Review of Alela Diane's album 'To Be Still' released through Rough Trade.
Alela Diane is a folk artist whose ability to sing of family, nature and love in pure, disaffected tones has led to her being spoken of in the same breathe as Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny and Catherine Howard. However, such is the impunity of this regal folk lineage that Diane has, rather unfairly, far too much to live up to. New Album 'To Be Still' is the follow up to her 2006 debut 'The Pirate's Gospel', which was a sparse girl-and-her guitar affair remarkable not for Diane's pure tone, but for a thin, vaulting vocal that drew convenient comparisons with her childhood friend, Joanna Newsom. Diane makes quite the departure on 'To Be Still', drawing the songs out with bass, percussion, lapsteel, mandolin and violin creating a much warmer, fireside feel and letting her voice run free over long, authoritative melodies that confirm her debt on this record to a folk tapestry woven long before the psych-folk resurgence.
There is much good to be said about this transition. There is a unique rise and fall in her vocal that manages to be both lilting and powerful, and this suggests, it hints at an individual voice in places, but is ultimately stifled by the rather one paced and predictable songs, which at best wash into each other in a delightful haze, but at worst are conspicuous in their banality. The standout moments really do stand out from the too-oft forced awkwardness and faux introspection of Diane's New Folk contemporaries. Diane's ability to sing fully, directly and proudly without any recourse to disaffection or vocal gymnastics is a rare thing indeed, most beautifully expressed where the vocal melody is strong and the instrumentation serves to compliment it. The pounding percussion and restless mandolin on 'The Ocean' holds back just enough to nurture the profound, lingering insistence of Diane's beautiful delivery and 'Every Path' delicately explores the themes of yearning and inevitability with admirable restraint.
The problem is that much of the record falls conspicuously between a series of aesthetics without successfully coming to grips with any one of them - the Bluegrass elements, which seem to be where Diane is most at home, are the most seductive but are to some extent neutralized by a rather clunky, indie-centric approach to recording traditional instruments, leading to some poor arrangements, the acoustic guitar and percussion on opener 'Dry Grass and Shadows' for instance. There is also a rather uncomfortable tendency to flesh out some of the songs whilst looking firmly in the direction of the chart bothering 'female singer/songwriter' territory, particularly on first single 'White as Diamonds' and title track 'To Be Still', but there is an honesty to this record that tells me this was not calculated or intentional, rather a consequence of making a record without a guiding thematic or inspiration that would have drawn the work together as a seamless whole. The absence of this leads the overall feel of the album to oscillate between a hippyish pleasantness and coffee table anonymity, with the emotional centre of what Diane is trying to get at falling just out of reach.
There is an inherent sweetness to Diane that lends the record charm but she rarely dips her head above the gentle, well sailed folk waters of her more noteworthy predecessors. Underneath the silky voice Diane does not give a sense of elation or desolation, of bright light or pitch black often enough - her gift is in the power of her delivery, but the emotion inherent within is not given free flight because her songs and vocal melodies fail to do her natural gifts justice. However, there are moments on 'To Be Still' where the stars do align, and ensure that her day in the sun will come.
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