Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Album review: EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints

Highlights: Grey Ship, California, Butterfly Knife

In three words, Past Life Martyred Saints is raw, fucked-up and beautiful. It is a very disturbing, occasionally unsettling folk album recorded by Erika M. Anderson (aka EMA), a young lady who used to be in little known (if ‘known’ is a suitable word here) bands like Amps For Christ and Gowns. Having decided not to reinvent herself, EMA carried all the noise and psychedelia associated with those former acts into her own brand of pained, hurt, grungy folk music.

The first thing you notice is how intense it all sounds. Erika’s fragile, raspy, sometimes PJ Harvey-like vocals are constantly on edge – to say nothing of those lyrics full of lines like “I’m just twenty-two, I don’t mind dying” or “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark” or “you don’t love me – someone will”. I’m generally not a fan of that kind of confessional, ‘look at me I’m bleeding (and I like it)’ approach to music (or any kind of art, for that matter), but this is a very good set of songs – with strong tunes and clever, inventive arrangements. The single, “Grey Ship” might not sound like much at first, but the moment the whole thing stops and that guitar line appears, quite out of nowhere, the effect is almost magical. And it only gets better from there – the head-spinning viola bringing it all to an absolute catharsis. The centerpiece, though, is certainly the mesmerizing “California” which cleverly alternates its rough, downcast lyrics with glorious piano chords.     

Sometimes there’s not much music-wise behind all those pain and anguish, and her singing does get rather annoying in places. Still, there’s something deeply satisfying about the album’s imperfectness – which makes you cherish the truly gorgeous endings of songs like “Marked” or “Breakfast”.  But then EMA is way too edgy and original to be perfect.


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