I’m not sure what I read about Erika M. Anderson that made me want to listen to her debut album (debut solo album, I guess. She was in two bands before going solo – the awesomely named Amps for Christ and Gowns – before embarking on her journey as EMA), Past Life Martyred Saints, but it might have been favorable comparisons to Patti Smith and Kim Gordon (two of the most ferocious women in the history of rock). And I think I saw a hastily cobbled together video for “California,” that I liked. Also, I just spent a bafflingly badass weekend in Portland laying the foundation for an August move out of the Golden State so a song that opens with the words, “Fuck California/ you made me boring” tickles my funny bone more than a little bit (honestly though, California, we had some great times and I met some totally amazing people – and the best dog in the world – here. So no hard feelings, okay? Okay).
There is not one new thing on Past Life Martyred Saints. But its nine tracks show deadly amounts of skill with a lot of old things. The album even opens with a tribute to Anderson’s Viking ancestors, which are apparently real. On her blog, EMA claims to be a “direct descendant of Erik Blood-Axe, the ruthless Viking warrior.” I know that doesn’t seem like it could be true, but it’s too awesome to not be true. So I’m going to make it today’s Official Bollocks! Fact: Erika M. Anderson is the direct descendant of a ruthless Viking warrior named Erik Bl00d-Axe. His music, released under the name EBA, mostly consisted of the blood-curdling screams of his enemies and the lamentations of their women.
Where was I?
Oh yeah. Nothing new on Past Life Martyred Saints but plenty to like. Anderson welds lo-fi and hi-fi together (again on the opener, “Grey Ship”) and borrows from country, blues, folk, and gospel, mixes them all together, and somehow ends up with a gorgeous grunge record. Which is weird, but gets better every single time I listen to it.
On the absolutely sublime “California,” Anderson makes use of the classic blues lyric (used by the likes of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, and lots of other black guys who spin in their graves every time someone speaks favorably of a George Thorogood song) “I’m just twenty-two and I don’t mind dyin’.” But where those old blues men often used the line as a form of braggadocio, Anderson’s delivery of it is dripping with pathos and her use of it to convey existential despair is a far wiser choice than writing something that sounds like a bad Live Journal post from your kid sister (does anyone use Live Journal anymore? Remember that Los Campesinos! song with the line about a “final, fatal Live Journal entry”? I wish I liked other Los Campesinos! albums as much as I liked their first one). Like Shannon McArdle’s Summer of the Whore, Past Life Martyred Saints appears to be Anderson’s post break-up (of a band and possibly also a relationship) record and it’s every bit as vulnerable and pained as the former Mendoza Line singer’s solo debut.
The first time through the album, I was impressed by Anderson’s voice but I felt like the songs shared basically one texture, albeit a good one. As I alluded to earlier, Past Life Martyred Saints sounds like it traveled to the future from sometime in the mid-1990s (two recurring themes for me in the musical year that is 2011: being pleasantly surprised by albums for which I didn’t have high hopes and albums that sound like the ’90s) with its fuzzy guitars, slow, sad songs, and the occasional whispered vocal. Subsequent listens revealed a little more variety – especially on headphones – although that lovely 1990s sheen (I guess “sheen” is kind of ironic here; is “anti-sheen” a thing? Let’s say it is) is still there, which is just all right with me. The layers of melody start to distinguish themselves and what you end up with is a fairly pretty album with a lot of dark, desperate subject matter (the way Anderson sings, “I’m gasping” on “Milkman” sounded like she was singing, “I’m desperate” the first time I heard it; whether that’s my fault or hers, I don’t think the misunderstanding detracts from the meaning of the song or the album as a whole).
The more I can decipher the lyrics on Past Life Martyred Saints, the more I feel like I’m listening to the sort of album one might conceive of in the throes of a miserable adolescence (and I’m not sure there’s another kind) but not properly execute until later in life. That is, if Erika Anderson had recorded this album at sixteen, it would be a sloppy mess. Hell, it’s barely not a mess now, but I happen to love music that is very nearly a mess. I think it’s Anderson’s musical maturity that balances out the more high-schoolish lines like, “I wish that every time he touched me, he left a mark,” which appears on the slow-building but beautiful “Marked.”
If I was impressed by Anderson’s voice the first time through the record, I’m fairly well blown away by it now. She doesn’t have a super-magnificent range or anything, but she is able to use her voice to create and release tension with incredible skill and she’s just as capable of warbling a country gospel melody (“Coda”) as she is singing a 1990s alternative radio hit (the aforementioned “Milkman”). She can whisper or scream with equal effect and she layers harmonies on top of each other the way a skilled chef might assemble a particularly unhealthy lasagna (and of course, unhealthy lasagna is the best lasagna).
The overall effect of Past Life Martyred Saints is still a little slight and some of the songs get a little repetitive, but each repetition adds a layer of distorted guitars and/or lovely harmonies (your love of the interplay of those two elements should pretty much determine your enjoyment of EMA) so I find myself enjoying a lot of distinct bits within each song (the end of the possibly subtle love song “Breakfast” is stunning; it reminds me a bit of Blur’s “Tender,” but with a darker vibe) every time I go through the album. At nine songs, I’ve been able to listen to Past Life Martyred Saints about twenty times in the last week and the returns have yet to diminish.