On Dark Undercoat, her debut album, Emily Jane White proved herself a promising new singer-songwriter. She dealt in the kind of dark, melancholy folk that’s been around forever, and while she often channeled the likes of Cat Power, she at least laid the foundation to step out into her own space with those songs.
And now, on Victorian America, she is more firmly on her own ground. She has taken the lush, brooding folk of her debut and stretched it out into some roiling, cloudy soundscapes. A number of these songs stretch out to seven minutes or so, shape-shifting through different tempos and moods as they quietly storm. But White also smartly sticks to her songwriting basics, reminding us first and foremost of her knack for haunting melodies, before she expands them into these huge worlds.
Opener “Never Dead”, for example, is a bit of a set-up. It could be a carry over from the last album, in all the best possible ways. It’s a hushed folk number that tangles with strings into an overcast atmosphere, while White warbles along quietly, only to rise up and clobber us with lines, “Oh he took himself out so coldly.” It’s a song that sets the mood for the album, surely. But it doesn’t quite let us know how big, how spacious things are going to get.
It is those bigger songs that follow—like “Stairs”, “The Ravens”, and “Red Dress”—that anchor this record. On those tracks, her threadbare folk sound is just a jumping off point. “Stairs” weaves in and out of a sinister thump—“I was meant to die this way,” White assures us, and you can hear the deathly smirk in it—turning the sadness of songs like “Never Dead” into something more clear-eyed and troubling, especially as the song unravels on itself. “Red Dress” is a step out in a whole new direction, with its built-up guitars and crashing drums. It owes much to the likes of Thalia Zedek, but while it seems out of left field in one way, White owns the song wholly. Her voice doesn’t shy away from these bigger sounds, nor does it force itself on top of them. The guitars can grind away, and her smoky voice keeps pace beautifully the whole way.
“The Ravens”, on the other hand, draws a cleaner line to White’s other, more straightforward compositions. The song is a ballad all the way through, but the way she stretches it’s tense quiet out over seven minutes is perhaps the most daring track on the record. It ends up standing up better than the shorter, but overly stately folk of the title track. And, with the exception of the twanged-out “The Country Life”, and the lively finger-picked “A Shot Rang Out”, the more basic tracks here still run into the trouble she found on Dark Undercoat. To hear “The Ravens” is to hear something distinctly Emily Jane White. But to hear, say, mid-album track “Liza”, is to hear something that is simply a singer-songwriter track. That’s not to say that these other tracks ever fail, but it feels like she’s truly found her voice in the bigger moments here, so you may find yourself wishing she’d indulge that side of her muse more often.
Because it’s the more approachable tracks here that actually make Victorian America seem a little longer than it needs to be. Still, what’s commendable about this record—and what makes it so listenable—is that this sound came out of nowhere. The controlled songs of Dark Undercoat may have set us up for this mood, but we couldn’t have seen the expansive atmosphere White finds on this new record. It’s unique, it’s well-executed, and by letting the reigns loosen a little on this record, she has a whole lot more to show for it. If this is her just starting to find her voice, look out for when she really gets a hold of it.
// Notes from the Road
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