Album review: EMA’s ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’

July 14, 2011
EMA
“Past Life Martyred Saints”

Kindred spirits: Hole, Tricky, Cat Power

Show: With Helado Negro and Hayes Holladay on Sunday at the Red Palace. Show starts at 8:30 p.m. 202-399-3201. www.redpalace
dc.com
. $8 in advance, $10 at the door.

An epic tale of adolescent yearning and adult disenchantment, the EMA track “California” is an autobiographical novel condensed into 41 / 2 minutes of coos, barks and drones — with lines from “Camptown Races” and Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love” inserted for good measure. And that’s just one of nine potent songs on “Past Life Martyred Saints,” an album whose emotional candor is matched by its musical ingenuity.

EMA is Erika M. Anderson, formerly of the similarly moody Gowns, a San Francisco quartet. Her former bandmates are heard on some of these songs, but EMA can create sweeping drama all by herself. This album, her solo debut, is constructed mostly of voice, synths and guitar (both strummed acoustic and squalling electric). Some passages are a cappella or accompanied by only the starkest of sounds.

A South Dakota native, EMA identifies with kids who feel isolated: “What’s it like to be small town and gay?” she asks in “California,” while “Butterfly Knife” embraces a girl who was “the goth in high school.”

These portraits are set within spare but deep arrangements, whose shifts are closer to dub than to the folk-rock of the album’s more accessible moments. Pretty yet ominous, EMA’s music is as tangled as the stories it sells.

— Mark Jenkins

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