Far out in the outer reaches of the overdone end of the “chicks with great voices” genre lies a small, unregarded niche.
At least, it was once unregarded. There was once a time when the figureheads of the “powerful female lead” category stuck out like sore thumbs: Fiona Apple, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Leslie Feist (among others). Then something different took hold, and that classification was overtaken by women who wanted to be just as powerful and affecting, but only knew how to imitate. It’s where we get Sara Bareilles, and Yael Naim, and Lily Allen, and to a lesser extent Lady Gaga. When once you felt like you knew where you stood, now the market is over-saturated, and nobody seems to want to truly grab hold and find their own voice anymore.
Erika M. Anderson (or EMA) sounds a little like each of the aforementioned figureheads, but at the same time exactly nothing like any of them (besides, possibly, Fiona Apple). Really, the only person to compare her to is Conor Oberst, but in the best possible way. Anderson has been around for awhile now (having been part of Gowns before going solo), so it’s no surprise that her voice comes to the forefront of Past Life Martyred Saints from the first moment of “The Grey Ship.” There’s something to be said about Anderson’s ability to come out of the gate so fully formed: even though the fuzzed-out sound signals a rough edge, once you brighten those corners, you find a remarkably solid piece of art. Her handle on the song structure, and how to drill her songs into your head without being invasive, is unrivaled, especially at this point in her career.
That’s one thing I’d like to highlight: for all of the rough edges, 3/4 of Saints is incredibly catchy. There’s a lot of repetition built into the songs here, but it never becomes obnoxious or sickly, nor could it ever be accused of being “infectious.” “Coda” introduces the vaguely nonsensical chanting that flows into “Marked,” an ocean-sized almost love song, where Anderson opines her wish that “every time you touch me left a mark.” These repetitions create a strange atmosphere, almost coming off as credos, rather than lyrics. The persistent chant of “twenty kisses with the butterfly knife” in “Butterfly Knife” is the most gruesome of these, but it adds a strange depth to the song, which is already a stark portrayal of a history of self-abuse: the line’s repetition makes it feel like it (and that which is being sung about) is a ritual. It’s disquieting at times, because it (and a lot of the other lyrics all over the record) makes it feel like a therapy session made musical. It never comes off as angsty or whiny, simply vulnerable, with an attempt at openness.
When I saw EMA perform, she closed her all-too-short set with “California,” and she politely asked the in-house sound-guy to turn up everything as loud as possible without blowing anything out. It demonstrates the power of that song that, despite being cranked to 11, it still functioned as a song. It also shows how well constructed the album is that, though the rest of the album isn’t quite as massive and overblown as that one song, it doesn’t overpower anything, or feel out-of-place. Anderson is incredibly promising, and if she (like the aforementioned Leslie Feist) spawns a nation of imitators, I can’t say I’ll be able to complain. The rest of the singers in the world (male and female alike) could take a lesson in power and confidence from her.