Okay, I’ll state the obvious: the cover art to Mama is awesome. It’s cute, funny, and right from the get-go it gives you the impression that this is a snapshot of Emily Wells as an artist. (That said, I’m not sure the sleeve art is a picture of Wells herself.) The photo looks like that goofy picture our parents keep in the scrapbook despite our multiple pleas for it to be relegated to the trash bin or the furnace; you know, the one where we’re dancing in our underwear or just in general looking silly. Before even listening to the music, Mama presents itself as a friendly LP to listen to.
And, in a way, it’s quite fitting for who Wells is as a musician. Not only does she sing and write all of the lyrics on Mama, she plays nearly every instrument you hear. A viewing of any number of videos featuring her live performances on YouTube reveals her to be a polymath of the highest order; off the top of my head, at various times she’d play the guitar, a kick drum, a melodica (which really gives major points to anyone who plays it), and the violin. (The classically trained Wells began her musical ventures at age four as a violinist.) Being a fan of progressive rock, I’m instantly drawn to the talent of such musicians, especially those who produce their own work. In a Bon Iver-esque turn of events, Wells wrote and recorded this album in a rented cabin on a horse ranch. This level of dedication is such that my expectations were high going into my first listen of Mama.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long into that first listening that I found myself to be disappointed. Yes, Wells’ talent is incredible and plainly evident, but the music here wasn’t that engaging. She no doubt intended the raw, almost improvised sound that came from her recording many of the tracks straight-to-tape, but in many cases it makes these songs sound like interesting demos rather than complete final pieces. Album opener “Piece of It” is so light and airy that it’s barely there. “Passenger”, with its annoyingly repetitive chorus lyric, as well as “Let Your Guard Down” almost befall the same fate despite having of a drum beat and some lilting string arrangements in the former. These aren’t terrible tracks by any means; they just sound like they haven’t fully been let loose yet. It’s like an art student turning in some semi-impressive sketches for a final project; the traces of brilliance are there, just not finished.
There are, however, some memorable cuts here. Mama is at its best when it merges Well’s wispy voice and music arrangements with hip-hop like beats. One example that is particularly interesting is “Mama’s Gonna Give You Love”; while the lyrics are repetitive to a fault (keep in mind, this is coming from someone who could listen to Philip Glass for hours on end), the beat behind the music is quite cool, and gives the music an enticing flavor that’s lacking on the majority of the stuff here. Wells even incorporates some of the sputtery, subdued beats heard on Radiohead’s latest work on “Dirty Sneakers and Underwear”. These songs aren’t more exciting than the others merely by virtue of having a beat; rather, it’s the different sonic entailing from the texture of the beats that elevates them from technically interesting indie songwriter fare to engaging hip-hop experimentation.
Yet despite being underwhelmed by Mama, I nevertheless remain impressed by Wells. The recording process ain’t easy, especially when there’s only one person doing it. The instrumental work throughout is excellent and befitting to the sound she is trying to get at. But being a jack-of-all-trades does not immediately a brilliant album make, and that’s very much the case with Mama. So while I don’t plan on listening to this record much, I do plan on keeping my eye on this incredibly talented woman.