Past Life Martyred Saints
As half of art-damaged folk act Gowns, Erika M. Anderson was seldom heard above a pained whisper. She whispers through much of her star-making solo debut, Past Life Martyred Saints , also, but her music now seems much, much bigger—like secret diary pages projected to fill the side of a building. "Grey Ship" starts the record modestly, a spare strum, some light singing. Though hushed, her voice is often doubled or tripled. The tone conveys intimacy, but the cumulative effect is exhibitionistic. The tension builds and builds over the song's wandering seven minutes, exploding vocally after five and a half, instrumentally at six, going fully cathartic before ending on its prettiest bit. EMA's songs don't fit some time-worn pop template; they often bloom grotesquely in unexpected directions. In a lot of ways, "California," a focus of pre-release buzz, is one of the record's least successful. Rambling, speak-singing beat poet is almost always a bad look, and detours into appropriated Bo Diddley lines (the fittingly goth "I'm just 22... I don't mind dyin') and snippets of "Camptown Races," of all things, are puzzling and nearly cringe-worthy. Taking a step back, though, it's kind of amazing how compelling the song remains for being made of nothing more than grody, churning drone and a running stream of consciousness. Amid the grating bits are bursts of melody, catchy near-choruses. Even at its most pretentious, this is complex, adventurous rock music held together by Anderson's singular magnetism.
As fresh as EMA seems, especially in light of the blandly 60s-inspired female singing that's been so pervasive of late, her music does have some antecedents. The experimental edge of 90s alt-rock informs this material, though it's tough to catch her overtly aping any single artist. (Let's just say there's a vague 120 Minutes vibe to it all.) On an especially spare, raw song like "Marked," with guitar so bare and echoed every chord change evokes a subway train's braking screech, she's hypnotic like Moon Pix-era Cat Power. The vocal melody unravels while repeating its unsettling mantra, "I wish that every time he touched me left a mark," the crazed, croaking devotion of it turning more and more extreme, a fleeting Xiu Xiu moment. Uber-dramatic lyrics about "20 kisses with a butterfly knife" are balanced by sweet sentiments of appreciation, like "Breakfast"'s gorgeous refrain, "you feel just like a breeze to me." From second to second, this record walks the pretty/ugly tightrope daringly. In spite of all the telegraphed damage, there's a confident invulnerability about it all that keeps you from worrying about Anderson the way you might have about Chan Marshall (let alone Jamie Stewart). She's somewhat confused, definitely a bit sad, high maybe, but not necessarily in peril. As the curdled and distorted alt-country twang of "Red State" brings the album to a close, Anderson surprises one last time, just letting loose with these regal, full-throated tones. It's both thrilling and a bit baffling. She's made one of the year's best records filled with what seems to be every last exposed nerve. Apparently she was still holding back.