On “Birdcage” Sophia Pfister Bares More Than Her Soul

To help pay for her self-funded debut EP Sophia Pfister worked in a mortuary. Now, two years later, she’s released her first LP—also self-funded. Since that first effort she’s expanded her web presence on her own website as well as on most social media platforms and streaming services. Most importantly, she’s steadily gigged, performing live around the Los Angeles area.

On her website you can see her artwork, her music videos, and photographs of her. She’s provocatively posed in some and scantily clad in others. Still others are wholly innocent and some purposely mundane as she covers all image bases. She effectively works the camera in all of them, posturing and posing as required by the setting and purpose. Like the exceptional sonics on these two records, the image quality is uniformly high.

Word had it that over the past two years Ms. Pfister worked for a time at a strip club. If so, I have no doubt she did so effectively and perhaps the money earned helped get this record produced. That experience would also help inform some of the emotional and lyrical content of the self-penned songs on this moody, atmospheric album.

The hard-edged Sophia Pfister pictured on the album cover reflects the uniformly gritty lyrical content (she wrote most of the lyrics, but apparently not all or even most of the music), though her vocalizing throughout is breezy and arguably sometimes at odds with both the album art and the lyrics. Even the naked rear end torso shot is more stark than beautiful and not just because like the front cover it’s shot in black and white. Her nails are unadorned and natural here, yet if you visit Pfister’s social media sites you’ll see her in all of her radiant beauty, and almost always with long, painted nails—and that’s true even in the multiple music videos shot for this release. Clearly the visual disconnect and the dual imagery is purposeful.

Compare the cover art to this photo:

Using a well-worn allegory, the album title opener “Birdcage” is a trapped song about being caged, having wings clipped and being asked to sing when there’s nothing inspiring and worth singing about (haunting backing vocals by Native American White Buffalo Stands suggests that perhaps the song is about the plight of Native Americans). The nightmarish, taunting, strip club song “The Wheel” comes next and it too is about being trapped in a demeaning occupation that the singer insists she’ll soon leave. The regret-filled “Drifting”, which is curiously set in a hotel room, is about either the end of a relationship or the end of a one night stand that the singer wished was about something more significant.

The side ender “Loved By Strangers” is the saddest, most desperate of all, though musically it’s the most “chipper” and cheer-filled. Pfister sings “I love to be loved by strangers because they don’t really know me, so they can’t really leave me…so they can’t really hurt me.” A sad sentiment attached to a catchy riff and an even catchier rhythm as if the singer is completely unaware of the pathetic nature of what she appears to be so happy about .

The side two opener “Bad Decisions” is another regret and ambivalence-filled song. It features a vaguely familiar piano riff (and equally familiar-sounding echo-treatment) and chord shifts that produce a Déjà vu reaction as if you’ve heard this all before—the verses, the chorus and even the bridge all sound vaguely familiar but not to where I could identify the familiar source or sources.

The bass and drum backed “Ride the Wave” is the album’s simplest tune with a Dave Grohl, grunge-like bass line and an off-kilter a-melodic chorus that almost turns purposely sour. “Separate Ways” is a straightforward break-up tune duet/waltz with Dave Alvin who so effectively channels Leonard Cohen (accidentally or on purpose) that the first play may startle, especially since the lyrics as well channel Cohen.

The album-ender “Living in the Grey” is another break up song and it too sounds vaguely familiar. In this case I tracked down my familiarity with it to a song by Travis called “Side” from the group’s 2001 album The Invisible Band (Independiente ISOM25LP) that has a similar chord progression and lyric. Now that similarity must be coincidental especially since everything about this incredibly sophisticated yet stripped down production has obviously been meticulously and methodically mapped out.

Pfister recorded the album with some of L.A.’s top studio musicians including guitarist Tim Pierce (who’s recorded and toured with some of the biggest names in pop and rock), and Greg Leisz (who needs to introduction) on one track. The quality of the playing indicates that most if not all involved are well known studio musicians.

The recording and mixing quality of what must have been a modestly budgeted production is superior to 95% of everything else currently being released—and that’s not hyperbole. The bottom end fully extends (to the limits of rock production and instruments), with taut, muscular bass lines. The midrange is lush,vivid and liquid and the top end will have you thinking “tape” but surely this was done using ProTools (though the studio does have an Otari MX-80 2 inch 24 track analog recorder). The imaging and soundstaging are exemplary and solidly three-dimensional as well. The recording of Pfister’s voice puts her naturally and solidly between the speakers and in front of the instrumentals as you hear on the best your record collection has to offer.

What accounts for the stunning sound recorded at Studio City Sound (formerly Fidelity Studios where everyone from Billy Joel to Michael Jackson and The Ramones recorded)? Perhaps it was mixed on the facility’s Neve 8068 MKII Custom Classic Analog Mixing Console using some of the long list of processing gear but equally likely is the lineup of tech talent attracted to Pfister’s music starting with Grammy Award winning studio owner Tom Weir who recorded much of the album with Andrew Schwartz, who also mixed 6 of the album’s 8 tunes. Weir mastered with lacquers cut at Well Made Music in Cleveland, Ohio by Dave Polster (the “Well Made” stamp is in the inner groove area as is the “DP”). I met both at the “Making Vinyl” event in Detroit at the end of October and Holley was on the “Vinyl Mastering & Cutting Intricacies” panel I moderated.

Pfister’s follow up to the earlier EP evidences a considerable amount of musical and vocal growth and sophistication. Her lyrics have also taken more than few steps up, though it’s also true that these are well-covered themes. She paints, she models, she writes and sings and she’s certainly putting herself “out there” for the world to see and doing all of this on her own (which in and of itself is impressive), plus when she’s not putting herself in a concentration camp-like setting, which is what the cover art resembles, she’s good to look at, and don’t think that doesn’t count. How far she goes is at this point up to the audience, which from what can be seen online is still relatively small. Perhaps that’s because this early in her career she’s spreading her talents too thin and interested parties can’t figure out how best to consume her?

Whatever the future holds for Sophia Pfister, this is an impressive record particularly for one that was self-produced. It’s sonically superior to most of what the majors produce and musically well deserving of far more than a few spins. For now if you want a copy you'll have to go to her website.

Here’s the musically upbeat but lyrically sad Loved By Strangers

analogdw's picture

Made me want to listen but the file link is broker.

Michael Fremer's picture
Link fixed
Smokeyjoec's picture

I completely forgot about your previous review and saw the EARSPACE video on YouTube and heard one of the tracks. When I googled her, I found your previous review. I purchased this record and the EP remastered ($10) yesterday. Keep up the good work!

analogdw's picture

Copy purchased! The Fremer effect strikes again. I am so grateful for your reviews Michael, I discover new, great-sounding vinyl that I never would otherwise. Thank you!

Roy Martin's picture

...you didn't give this one to Malachi to review!

Jim Tavegia's picture

when the music is not enough. I know I'm being prudish here, but enough with style over substance. I don't begrudge her doing what she wants, but has class gone out of the music business.

Lazer's picture

I remember adults making the same objections when I was a kid about bands that are now iconic. Remember the cover of Sticky Fingers by the Stones? The Stones were a very sexual band. You ever listen to the lyrics of early Zeppelin? Whole lotta love? How about I wanna be your back door man? Remember that lyric and what that song was about. How about the picture I choose for this web site? Does Steven Tyler ever use sex to sell? Us old people becoming “prudish” and pretending our music somehow didn’t use sex to sell and to also protest the mores of the time is just plain wrong. I say let the artist express him or herself anyway they want. Just listen to the music first, you either like it or you don’t.

I love most of your comments, I enjoy reading what you say and normally agree. In fact, I remember a year or so ago, someone made a disparaging comment about today’s young people and you stood up for today’s youth. I applauded your comment at the time and I still do. I’m just say give her a chance(I like her music).

dbowker3d's picture

Well, one can always just listen and "not look" of the temptations of the flesh are too much, haha...
But really, if there ever was any "class" that you allude to, it went out of the music biz somewhere south of 1965. It was also around that time a lot of it had gone pretty stale too and the innovators were decidedly Outsiders. And let's be honest ost of what seemed classy was just a veneer anyway.

Is that the place anyone would rightly want to return to? Rock, funk, folk, punk and everything else came in and kicked a lot of doors down and there's no going back.

Viva Hifi's picture

Jim Tavegia, have you listened to this music? Sophia Pfister is a promising artist whose music outweighs considerations about one’s views about her image. Many artists have used their visual appeal regardless of what the prudes may think. Remember Josephine Baker or Madonna? Even Joni Mitchell posed nude on the photo inside For The Roses. All I’m saying is judge Sophia by her art not your ideas of what is acceptable. I predict great things for her. Her music has substance, depth, character, and sensuality.

imbetterthenu's picture

album is excellent ... finally a half way decent review. many thanks MF!

infohou's picture

Hey Mr. Analog,

You say, "Holley was on the “Vinyl Mastering & Cutting Intricacies” panel I moderated." I cannot find anything in this review previous to this statement that tells us who Holley is.


Michael Fremer's picture
There's a hyperlink in the review that will take you directly to the video of the panel in which Holley participated. I introduce him (and the others) with a short bio.
infohou's picture

For those that have the Tidal streaming service, the album is available for streaming. You should of course buy the LP:-)

First reaction is that sounds clean and mostly unprocessed. I am listening on my AV system so I will know more when I play it on the HiFi.

Daniel Robert Mueller's picture

Such creativity Needs to be supported. Bought 3 copies.
Thx michael
Kr robert

Miner42's picture

Dave Alvin was a smart choice foe her duet on "Separate Ways". His haunting vocals truly add to the message of this song that so many can relate to. Thank you MF for introducing me to Sophia.

audiomattster's picture

I’ve had this record for a few weeks now, delivered to the UK a couple of days after ordering. Sophia had written a thank you on the packaging, just like she had on the e.p from the other year. I like that she’s taking care to build her fan base with little touches like that.
As Michael says, the sound quality is superb and the songs are a positive step forward from her previous work (which was pretty good too). It’s definitely an album that rewards repeated listens.
Whichever direction she takes with her art I wish her well. She’s a genuine talent..

jxp40's picture

Are all the vinyl copies sold out? Any plans to press more?

StonedBeatles1's picture

The young lady is very cool on a multitude of levels. Good lyrics, music, band playing, singing and production. Warm and sweet sounding the way music should sound without all of the excessive compression and limiting that ruins everything these days. Her paintings are also a pleasure to one's eyes.
A true artist..