Sunday, July 31, 2011
EMA: Past Life Martyred Saints (2011)
Erika Anderson comes to us with this solo debut after several years with the experimental folk-noise group Gowns, known for their live shows that were often labeled so emotionally intense as to be nearly unbearable. When Anderson and her boyfriend / bandmate Ezra Buchla split up in 2010, it seemed the gutsplitting nature of the band's music had finally done them in. Past Life Martyred Saints contains a good deal of music recorded before that occurrence, as Buchla appears throughout in occasionally more than minor ways. The result is a harrowing, at times uncomfortable record. Which seems to be Anderson's preference. She inflicts brutality here as much as she documents it; she wants to leave a mark every time she touches you, as the song goes. The starkness and desperation end up taking a toll, and the album is a difficult sell. But it's impossible not to admire anyone with the courage to lay themselves as bare as Anderson does here, fully aware of how unsettling the result will be.
Still, when parsing out why I marvel at this music without actually enjoying it, I can't help but think -- as in probably every other review on this page -- of Yo La Tengo. The first time I heard "The Crying of Lot G," a song that documents a fight between married band members Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley in distressingly minute detail, I cringed so much I couldn't finish it -- it was so personal it was difficult to listen in, as if I were Jimmy Stewart gazing in the window of the honeymooners. But Kaplan works through that pain with astounding good humor, honesty, groundedness. Anderson, for all her music's spareness, has a bit of a dramatic streak -- especially in her vocals, heavily reminiscent of Cat Power and PJ Harvey. She comes at all this from what seems like a haunted, baroque angle in the fashion of Nico, fragile but distant. I know the shit she's singing about is fucked up and sad, but I also can never forget she's performing, which makes it hard for me to find a way in. I don't feel like I'm involved in a conversation, the way I feel with Yoko Ono, tUnE-yArDs, Joanna Newsom, or Björk at their best. And I'm not suggesting that Anderson's work here is calculated. I'm suggesting it's a controlled grievance, a therapy more than a catharsis, which only makes me feel even less like it's something I have any right to hear. Anderson's music has the larger-than-life unapproachability of the chanteuse oversharing her heart out on some massive stage someplace, a feature she steadfastedly denies as a facet of her personality -- so maybe her defenses are just high while she works through this raw emotional period. Or maybe I'm full of shit; s'happened before.
The record's most accessible material is no less wounded but doesn't suffer from the same curious dichotomy. Opener "Grey Ship" is hypnotic, shattering, eerily reminiscent of some of Jeff Mangum's pre-Merge material like Hype City Soundtrack with a bigger budget. Mangum is a good comparison here; Past Life makes the same use of the freak-folk lo-fi bedrock as a springboard for the kind of claustrophobic darkness and dread Mangum made his on the unreleased "Little Birds" and the barely released "My Dream Girl Don't Exist," here all Anderson's on the bloody, startling "Marked," the kind of love song you don't want played at your wedding, reaching beyond "Every Breath You Take" because it's so much more articulate, so much more cleanly expressed, and apparently (according to Anderson's interview with Pitchfork) extemporaneous. Her articulation in general is what makes her dangerous. To confront your audience with the dreads and despairs of a love and a life spun around is one thing; to express it with such clear-eyed, lonely eloquence is the kind of thing that can disturb a person's sleep. Maybe it's all hopeless sometimes, but Ira and Georgia are still together. And EMA will get out of this moment. But is there maybe a tiny chance that, at least musically, she doesn't want to? I don't mean to be insulting, but I think it's a valid question.