Heidi Saperstein's 2001 debut showed plenty of promise. But Devil I Once Knew could be a rudderless vessel, sloshing from raw PJ Harvey-isms to sultry big-eyed blues and into cramped portholes of vocal experimentation. Saperstein returns to Kimchee in 2004 with her second effort, Zara, and that wild heel has largely been corrected. Saperstein's voice and songcraft have always been strong. On Zara, those qualities are emboldened by a tight and varied backing band. Daniel Coughlin's inventive percussion rattles with subtle guiding power on cuts like "Put Up Lies," which shifts with equal grace into portions of rhythmic programming. Throughout, guitars grind in reverb or glance off the angles of Saperstein's vocal couplets; opener "Second Skin" is as straightforward pop as she's ever been -- is there a Cowboy Junkies influence here? -- but the buzzing guitars slide urgently along with Saperstein's multi-tracked vocals. "I (Heart) You" is a brittle Patti Smith meditation, while the brief "Fantasy" is more hopeful, tinged with longing lap steel. Saperstein is like Eleni Mandell in her novelistic approach to songs; in the standout "Rhythm," crafty production allows her voice to play two roles over the song's tense scenes of crazed cello and stuttering electric guitar. She never detours into the insular experimentation of the first album, instead finding ways to insert that same wilding spirit into songs' soft underbellies, whether through interesting instrumentation ("Seven Seas"' organ and lap steel middle is just gorgeous) or a skillfully simple lyric. Extra points for the centaur reference, too. With the predominance of female songwriters willing to settle for Earl Grey when they probably really want whiskey, it's nice to hear Heidi Saperstein ordering strong drinks for the bar. With Zara, she's found a true and unique voice.
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AllMusic Review by Johnny Loftus