The Wears The Trousers review of Alela Diane Menig’s latest may be a little late, but with good reason. To Be Still is the kind of album that communicates directly with the hindbrain, directing you to the nearest couch, bed or convenient corner; once there, your instructions are to daydream, to ruminate through long-forgotten memories, or just to stare off into the middle distance. Time stops. Writing about the whole experience in a critical and balanced way afterwards? Well, it’s tough, to say the least. That’s our excuse, anyway, and you can be sure that we are sticking to it.
To Be Still is the follow-up to The Pirate’s Gospel, which itself should surely be known as ‘the little album that could’. Starting off in a hand-embroidered sleeve at Menig’s shows, it became a word-of-mouth smash and, latterly, a critical sensation, earning Rough Trade’s nod for best album of 2007. Of course, the well-publicised connection to Joanna Newsom helped, with the harp mistress herself experiencing a wave of public adoration for the intricacies of Ys.
When it comes to To Be Still, you just have to be blunt: it’s better than The Pirate’s Gospel, and then some. Menig is typically grouped under ‘freak-folk’, ‘psych-folk’, ‘new-folk’, or whatever strange and misleading label the music press has come up with for Newsom et al, but, actually, she takes the listener back to the gothic country that Nina Nastasia made her name with, albeit mixed with warmer tones and melodic witticisms. This is likely down to her stint with slow grass band Black Bear. The guitar is always the lead instrument, but fiddle, banjo and drums make welcome appearances.
While ‘Dry Grass & Shadows’ works perfectly fine as an opener, ‘White As Diamonds’ is where Menig really announces her intent. It’s a mournful track that sets in play Menig’s key trope: nature, particularly landscape, as metaphor for the human condition. It’s a common theme of settler literature, and, for the most part, To Be Still, harks back to that era. Its characters and passing faces feel like they belong to the era of the Western Frontier in the States. To that end, it’s the fiddle that really pulls a great deal of work in making Menig’s storytelling. On ‘Take Us Back’ it adds gorgeous, haunting touches, taking the listener back to a bygone time.
Those familiar with The Pirate’s Gospel will notice that some of the edges have been sanded of Menig’s voice on this most recent outing. It’s no bad thing: she sounds sweeter and far more confident than before. This pays off to great effect on ‘The Alder Trees’, where the newfound smoothness plays off beautifully against the staccato of the banjo. It’s crucial, too, on ‘The Ocean’ – perhaps the album’s core track – where Menig evokes the languid longing of a woman wishing for a life larger than the one she inhabits. ‘Lady Divine’, a song about sunset and the end of the working day, rounds the album off perfectly, with a jaunty whistle to boot.
So, to all ye unconverted, know that Alela Diane is truly the real thing: a singer-songwriter of immense talent, overflowing with creative ideas and real vision. To existing fans…well, you’re probably already firmly ensconced next to your speakers, in a trance, while the wet and temperamental month of March strides on by. We’re rounding up and getting back to doing the very same thing, right now.
[Names; February 16, 2009]
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