A vivid selection of songs underscored by a bittersweet poetry.
Mike Barnes 2011-03-25
Alela Diane’s debut album, The Pirate’s Gospel (self-released in 2004, commercially released in 2007), was a collection of vivid snapshots, musings on life, love and mortality, and contemporary fables that seemed to tap way back into collective memory.
2009’s To Be Still was cut from similar cloth, but it also suggested that Diane’s voice – sweet and strong with a hint of a yell and an expressive catch in the throat – could benefit from being pitched against something more than a spartan guitar backing. This is precisely what happens here with her band Wild Divine, which includes husband Tom Bevitori and father Tom Menig, both on guitars. Producer and engineer Scott Litt – who has worked with Nirvana and R.E.M. - was impressed enough by the demos of this album to emerge from semi-retirement and get back behind the mixing desk.
Diane hails from northern Californian’s Gold Rush country, and it feels appropriate that her music is more brooding and introspective than the expansive, sunny sound that one habitually associates with the south of the state. The opener To Begin is a case in point, lyrically based on a session of hypnosis, with its hypnagogic observations like "Her dress is filigree / She tells me all her secrets then I’m back on the street," and the conundrum, "Know you the colour of the end of the end of the end?"
Although the music sounds fresh, there’s a feeling that old American folk forms have seeped into it. The two Toms weave a melodic mesh of picked and slide guitar on White Horse, which, with Jason Merculief’s syncopated drumming to the fore, invites comparisons with The Band.
As well as having a technically impressive voice, Diane wrenches out her song-stories from somewhere deep, investing even her most cryptic lyrics, like Elijah, with emotional heft. This is a vivid selection of songs underscored by a bittersweet poetry. When Diane muses on darker topics like love growing cold and fading away, there’s an energy to her words so that even a line like "Death is a hard act to follow" sounds wry and defiant, rather than mawkish.