posted on July 19, 2009 19:00
A review of the album 'To Be Still' by Alela Diane
Review Snapshot: The Californian folk singer-songer steps up a gear with a fantastic second album whose careful production and crafted songs are shot through with the haunting ache of her voice and the blissful innocence of her pastoral lyrics. 'To Be Still' has the feel of a classic.
The Cluas Verdict? 9 out of 10
Whatever the title of her new album may have you believe, Alela Diane Menig is not resting on her laurels. ‘To Be Still’, the young folk singer’s gorgeous second record, shows a significant development in production, arrangement and songwriting from the simple charms of her much-lauded debut, ‘The Pirate’s Gospel’.
It’s apt that this album opens with a bass drum kick and a pedal steel lick, thus immediately distinguishing itself from its predecessor. Where Menig’s first record consisted mostly of her voice and acoustic guitar, with basic accompanying harmonies and minimal studio polishing, the follow-up features a full band and serious production work from her father, Tom. Fortunately, the da does a fine job in preserving the twilight, other-worldly feel of the first album – the arrangements are never flashy and the instrumental parts always serve their songs. Special mention should go to the plaintive fiddle-playing, especially on ‘White As Diamonds’ and ‘Take Me Back’.
As the arrangements have been fleshed out, so too have Menig’s songs become more robust and confident. The tracks on ‘The Pirate’s Gospel’ were often delicate like flowers, but those of ‘To Be Still’ are strong as trees and no less beautiful – the professional-sounding production values help, of course, but from even one listen it’s immediately clear that Menig has upped her game. ‘Tatted Lace’, for instance, features a melody more complex and crafted than anything on her previous record but without ever feeling laboured or contrived. Most of the other songs have beguiling verses that draw the listener into satisfying choruses.
The production and arrangements may have evolved, but Menig’s voice is still her ace. That almost ghostly quiver in her high notes is complemented by her earthy lower notes, and she flits effortlessly between both ends of her range. Her swooning vocal style is shown to best effect in the way she sings the first six words of the soaring ‘White As Diamonds’, this record’s stand-out track and perhaps her best song to date.
Like her heritage sounds, Menig’s lyrics conjure up a rural, pastoral America of farm labour and folklore from somewhere between ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘The Grapes Of Wrath’, as if her only exposure to modernity has been gramophones and Model T Fords. Even from titles like ‘Dry Grass And Shadows’, ‘The Alder Trees’ and ‘My Brambles’ it’s apparent that Menig’s vocabulary relies heavily on images of nature. She creates this world flawlessly and wraps you up in it like a gripping period-novel – but after two albums Menig is veering close to self-parody and needs to broaden her horizons a little.
Apart from that minor caveat, ‘To Be Still’ is a resounding success. It’s heartening to hear how Alela Diane’s second album is a clear step forward from her first, all the while preserving her distinctive personality. Even the most cynical non-folkie will surely be swayed by this beautiful record.