To Be Still
Label: Rough Trade
More than two years after the release of her self-released debut The Pirate’s Gospel, Alela Diane’s latest album To Be Still has been labeled as her coming out party for Rough Trade. In anticipation of its release, bits and pieces have been scattered throughout the major music blogs, offering some impressive glimpses into the final product. While the tools of a bigger label have enabled the Nevada City native to add some depth to her sound, she nevertheless has difficulty filling the vivid landscapes of her music with compelling narratives. Diane is able to beautifully articulate the world she inhabits, but not the motions of living in it.
Most of To Be Still constructs a detailed Western horizon where time moves slowly and life unfolds with grace and dignity; this is most clearly seen on “Age Old Blues.” Thematically, we’re not exposed to the Weird Old America but instead to the simple balance it decimated. Allusions to unspoiled native beauty are too numerous to count and bring a nice consistency to the record. Like much of the new freak folk, there’s a learned quality on display that isn’t bogged down by clunky delivery or self-conscience hooks. “Take Us Back” implores us to chase down the ghosts of the American Frontier and capture the spirit of new beginnings.
Everything seems to flow from half remembered histories and faded myths; we’re asked to have more faith in the land than the people shuffling through. Much of the consistency in tone comes from Diane’s firm control of the album’s sonic pallet. With the exception of a small amount of percussion, almost everything is string-based. This allows her vocal talents to have the proper breathing room over the hum of light fiddles, gentle guitars and the occasional banjo. While it’s a rich and clear sound, there’s also a communal feeling present, almost as if all the instruments were recorded in a friend’s attic.
There’s very little subtle about how well Diane sings; it’s easy to see why her abilities have helped her catch a wave of support online. She shifts from detail-oriented lyricism to a soothing high pitched howl almost effortlessly. At the same time, the songs themselves run a little long and start to knot together into a blur. Many of the tracks contain far too much instrumentation, with these songs eventually becoming indistinguishable from each other. There’s a visible barrier that prevents any of the arrangements from breaking loose and asserting themselves as more flavorful than the others. It ends up as a nice record with beautiful vistas, but not an engaging one. Of course, none of these complaints would matter if the simple talents on display were anything but good and well-meaning to boot. Diane is only 25, and although To Be Still is too relaxed to be a great album, it shows the promise of a young musician whose best work is yet to come. She just has to trust us to come with her.