by / September 28th, 2011 /

EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints

 1/5 Rating

(Souterrain Transmissions)

Cameouttanowhere is the name of Erika M. Anderson’s official website, but while she may have done, Past Life Martyred Saints, her debut solo album, didn’t, as she’s been making music for over a decade now.

Moving to L.A. from her native South Dakota when she was 18, she played guitar with Henry Barnes’ electronic folk-noise primitivists Amps For Christ in the late ’90s and early naughties, before forming drone-folk outfit Gowns with erstwhile musical and romantic partner Ezra Buchla, an association which lasted from 2004 to last year, producing two fine albums and live shows which were, by most accounts, incendiary and confrontational.

Then there was last February’s lead single, and now album opener, ‘The Grey Ship’, backed with non-album track ‘Kind Heart’, her 17 minute take on the Robert Johnson blues classic ‘Kindhearted Woman Blues’, where she claims to channel the entire history of rock and roll, no less, from “birth to destruction”. What’s remarkable is that the stunning execution is equal to the vaunting ambition, entirely justifying its epic length, and managing simultaneously to reinvent the song radically while also paying homage to its original spirit.

‘The Grey Ship’ evidences EMA’s awareness of tradition coupled with her perfectionist experimentalism, in that while it is clearly evoking the Viking burial rituals of her European ancestry, it also contains a neat moment, roughly halfway into its seven minutes, where it suddenly shifts from lo-fi strum to hi-fi synth, an aural metaphor perhaps for passing over from this world to the next, a black and white to Technicolor jump reminiscent of Dorothy realising she’s not in Kansas anymore, paving the way for the bitter critique of promised self-reinvention attendant on relocation that is second single ‘California’. While it is a valuable addition to the venerable list of songs titled, and about, the golden state, from Joni Mitchell to Joanna Newsom, none of those predecessors start off quite so boldly as declaring “fuck California, you made me boring”. A white girl rap, documenting the universal journey from innocence to experience, and the inevitable disillusionment involved therein, it is also an elegy for lost friends, the eponymous past life martyred saints, those kids who never made it out of South Dakota whom she feels she has somehow betrayed: “gimme the places I’ll give you the names, wasted away alone on the plains. What’s it like to be small-town and gay? Fuck it baby I know you’ll never change”.

It is a critical commonplace to cite Patti Smith as a probable influence on any young woman rocker who attempts to tell it like it is, but it’s not an inaccurate reference point to invoke here. It’s there, not just in the overall free-ranging, beat poetry slam vibe that permeates the platter, and echoes the more outré cuts from Smith’s own debut Horses such as ‘Birdland’ and ‘Land’, but also down to nuances of phrasing and intonation, like “what does failure taste like? To me it tastes like dirt” from ‘California’. Both in theme and approach, ‘California’ could be this generation’s ‘Piss Factory’, even if the latter lacks the retrospective self-laceration of EMA’s take on teenage frustration and desire for escape.

The above concentration on the first two songs should not imply that the disc is in any way frontloaded. Like all great albums, there is not a groove of filler here, and moreover the most immediately arresting tracks can initially obscure the slow-burning gems, from the primal camp fire chants of ‘Coda’ and ‘Butterfly Knife’, to the fuzzed out descending blues guitar riff and oneiric solo of killer closer ‘Red Star’. EMA has spoken in interviews about her wish to access the unconscious, both lyrically and musically, to the point where she stops making sense. That she achieves this goal, while still holding everything together elegantly and comprehensibly, and making it look easy to boot, is what’s so extraordinary.

The carnage is not without a sprig of comfort, a sense of karmic renewal and stoic resolution, be it the closing “if this time through we don’t get it right, I’ll come back to you in another life” refrain of ‘Anteroom’ (another song concerned with being between worlds), or the playful Spectoresque nod at the end of ‘Marked’, referencing the middle eight of the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’, or again the finale of ‘Red Star’: “I know nothing lasts forever and if you won’t love me someone will”. If the record has one failing it’s that it lacks a balls out rocker, tempo-wise. To labour the Patti Smith/Horses analogy, there’s no ‘Gloria’ or ‘Free Money’ to provide light and shade with the likes of ‘Birdland’ or ‘Elegy’. No matter. One still has the feeling that one could be witnessing the emergence of a major artist.

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