May 8, 2011

Album Review: EMA's Past Life Martyred Saints

Female musicians have lacked an edginess in recent years to combat alternative rock's testosterone-fueled landscape. The independent music scene, which has always championed breaking boundaries and supported this particular scene, hasn't given women much to work with either. Best Coast and Dum Dum Girls provide cute, girl group melodies over fuzzed-out, catchy guitar riffs, Sweden's Robyn and Lykki Li are master manipulates in commercial appeal and Zola Jesus' Nika Danilova and Beach House's Victoria Legrand -- while producing beautiful vocals -- offer up a respectably elegant yet overtly feminine sound. Aside from the Yeah Yeah Yeah's Karen O or PJ Harvey, it's become increasingly difficult to find a female musician who understands what it is to rock and wear her emotions like battle armor in her lyrics. These components are what make Erika M. Anderson a.k.a. EMA's debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints, so exhilarating and worth taking note of.

AwkwardSound has drawn parallels between the former Gowns singer's sound with Cat Power's haunted emptiness (before she went the ├╝ber-weepy route by catering to soccer moms' playlists) and Kim Gordon's audacious attitude as frontwoman of Sonic Youth. Yet, Anderson's music shines the light on an inner-renegade that distinguishes her among her kindred spirits. You hear it in the lead single, "California," which is EMA's middle finger salute to the golden state where Anderson takes all the animosity she harbors for her new hometown and apologetically holds it accountable for her unhappiness (A bold statement to make considering Anderson is a transplant from parts of South Dakota where literally nothing happens to anyone) or the firey vigor and calamity of "Milkman" and "Butterfly Knife." There's also Past Life Martyred Saints subtle and poetic soul-baring moments that merge neo-folk with noise by laying off the distortion pedals just a bit. These tracks often burst apart beautifully when the two elements collide ("Grey Ship," "Anteroom," "Breakfast.") Lyrically, EMA is evocative and lays her words out like confessions fueled by sadness, lust, anger or all of the above. In "Marked," you can almost hear the tears from EMA's face fall down onto the soundboard of her guitar.

On paper, this may make Erika M. Anderson seem like "just another female singer-songwriter" crying over a broken heart. On Past Life Martyred Saints, she makes it just as much about the music as it is about the words. It's obvious by her love of distortion-laden feedback and rough-edged guitar scales massed atop darkly enjoyable melodies that EMA doesn't play like the rest of the girls.

EMA's Past Life Martyred Saints will be released May 10, 2011 on Souterrain Transmissions Records.

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