Having been consistently praised both by Wears The Trousers and by seemingly all other reputable sources, Alela Diane really needs no introduction. This year’s To Be Still has seen the folk star recording and touring with a full band – very much a family affair with her boyfriend on bass and father on guitar – giving the stripped back, haunting folk of 2007′s re-released The Pirate’s Gospel a fuller sound, easing more comfortably into the Americana aspects of her work.
While her recent (and overdue) performance on ‘Later…with Jools Holland’ last month covered material from this third opus, attention surrounding the Alela & Alina EP has been eager to say the least, owing in part to its collaborative nature with newcomer Alina Hardin, who has been accompanying Diane on tours for some time now. Their pairing has its roots in their hometown of Nevada City, where Alela attended school with Hardin’s older sister.
Years on, as Diane recently divulged in an interview with us, a very demure Hardin approached her with some songs she’d penned, efforts which won the artist over immediately. She began her work with Alela as a touring backup singer, but Hardin’s voice complimented the headliner’s so well that each show found her stepping closer to stage centre, a timid walk that eventually culminated in this six-song EP, a blend of covers, collaborations and solo-scored numbers by both women. The result is an absolute pleasure, tailoring the skills of both the established star and her fledgling counterpart into a seamless, complementary blend of fresh folk magic.
Given that it was recorded over just two days, squeezed in between tours, the EP has a surprisingly dense energy, rich in quality and sounding both classically inspired and crisply original. The rounded breadth of the arrangements is testament to the women’s shared talent when considering their basic guitar-and-vocals approach, evoking the raw, primal sounds that propelled The Pirate’s Gospel but with an added rhetoric of nostalgic folklore.
This breadth is largely indebted to the pair’s experiments with a twelve-string acoustic and a Nashville-tuned guitar – an ingenious way of tuning a six-string guitar to give a twelve-string effect. And while their individual vocal styles complement each other terrifically, it’s clear that Alela’s experience has facilitated the younger artist’s burgeoning talent, guiding it and providing a platform, while being simultaneously kindled by her protégé’s presence.
Opener ‘Amidst The Movement’ cries out clearly with all the hallmarks of Diane’s intricate pastoral landscapes, setting the EP sailing away from port with a firm, strong hand. It’s this characteristic sound – surefooted and led with predominant, undulating bass stings – that is set against the more downbeat numbers like the Hardin-penned ‘Crying Wolf’ and their cover of Townes van Zandt’s ‘Rake’, a perfectly conflicting blend of light and dark that slip into each other effortlessly.
The Myspace version of Hardin’s number ‘Crying Wolf’ has a sharper thrill than the EP cut, though the haunting harmonies and soft, tear-strung guitar picking loses none of their potency here. Rounding off the A side, ‘Bowling Green’ reanimates the Alice Gerrard and Mike Seeger classic with melodic, rolling praise, while the Bard tale of adultery and murder in ‘Matty Groves’ brings to life its medieval narratives to great effect.
The Diane-penned ‘I Have Returned’ recalls ‘Amidst The Movement’ in terms of style, but promises nothing so reliable in its dizzy, solemn strings and flighty, warning proverbs: “You never know how it’s gonna go / and you never know who’s going with it when it goes”. Stepping from the undecided to the sentenced, the women bow in ambivalent farewell with the bitter, melancholic ‘Rake’, a womaniser’s discordant, last-breath confessional of regrets, sorrows and stubborn refusals. It’s a dark portraiture, brimming with a contrasting poignancy when reworked through the blue-grey harmonies of these two young sirens. The bare, bark-stripped production that paves the EP is best felt here, creating an echoing cavity for the end song’s reverberating emotion.
The Alela & Alina EP effectively bridges the wholesome fields and mountain coves of Alela’s world with the medieval flavoured, high folk ballads favoured by Alina. Their voices curl around each other like smoke, with Diane’s earthy, grounded tones providing a rich base for Hardin’s more formal soprano, romantically otherworldly and aura-like around Diane’s beating totem heart. Vocally, lyrically and musically, this EP is a treasure, standing as proudly as any full length.
Whether Hardin remains with Diane is yet to be seen, but even if she departs for more solo flights this pairing of souls has left an unbreakably beautiful work, a lush and spellbindingly bright affair that leaves minds dreaming in its graceful wake.
[Family; October 12, 2009]