Zanders' Pianist Paints Complex But Lean, Emotional Stories

When you learn what's behind music you like, does it change the way you hear it from then on?

It would be challenging to listen to "Buried Men," the sophomore album by the Connecticut trio Zanders, and not pick up on certain themes: love and addiction, mental illness and depression, unhealthy relationships that go horribly wrong. This happens in spite of inviting, piano-trio surfaces, crisply recorded with little reverb and compacted into lean, three-minute scenes that weave together indie pop, classical art song, Broadway musicals. It's occasionally comic and often coolly removed from the pain.

"You got in my veins because I shot you up like heroin," pianist Alex Saraceno sings on "Poor Circulation," the opening track, after a rubato-feel introduction. A steady pulse enters with the refrain; something has changed: "The closest I'll get to waking up with you is sleeping in your clothes." Other bands require guitar power chords, but Zanders doesn't need them.

The psychology of Saraceno's protagonists bleeds into the musical fabric. On the waltz-time "This One," she sings a repeating figure: "I knew you, I knew you, I knew you were meant for me" — a nervous tic, perhaps, that takes over, requiring added beats and odd phrase-lengths. There are obsessive, sing-song end-rhymes ("You called me earlier that day, when they took you away / and I know I said I'd be okay if you can't stay"), but they're kept under control.

Zanders released "Buried Men" in December. Speaking with Saraceno, I learned several things: She graduated from Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, also in December, with a degree in classical piano. She recently moved back to Watertown, where she's from, and returns to Western for work as an accompanist. Bassist Kevin O'Donnell and drummer Jason Rule, both in their early 20s and from the Hartford area, played together in a band called Two Humans. The first Zanders album, "Been Better," came out in January of 2014. Zanders plays gigs all over the state, mostly around New Haven. (Zanders opened for TORRES at the Space on Jan. 24.)

Something else I learned: Saraceno's boyfriend died of a heroin overdose in 2014.

"The pleasant thing about this album is that you can listen to a lot of these songs and maybe gather that it's about a breakup, or unrequited love, or something gone," Saraceno says. "But for the folks who know me and my life, who know that my music is built on a lot of idiosyncrasies in relationships or other bonds that I have, it's about my significant other who passed away."

Saraceno didn't know that her boyfriend — also named "Alex" — was using.

"It was a very unexpected passing," she says. "We had a long distance relationship so we didn't really see each other."

Saraceno's brother also died recently. She wasn't communicating well with the people in her life. "It wasn't until so many months later that [Alex] had told me [about his addiction], and told me that he was ready to get better, and he was going to the Brattleboro Retreat, and things were going to be good, and we felt this wonderful surge of positivity. It was really lovely."

Alex died the following Saturday.

"He was great," Saraceno says. "I feel like it's an honest piece of the album. Part of me feels like I couldn't have written this music without these experiences. Some of it is bittersweet, but it makes me really happy to be able to share it."

Listening to "Buried Men," you hear the influence of Joanna Newsom, Margo Guryan, maybe Ben Folds. O'Donnell and Rule are tasteful players, lapsing into half-time or double-time figures, adapting and shifting textures with subtle tweaks.

"Their ability to collaborate and work together is super-intuitive and really natural," Saraceno says of her bandmates. "When we went into the studio, a lot of the songs were still kinda new to us. I feel like where they've gotten to now is even different than the album, and when we're playing live, they can incorporate just as many changes, and we can have fun with that and go with it. I trust them completely."

As a songwriter, Saraceno plays with the push-pull dynamics of words and music. She rambles on "Twin-Sized Priorities," wrapping lyrics around rigid chord progressions; elsewhere — on "Call For Help," for example, another song with a metric tic — music seems to wind around words.

"When you talked about getting out of town for a while, when you talk about moving where it's warmer, I always thought we'd go together," Saraceno sings, and the groove shifts — not unusual for the songs on "Buried Men" — into a slow, let-down ending.

When Zanders plays songs from "Buried Men" at shows these days, Saraceno often finds it hard to desensitize.

"There are some moments where maybe I take things too personally," Saraceno says. "I usually have my eyes shut, if I feel like if folks are on their phone or just not present. … Sometimes I'll get a little angry, and then I think, 'I'm here with Kevin and Jason, and that's all that matters. We're here, we're gonna play this.'"

Zanders' "Buried Men" is available for $5 at zanders.bandcamp.com.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play is a column exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to mhamad@courant.com.

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