigraph to the brand of songwriting therein: vulnerable, somber, “winter acoustic” tunes, as she herself has called them, honest about rather than apologetic for their imperfection.
Strumfeld’s unadorned midrange voice bears some similarity to the Greenwich Village recluse Karen Dalton, minus her Billie Holiday affectation, floating and swaying over formidable fingerstyle guitar. On “I Don’t Want to Be Nice,” she doubles herself even an octave lower. The effect is earthy and ragged around the edges but in a way that feels natural and endearing, not cloyed by lo-fi production or mannered into some vaguely nostalgic Americana pastiche. There’s even a bit of Nico in “The Moment of Clarity Before Bed,” a sweetly sad tune that’s more lullaby than blues. Sure, the subject matter can be a touch depressing—as good acoustic music tends to be—but her lyrics are knowing looks across a well-lit room, not idle navel-gazing in the dark.
Someone New has the feel of a debut to it, yet it’s actually Strumfeld’s third EP, the first since moving to the area from New Paltz. And a quick look at YouTube will yield plenty of supplementary material from Strumfeld if this record whets your appetite. A seven-hour session with Mike Guzzo at CRUMBS Café Studio turned the three-track project into something larger, but the result leaves the album feeling stuck, like a novella, between what it planned to be and what it started to become. It’s clear here that the 22-year-old has the songwriting chops to craft something truly deep and cathartic if she commits herself to a full-length.