Wednesday, December 18, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1326: Alela Diane

I was slightly delayed getting this review written because I went out for dinner with friends last night. I sometimes think how much better or more prolific of a writer I would be if I just hunkered down in front of the keyboard more often.

That might be true, but while I only have so many chances to write words before I run out of days, I also only have so many dinners out with friends, and those moments are just as precious to me.

Disc 1326 is… Alela Diane & Wild Divine
Artist: Alela Diane

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? The traditional Giant Head cover – and the second straight Alela Diane review to feature a Giant Head – only this time in profile. Profile or straight on I am a fan of Alela Diane’s Giant Head.

How I Came to Know It: I discovered Alela Diane through a Jim Vorel article in Paste Magazine about obscure folk records (there’s a link to it back at Disc 1000). I then dug through her discography, but at the time I decided one album by her was enough.

When she released a new album (2018’s “Cusp”) I initially decided not to buy it, but later changed my mind after giving it a second listen. Then earlier this year I was in Portland and saw her “Wild Divine” record and on a whim, decided it also deserved a second listen. And so here I am – surprised to be won over yet again.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Alela Diane albums, and all are good. I’d say I’m not getting anymore but recent experience has taught me not to be so hasty. For now, “Alela Diane & Wild Divine” comes in at #2, despite its unnecessary use of the ampersand where a word would have served just as ably.

Ratings: 4 stars

I'd like to call Alela Diane the Golden State Warbler. True, it isn't her nickname, but if you know your birds, it fits. The California-born folk musician sings like a songbird, trilling up and down through notes that few humans can hit, and fewer still can make musical.

Diane does both with ease, singing with what seems like abandon until you try to recreate it. Any such hubris on your part will almost certainly resemble the yowls of a strangled cat. It is then, mid-failure, that you will realize what an exceptional and inimitable vocal talent she is.

No caterwauling will be found on the tightly compacted 10 song, 37-minute effort that is Diane’s only effort with backing band Wild Divine. It is a joy to hear her tell her truths, sometimes dusky and mysterious, sometimes bright and clear, and usually both within the same song.

The alternate angle she applies to songs gives the record a wondrous cohesion, despite many different musical styles in the background. “Elijah” has a simple Gordon Lightftoot-style guitar strum in the background. “Heartless Highway” goes for a jazz lounge vibe that borders on affectatious. Both work because Diane’s delivery works as a magnet, pulling both styles to the center she creates.

Her vocals were so compelling that even after multiple listens I had a hard time paying attention to the stories she was weaving. That’s a shame because in addition to being a gifted singer, Diane is a born poet. The songs are lush and coy with their secrets, daring you to miss a single phrase and still piece together the story. Consider these lines from the haunting “Suzanne”:

“On the ceiling, hand painted flowers
In my heart, galloping horses
There was a death, forever lingers
Like the scent of antique roses”

The song is one long continuous poem, and just pulling those four lines it is hard to know where Diane is coming from, or where she’s going. If you want to know more, you’ll have to listen to it yourself.

Things aren’t perfect on the record. “Heartless Highway” barely survives the jazz-inspired arrangement, rather than benefiting from it. And I’m not just saying that because I don’t get jazz – although that is probably part of the reason. Diane also risks breaking the mood of “Desire” by spelling out the song title in the chorus (I generally only like my words spelled for me in a rap song). Fortunately, the song is just too full of restless ache to be denied.

To some extent, that restless ache permeates every song on the record. It may be a bit overpowering when you first hear it, but that’s just you having a case of the feels that you weren’t expecting. Give her a chance – and a second listen – and you’ll be glad you did.

Best tracks: Elijah, Suzanne, Long Way Down, The Wind, Desire, Rising Greatness

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