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Greetings from Mazarin 

The band, not the place

By virtue of its name alone, Mazarin evokes passing glimpses of a glimmering desert oasis -- or at the very least, the neon marquee of some hip Middle Eastern eatery.

The reality isn't so glamorous. Mazarin is actually the domain of Philadelphia drummer-turned-flukey-U.K.-sensation Quentin Stoltzfus. And with a birth name like that, the unassuming 27-year-old's decision to hide behind a vaguely exotic moniker comes as little surprise.

"It comes from The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco -- it was character in the book," says Stoltzfus of the Mazarin name. "I liked the way it looked and sounded."

But Mazarin is less about a character or a place than it is about a state of mind. A Tall-Tale Storyline, out now on spinART Records, adheres to a popular slacker philosophy -- that time is a beautiful thing to waste. Who has the energy for a 9-to-5 world when, as Stoltzfus sings, you're "too busy breathing?" Tall-Tale's sound, though, is far from lazy. And its luminous, melodic simplicity is admirable given Stoltzfus' history with experimental projects (the Asuza Plane, Therisphere) known more for soundscapey improvisation than tidy hooks and structural restraint.

As Tall-Tale's eight-minutes-plus opener, "Go Home," demonstrates, Stoltzfus isn't adverse to the occasional lengthy excursion. But if the album's efficient 40-minute running time is any indication, he doesn't make a habit of it. Besides, "Go Home" feels more like three minutes than eight. The tune is a glowing example of evolution through repetition, with its layered grade-school vocals, random space blips, surging keyboard waves and the steady strumming of an acoustic guitar. The next track, the defiantly upbeat "Suicide Will Make You Happy," more assertively plays off that same formula with even catchier results. At Stoltzfus' insistence, the song will be the first single released in England, where the album found a home on the Rocket Girl label.

"It's a reminder to myself when I'm having a bad day. It's probably the single most positive song I've ever written," he says. "They suggested that [releasing it] would be a bad idea in light of [what happened at] the World Trade Center. I was really upset about it -- they didn't listen to the song."

From the Brydsy harmonizing of "What Sees the Sky?" to the compact instrumentals "2.22.1" and "RJF Variation 1," and from the angular Brit-pop of "To Keep Things Moving" to the pedal-steel weeper "Limits of Language," Stoltzfus' creative reach is remarkably varied. And when he does toy with samples and tone generators, the special effects never contaminate the tunes.

If there is a chink in Mazarin's armor, it's that Stoltzfus hasn't really found his sound. "I'm all over the map with my songwriting," he admits.

But Stoltzfus has found some grounding with the help of producer Brian McTear, who he first hooked up with for Mazarin's 1999 debut, Watch it Happen, released on the Philly-based Victoria Records. Sounding a bit like a cross between the Beta Band and the Smiths, "Wheats," a break-up song of modestly epic proportions, made it over to the U.K. as a single. And in an odd twist of fate, Mazarin was a hit in England before it was an actual band. The New Musical Express, Britain's bastion of hip-today/ gone-tomorrow hype, latched onto the tune, giving it "Single of the Week" honors.

Suddenly, Mazarin had an obligation to prove itself outside the studio. Stoltzfus assembled a few musician friends for a series of well-received shows at home. And then, with just McTear in tow, he headed over to Europe for a string of duo appearances. A more fleshed-out version of Mazarin will return to Europe in support of the Tall-Tale record.

Mazarin's surprise success overseas hasn't translated to comparable recognition in the States as yet, but it has resulted in a deal with thriving indie imprint spinART. And that, in turn, has forced Stoltzfus to focus. These days, Mazarin is more a legitimate entity than ever -- not merely a state of mind.

"The past two records have really been me trying to see what I'm capable of. The next record will probably be more cohesive sounding," says Stoltzfus. "Though I'm not quite sure what that sound is going to be yet."

Mazarin plays Wed., Nov. 28, at the MJQ Concourse, 836 Ponce de Leon Place. Call for show time and cover. 404-870-0575.

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