To Be Still
[Rough Trade; 2009]
Alela Diane’s new record may come as a pleasant surprise to those who haven’t checked in on the Portland-based singer-songwriter since 2006’s The Pirate’s Gospel. On that charming but demo-ish jumble sale of an album Diane sorted through familiar folk forms (sea shanty, blues lament, narrative ballad) with a couple of chords and some sleepy arpeggios. If neither her vision nor her musicianship changed the conversation about the then-full-flowering new folk scene, Diane’s arresting voice– simultaneously vehement and serene– put plenty of people on notice, including, apparently, a sizeable chunk of France. (Her Blogotheque Take-Away Show illustrates why big in France isn’t necessarily aspersive: With her mass of dark hair and chic short boots, the girl was born to busk Paris’ boulevards.)
Still, Diane thus far has played in the shadow of better-known Nevada City, Calif., product (and childhood friend) Joanna Newsom. As inevitable the comparison, it’s not a very sensitive tool for evaluating either artists’ work. Newsom, after all, pens wildly idiosyncratic songs for the harp and sings them in… a voice that takes some getting used to. On the aesthetically focused, meticulously arranged To Be Still, Diane is a traditionalist, partial to broad, universal themes– nature, childhood, family, friends– and gentle, lilting melodies that recall traditional ballads. She’s also ditched many of the vocal tics and lower-pitch ranges that lent Pirate’s Gospel a haunting melancholy and drew adjectives like “eccentric” but, in retrospect, better suit someone like Jolie Holland.
Diane demonstrated her broad range and flexibility, interpreting songs by artists as disparate as Vashti Bunyan, Jesus and Mary Chain, and Daniel Johnston on 2008’s The Silence of Love, which she recorded with some musician friends as Headless Heroes. To Be Still will never fire up any parties, but its emotional range is as wide as that covers project’s– from “Age Old Blue”, a wistful duet with craggy-voiced troubadour Michael Hurley about Diane’s sharecropping Scottish ancestors, to the flushed-cheek, string-surging “My Brambles”. Lead track “Dry Grass and Shadows” sets a playful tone, the sigh of steel pedal underlining her languid, country-twangy come-on: “I like to look at your teeth lined up in perfect rows… Where the flatlands stretch inside your mouth/ And when you laugh all the star thistles tumble out.” A little hippie-dippy, but also utterly enchanting.
The album’s first single, “White as Diamonds”, best showcases her expanded musical ambitions and the record’s pristine sound (coproduced with her bluegrass musician father in his studio). Two years ago, accompanied by acoustic guitar, Diane previewedthe newly hatched song for Daytrotter (second station of the cross for up-and-comers after Blogotheque) and claimed “Diamonds” is about silence and uh, snow. Disingenuous-sounding, for sure, but it’s not like she’s the first artist who’d prefer not to parse lyrics. She’s also absolutely right: Simplicity is key to the song’s stark power, and its uncluttered vocabulary of fiddle, cello, guitar and drawn-out, warbled “wooooahs” are as head-clearing as a cold February morning. Fill its white spaces with what you will.
When people speak of Diane’s voice Sandy Denny’s name comes up with increasing frequency, and the young American certainly shares her British predecessor’s grace and gusto. But To Be Still is rooted in a different geography– jagged California hills and faded towns that might be populated by doomed Steinbeck characters. In “The Ocean”, the thick thump of bongos and a nervous flutter of mandolin sketch the numbing existence of a mountain woman who, landlocked by “dirt ditch paths and pine cones… old hubcaps on the picket fence,” dreams of the sea. It’s a hybridized folk idiom and undeniably American.
Working with material hog-tied to the past and performed with traditional trappings puts Diane at some risk for creative stagnation and worse– the kind of anonymity and irrelevance enjoyed by vast swathes of the contemporary folk universe. To Be Stillavoids these traps thanks to Diane’s spectacular voice and, well, the little, mostly indescribable things. The record’s best moment comes somewhere in the center of the cautiously joyful “The Alder Trees”. As Diane, easy-swaying sings “girls clapping,” a ragged clap– hollow and a touch behind the beat– emits from the back of the room. It’s the kind of perfect little flaw that makes a record almost perfect, almost flawless.