Monday, 5 January 2009

Alela Diane - To Be Still (Names 2009)

Rough Trade’s album of the year is always a little excitement game with me. I need to own it whatever it is as Rough Trade is one of the leading taste-makers for the stuff I like. The game I play is, when the album of the year is announced, do I already own it? 2008 I won. 2007 I didn’t. Now, it’s not entirely my fault, I was mostly in Kenya in 2007 but still, I wondered, who the frak was Alela Diane? What is contained in The Pirate’s Gospel? I bought it the day of the announcement and was treated to a haunting collection of delicate but slightly macabre and melancholy pastoral songs of yearning and loss. Alela Diane’s voice was sweet and naive but world-weary all in the same breath. It was beautiful. Since, she has colluded on a unique Headless Heroes album and produced this, ‘To Be Still’ her new album. While it lacks the class and simple acoustic beauty of ‘The Pirate’s Gospel’, she has grown a band and this is a more refined, more produced version of her sound.

With the mandolin tinge of ‘Tatted Lace’ and omnipresent pedal steel as well as the searing fiddling, this feels a lot more than her previous efforts. It’s a lot more varied in texture and tone. She has expanded her musical palette to include marching drums and the feel of a whole band. It misses the bare-bones approach of ‘The Pirate’s Gospel’ where her voice was constantly in focus but it’s no less for being more ambitious. She sounds like a different artist in places, more energised and wilful, like on opener ‘Dry Grass and Shadows’. ‘To Be Still’ carries some country pedal steel and ‘The Alder Trees’ sounds like a reinvention of previous work. This is a strong album, hampered only by what has come before. ‘The Pirate’s Gospel’ was so right that it’s hard to hear her so produced. However, this is still a strong effort full of melody and aching, emotion and tension. Like ‘Headless Heroes’ it never descends into noodling, instead keeping a rigid control of the song. Beautiful and bright, delicate and tightly woven. Contender.


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