[6 April 2011]
During a previous era in American rock history, there were female singer-songwriters who came out of the folk movement, such as Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, who voiced generational concerns in complex poetic and musical styles that transcended the pop fare of their time. Alela Diane is one of the most important new artists to follow in their footsteps. But this isn’t the ‘60s and while Diane’s perspective may be distinctly female, she’s more of a grrrl singer than a girl singer. Her latest album both reaches back to past traditions and is conspicuously contemporary.
The Portland, Oregon via Nevada City, California musician frequently steeps her self-penned songs in language rich with associations. They take place in seemingly real settings that do not truly exist, such as a site in France where the olive wood is too sacred to burn on “Elijah”. This acoustic ballad offers details that resonate over the ages, as Diane tells of a woman for whom giving birth was “a blessing and burden for she was so young.” She sings the phrase “so young” four times, each version lasting at least five seconds, as she warbles the syllables to carry the emotional impact of what being a young single mother really means. Naming the child Elijah, an important religious figure for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, increases the spiritual dimension of the song. Diane never quite defines who and what Elijah represents, but this ambiguity adds to the subtle richness of the tale. Whether this is just a story of a mother’s love or the promise of something big coming is up to the listener to decide.
When Mitchell and Nyro wrote such songs—think of “Eli’s Coming”—the future looked bright. You might have to hide your heart, but that was to protect it for an all-consuming love. But that was then, this is now. What’s ahead may be worse than the present. Or as Diane sings on “The Wind”, “Death is a hard act to follow.” As she tells it, we dwell in a world of lies, where dreams are unlived. And what happens afterwards is unknowable probably because there is nothing afterwards.
Even in the song “White Horse”, whose language most invites comparison with the past, “everyone must take a road that’s all their own.” But unlike Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, this does not take us back to a shared garden. While Joni said “We are stardust / We are golden,” Alela sings, “We are hopeful / We are scattered” only to end with “we are dust.” The different connotations that the word “stardust” evokes, as compared with plain old “dust”, make the problems of the present worldview clear. While the acoustic folk stylings of the music may have the aura of hippiedom, this is a punk view of life. Anarchy reigns over community.
It should be noted that Diane’s husband, guitarist Tom Bevitori, is listed as a co-writer of the songs, but she is the main composer of the lyrics. Her father, Tom Menig, plays lead guitar, while Jason Meculief handles the drums and Jonas Haskins plays bass. Together, these fellows comprise the band Wild Divine and this marks the first time Diane has recorded with them as a group.
Diane sings and, like Mitchell and Nyro, she has an unmistakable voice that makes each song recognizably her own. But she has toned down the extreme vocal expressions found on previous records and settled into more of a groove. That’s a shame, because while each track has merit, Diane needs to add more variety to make the album always compelling. “This is music, this is madness,” she croons, but Diane sounds much too sane. Considering the darkness she encounters, one would hope she would be more upset.