April 5, 2011

Alela Diane – Alela Diane & Wild Divine

Alela Diane
Alela Diane & Wild Divine
Rough Trade; 2011

To be honest with you, I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what I find most interesting about the music of Alela Diane. All indications point towards her gorgeous, lilting vocals, which I can only describe as alt-country meets white soul. Across the whole of Alela Diane & Wild Divine, you can hear where Diane’s sensibilities have been supplied by a wide variety of vintage crooners – Patsy Cline, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, and Nina Simone all come to mind quite readily. Yet, as I was discussing this record with a friend of mine who’s a sucker for music of this nature, I happened upon a moniker that makes absolute sense to me: “post-Gillian.”

Let’s unpack this descriptor, as I apply it with all due reverence and respect. Behind the dusky voice and hard-bitten lyrics of the talented Gillian Welch sits her willing-and-able co-conspirator David Rawlings. And right alongside Alela Diane sits her husband, Tom Bevitori, who also serves as her principal co-writer, lead guitarist in the studio and on the road, and frequent background vocalist. Thus, the strength of this record lies in their partnership: the vocals and guitar lines flirt playfully on a regular basis, and it’s obvious that these two are writing songs straight out of their shared life experiences.

It sounds cheesy and sappy, but it’s really not, and maybe that is what I find most appealing in the bulk of these tunes. There’s a keen front-porch feel on display, but it’s sharp and direct, rather than sloppy and rambling. Standout cuts like “To Begin,” “Long Way Down,” “Suzanne,” and “Rising Greatness” could easily stand on their own as simple vocals-and-guitar folk tunes, but instead, they’re beautifully complemented by organ melodies, supple bass work, mandolin fills, slide/steel guitar licks, and some (thankfully) basic studio drumming.

The record does lose a bit of momentum in the middle third. “The Wind,” “Of Many Colors,” and “Desire” are decent songs filled with plenty of melancholy, but they make each other appear rather ho-hum placed back-to-back-to-back in the mix. Granted, I could make this criticism of several handfuls of folky, soul-infused Americana records – too many of them start off strong, get too chill in the middle, and then try to revive things towards the end (and many of them don’t succeed).

That being said, Alela Diane & Wild Divine escapes such a pigeonhole by displaying a good range of variations in the tempos, pacing, and arrangements. There’s nothing too complex about these songs: they exemplify a sure-footed mix of romantic, forlorn, and introspective feelings, and Alela Diane always seems to know exactly when to rear her delightful voice above the larger mix. Most importantly, absent are the overtly sentimental odes penned by the likes of Zooey Deschanel and Jenny Lewis; instead, this album brings together the youthful pensiveness of a Lissie with the timeless country ambiance crafted from the aforementioned Welch-Rawlings collaboration. Yes, I may have conjured up a fake sub-genre called “post-Gillian” to describe this record, but it really is a welcome contribution to the domain of female-fronted alt-country.

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